Pa. furniture in full bloom at Winterthur exhibition

High chest of drawers, made for Matthias Slough, Lancaster, Lancaster County, 1770–85. Heritage Center of Lancaster County. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

High chest of drawers, made for Matthias Slough, Lancaster, Lancaster County, 1770–85. Heritage Center of Lancaster County. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

WINTERTHUR, Del. – Each year when Winterthur reopens after its February hiatus, there’s something special planned for visitors. It’s always worth waiting for.

This year, we’re treated to a landmark exhibition – six years in the making – of the diverse furniture of our region, along with the people who made, owned, inherited and collected it. “Paint, Pattern & People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725-1850” opened April 2.

In addition to furniture this exhibit of over 200 objects includes related paintings, watercolors, fraktur and needlework. Designed to delight scholars, private collectors and those of us curious about the rich cultural heritage of southeastern Pennsylvania, it highlights the creative expression of local artisans. Focusing on the diversity of furniture made and owned by both English and German-speaking people, specific emphasis is placed on the distinctive local expressions of form and ornament.

Despite the extensive research that informs the exhibit, this is not merely a collection of stuffy brown furniture and priceless antiques, according to senior curator Wendy A. Cooper and assistant curator Lisa Minardi.

The “Paint and Pattern” aspects of the exhibit encompass both brightly painted, eye-catching chests, candle boxes, spice boxes and desks, while pieces made of rich native walnut and inlaid with light wood and sulfur also enliven the exhibit. And everyone can relate to the various tables and chairs on display.

The exhibit’s focus is not on priceless, high-style Philadelphia furniture, but rather on locally made furniture often influenced by urban sophistication. To convey this point, the first two pieces that greet visitors are imposing high chests of drawers from Philadelphia and Lancaster. These pieces present a rare opportunity to compare and contrast the details of their carved decoration.

The Philadelphia high chest is among the finest examples of rococo style, made of highly figured imported mahogany, with pierced brasses tinted to resemble gold, heavily carved foliate-and-shell designs, and a commanding original cartouche. The Lancaster high chest may appear to the casual observer to be remarkably similar. But, guided by the curators, exhibit visitors will learn about and appreciate the differences.

For example, decoration on the Lancaster piece shows foliage and shells similar to the Philadelphia chest, but is more profusely carved and covers the entire skirt and tympanum (the topmost board). Closer examination reveals that the ornament on the Lancaster high chest was carved from the solid wood of the piece, rather than separately made and applied, as done in the Philadelphia chest.

Debunking Myths

As the last part of the title “Paint, Pattern & People” reflects, people are also an important focus of this study of regional furniture. The careful analysis of so many well-documented pieces in the exhibit prompted curators to explore new ground in understanding the makers and owners who created the many localisms seen in southeastern Pennsylvania furniture. With this extensive collection, it was possible to identify specific places where pieces were produced.

By looking at who made and owned various pieces of furniture, the curators were able to debunk a number of myths. A few examples:

  • While Quakers adhere to values of simplicity, it’s clear from their furniture that they had a great appreciation for highly decorated pieces. The exhibit traces ornate furniture bought and passed down through their families.
  • Painted chests were not owned exclusively by women. Owners’ names carved into these chests give evidence that men owned them as well.
  • Decorations painted on furniture are not conclusive evidence of the owners’ gender. Chests with lions and unicorns, masculine-appearing designs, were owned by women.
  • Schranks – wooden wardrobes thought to be newlyweds’ furniture – have been found to be commissioned by well-established married couples who could afford the substantial costs.

For anyone who has admired the wealth of regional furniture in area antique shops, antique shows, museums or private homes, this landmark exhibit will provide unique insights into the furniture and people of southeastern Pennsylvania.

 


ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE


High chest of drawers, made for Matthias Slough, Lancaster, Lancaster County, 1770–85. Heritage Center of Lancaster County. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

High chest of drawers, made for Matthias Slough, Lancaster, Lancaster County, 1770–85. Heritage Center of Lancaster County. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

High chest of drawers, owned by Michael and Miriam Gratz, Philadelphia, 1760–75. Winterthur Museum, gift of Henry Francis du Pont. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

High chest of drawers, owned by Michael and Miriam Gratz, Philadelphia, 1760–75. Winterthur Museum, gift of Henry Francis du Pont. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

Slide-lid box, possibly Lancaster County; 1800–1840. White pine; paint; H. 6, W. 9, D. 12 inches. Collection of Jane and Gerald Katcher. Photo, Gavin Ashworth, New York City.

Slide-lid box, possibly Lancaster County; 1800–1840. White pine; paint; H. 6, W. 9, D. 12 inches. Collection of Jane and Gerald Katcher. Photo, Gavin Ashworth, New York City.

Chest attributed to the Compass Artist, Lancaster County; 1785–1820. White pine, tulip-poplar, oak; paint; iron; H. 22., W. 49., D. 21 1/8 inches. Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Donald M. Herr. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

Chest attributed to the Compass Artist, Lancaster County; 1785–1820. White pine, tulip-poplar, oak; paint; iron; H. 22., W. 49., D. 21 1/8 inches. Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Donald M. Herr. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

Desk, probably Jacob Maser (1812–95) Mahantongo Valley, Northumberland County; 1834. Tulip-poplar, white pine, maple; paint; brass; H. 49 1/8, W. 39, D. 19 inches. Winterthur Museum, gift of Henry Francis du Pont 1964. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

Desk, probably Jacob Maser (1812–95) Mahantongo Valley, Northumberland County; 1834. Tulip-poplar, white pine, maple; paint; brass; H. 49 1/8, W. 39, D. 19 inches. Winterthur Museum, gift of Henry Francis du Pont 1964. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

Cover of the exhibition book. Image courtesy of Winterthur.

Cover of the exhibition book. Image courtesy of Winterthur.