A feast for the eyes, this chest with its original painted decoration offers a rare glimpse of the colorful and imaginative interiors of early eighteenth-century American households. The façade practically explodes with an array of decorative details that are all the more remarkable for their survival in virtually intact condition. It is also a pivotal work juxtaposing old and new. The joinery and most of the motifs are derived from the carved “Hadley” chest tradition, which flourished in the upper Connecticut River Valley from the late seventeenth century through the early decades of the eighteenth, while the all-over decorative scheme shows the presence of new ideas such as the influence of urban, veneered furniture made in the emerging William and Mary style.1 Displaying many of the same distinctive details in design and method, three other examples of furniture by the same paint-decorator are known. All are in museum collections, including the famed cupboard made for Hannah Barnard of Hadley, Massachusetts (figs. 1-3).
As determined by paint analysis performed by conservator Susan Buck, this chest-with-drawers is an extraordinary display of original paintwork from early eighteenth-century America. Samples taken from eight areas reveal that earliest layers of paint, which have seeped into the wood substrate, are largely intact and have not been removed or over-painted by restorers during its three-hundred year history. Thus, the decorative designs visible today are wholly the creation of the chest’s paint-decorator. Nevertheless, the chest’s appearance has changed over time due to the natural degradation of some pigments and darkening of subsequent layers of varnish. Buck’s analysis of the other three closely related forms indicates that the Hannah Barnard cupboard also survives in a similar, almost pristine state of preservation while the chests at Winterthur Museum and the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association have suffered significant losses and/or overpaint.2
In her discussion of the Hannah Barnard cupboard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich notes its “flamboyance, its unabashed claim for attention,” qualities that were largely achieved through a spectacularly colorful appearance.3 The chest offered here can make a similar claim and as striking as it appears today, it was considerably more vibrant when it was made. As revealed by Buck’s analysis, the façade was covered with a thin, white ground and on which motifs in orange, green, maroon and possibly yellow were painted with pigments bound in oil. In addition, the black borders on the façade were applied on top of the white ground, but the side panels were painted black directly on the wood. While the yellow colored sample was compromised and unavailable for analysis, the other three colors were similar in composition to those found on the three forms with related decoration. The white ground would have been quite dazzling and its original appearance can be seen in the abraded areas on the front panels where the later darkened layers of varnish have been removed. The orange areas consist of vermilion, an expensive pigment not usually part of a house carpenter’s inventory during the era, and red lead. Found on all three of the related forms, this combination yielded a bright red/orange color. Similarly, the composition of the maroon areas, a combination of red lead, red ochre, charcoal black and a scattering of yellow ochre, is comparable to Buck’s findings from the other pieces. A point of departure on the chest offered here, however, is the make-up of the dark green areas. Here, they were made from copper resinate or verdigris, which would have yielded a “brilliant green and highly glossy” color that is somewhat evident in the abraded areas. On the other forms, a blue-green verditer was used for this hue. Despite this variation, Buck concludes that the preponderance of evidence from the composition of the pigments strongly indicates that this chest and the other three forms were painted by the same source. Furthermore, as seen in the recent treatment of the Hannah Barnard cupboard, the chest offered here could be cleaned to more closely reveal its original palette. In Buck’s words, “The relative difference in solubility between the original paints and the later varnishes could be exploited to develop a safe, controllable approach to removing the most recent varnishes, if desired.”4
The hand of a single craftsman in the decoration of these four forms is also evident in the layout of the designs. In addition to the tools required for the grinding, mixing and application of paint, the decorator of this group of furniture made extensive use of a “pair of compasses” or possibly a divider. A standard component of the joiner’s equipage, a compass frequently appears hanging on the wall above the workbench in the few early images of the interiors of joiners’ shops. Compasses provided a variety of functions and as noted in the late seventeenth century by Joseph Moxon, “Their Office is to describe Circles, and set off Distances from their Rule, or any other Measure, to their Work.”5 Moxon’s description is well illustrated by the work of this decorator. While some details such as the leaves, squiggle lines, and curlicue flourishes are painted free-hand, the majority of the motifs are laid out with a compass or a divider. The condition of this chest’s surface is so well preserved that the scribe lines are clearly evident. In some instances, these lines also reveal that the decorator changed his mind; for example, the urn motif consisting of two “S”-shaped lines at the base of the proper right muntin was initially laid out with one “S” line in the flipped position.
