MHS for the Media

"The Cabinetmaker and the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections" Opens 4 October

An extraordinary opportunity to view nearly 50 examples of rarely seen furniture borrowed from private collections in the greater Boston area.

BOSTON, August 2013—Boston has been the home of an important furniture trade since the mid-17th century. As part of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture collaboration, the Massachusetts Historical Society presents an exhibition covering several centuries of a rich and varied furniture-making tradition. From 4 October 2013 through 17 January 2014, visitors will have the opportunity to explore nearly 50 examples of rarely seen furniture borrowed from distinguished private collections in the greater Boston area. Ranging in date from the late-17th century to about 1900, these privately held treasures, generously lent by their owners, provide a look at the trajectory of cabinetmaking in the Hub. Supplemented with complementary materials from the Society’s collections the exhibition explores furniture as history and provides a look at Boston’s distinctive urban tradition.

Bostonians, and New Englanders at large, have long been responsible caretakers of the area’s history. The furniture in this show, gathered by passionate and knowledgeable collectors in the last few decades, complements the incomparable manuscript collections of the MHS, whose stewardship of the written record has been so significant since the late-18th century.  

The exhibition begins with a constellation of the earliest surviving furniture made in Boston.  Fashioned by joiners, turners, and chair makers from the 1680s to about 1730, these sturdy early objects in the Anglo-American tradition are evocative of “the world we have lost,” as phrased by the historian Peter Laslett. The display includes a rare high chest of drawers with “japanned” decoration, an interpretation of true Asian lacquer that was popular in Boston at this time.

The show continues with an extraordinary array of Boston’s finest colonial furniture in the late baroque, rococo, and early neoclassical styles. Bostonians’ taste—before the Revolution but after the war as well—remained firmly indebted to English modes.  Case furniture in the blockfront and bombé (or swelled) modes, both characteristic of Boston shops, along with several pieces attributed to John Welch, Boston’s most important specialist carver of the period, will be on display. Desks and desk and bookcases—the work stations of Boston’s 18th-century merchants and ministers, are featured prominently. A cluster of four card or gaming tables provides evidence of the more relaxed social mores of the Georgian era.

Next, visitors are presented with late neoclassical or Empire-style furniture, when stylish Bostonians looked to the designs of ancient Greece, Rome, and occasionally Egypt for inspiration. The objects on display are mainly by Isaac Vose and Son and Emmons & Archbald, two of Boston’s most important shops in the early Republic. A little cabinet, an unusual form attributed to the Vose firm, may have been used by a collector to store miniatures, coins, medals, jewelry, or other small precious items.

The exhibition continues with examples of the eclectic, imaginative styles of the mid- and late-19th century, including the Gothic and rococo revivals, and an example of innovative patent furniture. The adjacent Dowse Library serves as the show’s “period room.” New information, discovered in the course of preparing the exhibition, has identified Edward Hixon as the source of the room’s woodwork and furnishings in 1857. The show concludes with a few masterpieces from the arts and crafts movement of the late-19th century, a design reform impulse in which Boston took a leading role.

Furniture tells us much about the past—about social customs and human interaction, about the relationship between Americans and the world, about the changing nature of technology and the evolution of aesthetics, among many other topics. By providing a snapshot of Boston’s furniture tradition, this exhibition provides another lens through which to examine the city’s long and distinguished history.

A full-color, extensively illustrated catalogue written by guest curator Gerald W. R. Ward and published by the MHS will be available and can be purchased online or at the Society. 

About Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture
Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture is a collaborative project of the Massachusetts Historical Society and ten other institutions that features exhibitions, lectures, demonstrations and publications to celebrate the Bay State's legacy of furniture-making. Visit fourcenturies.org.