Design New England

Archives lead to furniture treasure

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Nathaniel Gould’s Account Book (1763–90). Nathan Dane Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. © 2014 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Dennis Helmar Photography.

By Carol Stocker

In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould is a jewel of an exhibit for fans of Colonial furniture. On view through March 29 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, it focuses on the work of Nathaniel Gould, Salem’s most successful cabinetmaker who worked before and during the turbulence of the American Revolution. A businessman carefully neutral in his own politics, Gould received commissions for thousands of pieces of museum quality furniture from both patriots and Tories, and for export to wealthy plantation owners in southern colonies and the Caribbean. But like most furniture makers, he seldom signed his work. After his death in 1781 he was largely forgotten. Though his furniture was revered, no one knew who made it.

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That changed in 2006 when Joyce King spotted a reference to Gould online in recently digitized catalog records of the Massachusetts Historical Society. She and top Salem furniture historians Kemble and Elisabeth Widmer soon found Gould’s day books and account books, unintentionally hidden inside his estate lawyer’s records, and went to work analyzing them. They yielded details of 3,000 pieces of furniture made in his shop between 1758 and 1783, and who commissioned them. Almost overnight, Gould was credited with a large inventory of museum pieces and recognized as one of America’s greatest furniture makers.

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Desk-and-Bookcase, 1775, Nathaniel Gould. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1909. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Gavin Ashworth/Art Resource, NY.
The PEM has 17 choice pieces in this exhibit, expertly interpreted by Dean Lahikainen, the museum’s curator of American Decorative Art, who has included a wealth of context about who commissioned each object. Indeed, the original painted portraits of many patrons are part of the show, including several by the sublime John Singleton Copley. So many of the pieces were ordered as wedding dowries that the exhibit includes an embroidered silk wedding gown and an en suite man’s waistcoat vest of the period. The stand-out furniture piece is an iconic desk-and-bookcase (above) ordered in 1775 by Salem’s Jeremiah Lee for his daughter’s wedding. The dense mahogany block-front desk is book-matched so the wood grain is mirrored. Within, there are many hidden compartments. The accompanying exhibit book has a large appendix of Gould’s journeymen and probable apprentices and his 500 elite Massachusetts patrons (and whom they wed and what their dowries were), which promises to keep scholars occupied well into the future.

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Detail of ball-and-claw foot, Drop-Leaf Table, 1671–81, probably Nathaniel Gould. Private collection. © 2014 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Dennis Helmar Photography.
In Plain Sight is the final exhibit is an unprecedented series called Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture that began last year examining the glories of Massachusetts-made furniture from the Puritans to the present. It served as a first-time collaboration among 11 museums and cultural and educational institutions, including the Winterthur Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Concord Museum, the Fuller Craft Museum, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Historic Deerfield, Historic New England, Massachusetts Historical Society, North Bennet Street School, Old Sturbridge Village and Peabody Essex Museum. “In the field of American furniture history, arguably no state has left a more remarkable legacy,” says Winterthur scholar Brock Jobe, principal founder of the consortium. Never before have so many well-known institutions in the Northeast joined forces to promote a single topic in the American Decorative Arts. Talks are in the works to continue the collaboration focusing on a different area of the decorative arts next time around.

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Detail of Chest-on-Chest, 1773, attributed to Nathaniel Gould. Private collection. © 2014 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Dennis Helmar Photography.
Great design is always at your fingertips! Read Design New England‘s November/December 2014 issue online!

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