In both overall layout and specific motifs, the paint-decorator was heavily indebted to the carved “Hadley” chest tradition yet may also have been inspired by other contemporaneous forms to create his own inventive designs. Like many of the two-drawer carved “Hadley” chests, the decoration on the two rails above and below the three panels approximates a broad, wavy pattern while the two narrower rails below feature more compressed undulating vines. Furthermore, the lozenges on the stiles, the six-pointed star and lobed floral motifs on the drawers, and the curlicues emanating from the lozenges on the three frontal panels are all details employed by carvers of “Hadley” chests.6 The lobed, floral design repeated on each drawer on the chest offered here is also seen in painted form on a chest thought to have been made for Katron King (b. 1701) of Northampton, Massachusetts soon before her marriage in 1724 (fig. 4). As noted by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, this six-lobed floral motif closely resembles that on English delftware, providing another possible source of inspiration for this decorator. A similarly shaped flower is the central medallion on a set of delftware plates (fig. 7) thought to have been a 1715 wedding gift to Esther Williams (1691-1751) of Deerfield, a first cousin of Sarah Williams (1695-1720), one of the possible first owners of the SW chest in fig. 3 (see below).7 The “dartboard” designs on the two outer panels, however, do not appear to have been part of the carved “Hadley” chest tradition. Two board chests, the first made in Hadley with the initials SP (figs. 5, 6) and the second possibly in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, illustrate a series of six-pointed stars and concentric circles that appear to be the closest parallel to the “dartboard” designs seen on the chest offered here and the painted SW chest (fig. 3).8 Displaying a fondness for juxtaposing light and dark panels of color, the paint-decorator of these chests used similar concentric circles but divided and alternatively filled in the interiors to create a checkerboard effect.
The chest’s construction falls squarely within the carved “Hadley” chest tradition and displays the joinery methods seen on a large group of chests made from Springfield to Hatfield. These details include side-hung drawers with sides each joined to the drawer front with one dovetail that lies above the channeled groove, drawer bottoms that each abut a rabbet in the drawer front, a framed upper backboard panel and a bevelled lower backboard panel that is nailed over the rear medial rail and lower rear stiles. The Hannah Barnard and SW chest (figs. 1, 3) are both noted to feature similar construction and it is likely that all three were made in the same shop. With a fully framed lower backboard panel, the chest-of-drawers at Winterthur (fig. 2) varies slightly from these practices and may represent a different joinery shop or given its advanced form, possibly the evolution of practices within the same shop.9 If all made in the same shop, it is possible that the joiner and paint-decorator were the same individual.
Based on what is known of the first owners of the Hannah Barnard cupboard and the SW chest, it appears that this group of painted furniture was made for the families of the ruling elite of Hadley. With relative certainty, the cupboard in fig. 1 can be linked to the young woman named Hannah Barnard (1684-1716) who was born in Hadley, in 1715 married John Marsh (1679-1725) as his second wife and died the following year. John Marsh married thirdly Sarah Williams (1688-1759), and she has been proposed as the first owner of the SW chest in fig. 3. However, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich posits Sarah Williams’ second cousin of the same name as a more likely candidate. This Sarah Williams (1695-1720) married Hannah Barnard’s first cousin, Samuel Barnard (1684-1762) in 1718 and the couple lived in Deerfield prior to her death two years later.10 Furthermore, the board chest in fig. 5 was most likely made by Samuel Porter I (1635-1689) or his son Samuel Porter II (1660-1722), the grandfather and father of Joanna Porter (b. 1687), the first wife of John Marsh, suggesting that these forms and related examples were owned within a group of closely interconnected families. Moreover, these families represented the economic and political elite. In the 1720 valuation of Hadley, the fathers of Joanna Porter, John Marsh and Hannah Barnard—namely Samuel Porter II (1660-1722), Daniel Marsh (1653-1724) and Samuel Barnard (1653-1728)—ranked 1st, 4th and 7th respectively in a list of 117 inhabitants.11 In 1713, around the time these painted forms were made, their stature is further evident in their positions as three of the five committee members entrusted to oversee the construction of the town’s new meetinghouse.12 Such prestigious ownership indicates that these forms were luxury goods. Given the expense of materials and time-consuming nature of the layout and execution of the paintwork, these forms were not less expensive versions of the carved models but items of considerable cost.13
This chest is the property of a family whose ancestors include several members of the Porter, Barnard and Williams families and it is likely that until its inclusion in this sale, this chest has never been out of the family for which it was made. The ownership of the chest can be traced as far back as Edward Spaulding Brewer (1846-1911) and his renown as a collector may indicate that he acquired the chest from a family living in proximity to his homes in Springfield and Longmeadow, Massachusetts.14 However, his mother, née Sarah Porter (1821-1886), was on her father’s side the great granddaughter of Nathaniel Porter (b. 1708), Joanna Porter’s second cousin. On her mother’s side, she was the great great granddaughter of Samuel Barnard (1684-1762), Hannah Barnard’s first cousin and the husband of Sarah Williams (1695-1720), one of the possible owners of the SW chest in fig. 3. Either too young, living far afield from Hadley or already possibly owning one of these painted forms, Brewer’s direct ancestors do not appear to be likely candidates for the first owners of the chest offered here. However, if the chest descended along allied family lines, one of their relatives may very well have first enjoyed this colorful and imaginative form.
