Pity young William Munroe. As an apprentice in a wheelwright’s shop in the late 18th century, he ate nothing but potatoes, salt cod, and mush, six days a week. So he reports in his autobiography, which was kept, along with the fastidious records of his cabinetry and pencil-making businesses, in his family until 2009, when they gave the papers to the Concord Museum.
Munroe went on to success, and, one hopes, to feed his own apprentices more generously. “The Best Workman in the Shop: Cabinetmaker William Munroe of Concord,” now up at the Concord Museum, charts his career with his records, his finely wrought clock cabinets, his pencils, a charming miniature sideboard, and more.
It’s just one of several exhibitions that make up “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture,” a celebration of exhibits, workshops, demonstrations, and lectures staged by 11 institutional partners, including the Museum of Fine Arts, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and Old Sturbridge Village. The festivities continue into late 2014, when the Peabody Essex Museum will exhibit the works of 18th-century Salem cabinetmaker Nathaniel Gould.
“Massachusetts has remained a major force in furniture-making from the 1620s and ’30s right up to the present,” says Brock Jobe, professor of American decorative arts at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, in Delaware, one of the curators, academics, and aficionados who spearheaded the effort, an idea that first stirred at a conference in 2010.
“When we started this, we didn’t realize what we were sitting on top of,” Jobe says. “We didn’t know what a mountain of furniture was out there.”
In addition to the furniture and its makers, the ambitious project spotlights the social history of the Commonwealth and beyond, with such tidbits as
Munroe’s meals painting a vibrant picture of the life of furniture makers, and the objects themselves revealing even more.
Gerald W.R. Ward, curator emeritus of American decorative arts and sculpture at the MFA and organizer of “The Cabinetmaker & The Carver: Boston Furniture From Private Collections” at the Massachusetts Historical Society, says desks tell a story about how people structured their lives.
“I regard them as the workstation of 18th-century merchants, magistrates, and ministers,” he says.
With the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment came organization.“It was no longer the medieval mind-set, when you had a chest for everything,” says Ward.
In “The Cabinetmaker & The Carver,” a desk and bookcase made between 1750 and 1755, with mirrored doors to reflect available light and pullout platforms for candles, contains several dozen nooks, including many secret compartments for money, coins, and jewelry.
“Some of the secret compartments, it takes eight or nine steps to get to it,” says Ward. We might compare an 18th-century desk with a 21st-century laptop, and glean a few things about how privacy has changed.
The earliest Massachusetts desks, cabinets, and chairs were sturdy, British-influenced works by immigrant craftsmen, made with green wood and assembled with straightforward mortise and tenon joints, fitting like a peg in a slot. The most recent furniture is art, stemming from the studio furniture movement galvanized by the Program in Artisanry at Boston University from 1975-85, which ultimately landed at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “Made in Massachusetts: Studio Furniture of the Bay State” is on view at the Fuller Craft Museum.
In between came dovetailed cabinetry like that of Munroe, exotic wood veneers, staggeringly detailed ornamentation, ball-and-claw feet and hairy paw feet, undulating blockfront and bombé styles, and pierced splats. And that’s just in the 18th century, when Boston buzzed with furniture makers. The 19th century brought industry, quicker and more diverse trade, factory-made furniture and the Arts and Crafts movement.
“The Cabinetmaker & The Carver” offers a rare glimpse of pieces from private collections: sideboards, chairs, and chests still in use today in people’s homes, some bearing telltale signs of wear.
Several chairs display the huge variety of styles and the depth of talent that made them. There’s a turned great chair that came down through the line of Cotton and Increase Mather. Simple yet thronelike, it features a now raggedy caned seat. Every other element, from armrests to finials, is turned. It dates to the late 17th century. (This one’s from the Historical Society’s collection, not someone’s home. Too bad — can you imagine plopping down in a chair Cotton Mather sat in?)
Jump ahead to 1845-50: The Gothic revival is in full force, evident in an upholstered side chair sporting delicate spiral turnings on the legs and back, with trefoils that make the top resemble a cathedral’s skyline.
From the end of that century, we have what could be the lovechild of the two: a broad, hexagonal-seated turned chair with burly balusters, probably made by A.H. Davenport & Co. It’s a clear call back to the Mather chair, but ridiculously ornate: Instead of arms, this one has wings — all of turned wood — upon which you might hang your hat.
That lavish workmanship denoted the wealth of a piece’s owner, of course, but it also marks the mastery of its maker. Thomas Seymour, one of the extraordinary cabinetmakers of the early 19th century, known for his delicate inlays, here has an exquisite card table with an elaborate harp-shaped base, a maple veneer scorched to dramatic effect, carved scrolls and lyres, and rugged brass hairy paw feet on castors. The table warns: Don’t gamble here unless you know you can afford it.
Massachusetts was a giant in the furniture industry from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. Jobe says “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture” doesn’t tell that story as effectively as he would like. There are many strands to it. One he points to is that of Cyrus Wakefield, wicker magnate. Wakefield noticed that clipper ships returning from Asia were discarding their rattan packing material. He salvaged it and opened a small wicker furniture factory in what is now Wakefield, Mass., and ended up selling wicker all over the world.
“In its heyday around 1900, there were more than 1,000 employees,” says Jobe. “It was some of the most flamboyant Victorian furniture you’ve ever seen.”
Jonathan L. Fairbanks, director of the Fuller Craft Museum, covers the story of Massachusetts furniture design in the 20th century in an essay in the “Made in Massachusetts” catalog, but the exhibition has little to do with that industry. It’s all unique art: handmade, spirited, and playful.
The artists employ many of the same techniques as their predecessors in centuries past. No doubt Thomas Seymour would relish Silas Kopf’s “Aquarium.” The cedar chest sports masterfully inlaid fish, including a squirmy octopus that looks as if it might open the lid with a tentacle.
Judy Kensley McKie’s “Glass Top Table With Dogs II” features two stylized whippets supporting the tabletop; the table’s wooden feet are more delicate and modern than the hairy-paw feet of yore, but their articulated toes nonetheless make an echo.
It’s a thrill to see such motifs thread through the centuries. “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture” is a behemoth of a project, but even indulging in small pockets of it, you’ll see the history it tells is alive and breathing, idiosyncratic, and grounded in extraordinary craftsmanship.
FOUR CENTURIES OF MASSACHUSETTS FURNITURE www.fourcenturies.org
THE BEST WORKMAN IN THE SHOP: Cabinetmaker William Munroe of Concord
At: Concord Museum, 200 Lexington Road, Concord, through March 23.
THE CABINETMAKER & THE CARVER: Boston Furniture From Private Collections
At: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston St., through Jan. 17. 617-536-1608, www.masshist.org
MADE IN MASSACHUSETTS: Studio Furniture of the Bay State
At: Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, through Feb. 9. 508-588-6000, www.fullercraft.org
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.