For a full copy of Susan Buck’s paint analysis report, please contact the department.
1 Philip Zea, catalogue entry, The Great River: Art and Society of the Connecticut Valley, 1635-1820 (Hartford, 1985), pp. 206-207, cat. 83.
2 Susan L. Buck, “Cross-Section Paint Analysis Report: Polychrome Painted Chest, c. 1715, Hadley, Massachusetts,” 27 November 2015. One of Buck’s samples indicates that there was minor re-touching to the paintwork around the drawer knobs, see ibid., p. 17. For her study of the three related forms, see Susan L. Buck, “Early Polychrome Chests from Hadley, Massachusetts: A Technical Investigation of their Paint and Finish” American Furniture 2009, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, 2009), pp. 42-61.
3 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York, 2001), p. 128.
4 Buck 2015 and Buck 2009, op. cit.
5 Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises: or the Doctrine of Handy-Works, Applied to the Arts of Smithing, Joinery, Carpentry, Turning, and Bricklaying (3rd ed., London, 1703), p. 104; cited in Wendy A. Cooper, Patricia Edmonson, and Lisa M. Minardi, “The Compass Artist of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,” American Furniture 2009, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, 2009), p. 67. A divider differed from a compass by having a screw that could lock the hinged joint. Both compasses and dividers at this time had two legs with pointed ends and only later compasses had one of the legs fitted with an attachment for a drawing implement.
6 The two-drawer carved “Hadley” chests with related vine decoration comprise the group associated by Clair Franklin Luther with Hatfield and the Allis family. See Clair Franklin Luther, The Hadley Chest (Hartford, 1935), pp. xv-xvi, 80, nos. 6, 24 and Philip Zea, “The Fruits of Oligarchy: Patronage and Joinery in Western Massachusetts, 1630-1730” (Master’s thesis, University of Delaware, 1984), pp. 87-93, cats. 2-3. In his discussion of the Barnard cupboard, Zea notes that the motifs are drawn from Hampshire County furniture and cites the Hatfield chests and a carved “Hadley” chest with initials “LB” now at Old Sturbridge Village (acc. no. 5.8.83) and attributed by Zea to Hadley area, 1700-1720. The “LB” chest features 6-pointed stars, lozenges and curlicues, all seen on the chest offered here, as well as inverted hearts, which are seen on the Hannah Barnard cupboard and Winterthur chest in figs. 1, 2 (Zea 1984, pp. 116-119, cat. 10). A carved “I P” chest (Luther, p. 105, no. 65) displays some of the same details and is thought to have been first owned by Joanna Porter (b. 1687), the first wife of John Marsh. For a carved “Hadley” chest with similar lobed, floral designs, see the Mary Pease chest at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (acc. no. 32.216).
7 Ulrich 2001, op. cit., pp. 121, 134. For more on the King chest, see Philip Zea, catalogue entry, The Great River, op. cit., pp. 206-207, cat. 84.
8 For the SP board chest, see also William N. Hosley and Philip Zea, “Decorated Board Chests of the Connecticut River Valley,” The Magazine Antiques (May 1981), p. 1147, fig. 3 and Philip Zea, catalogue entry, The Great River, op. cit., pp. 196-197, cat. 75. The board chest possibly made in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, is in the collections of Historic Deerfield, acc. no. HD 1910.
9 For carved “Hadley” chests with similar construction, see Zea 1984, pp. 98-100, 104-115, cats. 5, 7-9. For more on the construction of “Hadley” chests, see Zea 1984, pp. 62-77 and an article based on his master’s thesis, Philip Zea, “The Fruits of Oligarchy: Patronage and the Hadley Chest Tradition in Western Massachusetts,” Old-Time New England: Essays in Memory of Benno M. Forman, vol. 72 (Boston, 1987), pp. 5-7.
10 Ulrich 2001, pp. 133-135.
11 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Hannah Barnard’s Cupboard: Family Property and Identity in Eighteenth-Century New England,” in Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, Ronald Hoffman, Mechal Sobel, Fredrika J. Teute, eds. (Chapel Hill, 1997), p. 256, fn. 21.
12 Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley (Springfield, 1905), p. 310.
13 The expense and prominence of the Hannah Barnard cupboard is discussed in Zea 1984, p. 125. For more on the Barnard family and this cupboard as an expression of their “upstart” behavior, see Ulrich 2001, pp. 123-129.
14 Brewer’s collection was described in 1893 as “one of the largest and most perfect of existing collections of furniture, household belongings, china, literature, documents, and other curious pertaining to the colonial period and the earlier years of the United States. Almost every piece has a history and credentials, and nothing has been thought too homely or primitive for admission to the collection, if only it illustrates the familiar, every-day life of early days” (“Personal Gossip,” The New York Times, 2 November 1893, accessed online).