Last week I let you know about the Nathaniel Gould exhibit (“In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould”) at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Beyond just the basic “here’s the exhibit – come take a look” stuff, I got a chance to dig deeper into some very interesting details of Gould and his work and I’d like to share some of that with you.
Sure, you’re bound to find some interesting detail walking around a gallery looking at 20 fine specimens of 18th century furniture, but talking with Dean Lahikainen, Kemble Widmer and Joyce King brought those detail specific to Nathaniel Gould clearly into view quicker and with more background than just wandering the gallery alone. These are people who’ve devoted a fair amount of their time in the last few years to studying the specifics of Nathaniel Gould, his business and his methods of work. For us, that means we can get to the meat of Gould’s furniture without all the heavy lifting.
Some of the things I found most interesting were the unexplained variations in Gould’s work. For example, there are two chairs in the exhibit that are copied from Manwaring’s design book. Both came from Gould’s shop during the same time period, but there are differences between the two.
The time frame for the construction of both chairs can be narrowed down to about a five year period and come from two different sets, made for different customers. They were most likely made by two different journeymen working at the same time in the shop. So, why is one chair wider than the other? Why are the carvings on the knees the same basic pattern, but with different backgrounds?
I have a couple of theories. First, we have two journeyman chair makers in the shop working for two separate customers. Although both orders were kept in-house (Gould subcontracted a fair amount of his work), the customers may have requested design changes to suit their particular tastes. Manwaring’s design book was, much like Chippendale’s, suggestive at best. It was not a book with specific sizes and “cut along the dotted line” patterns. If you look at the chairs in the photo above, you can clearly see Gould employed variations of both of Manwaring’s crest rails on his versions.
18th century furniture customers at this level were usually more aware of fashion than the vast major furniture consumers. Custom furniture was pretty much the only game in town for the truly fashionable. Sure, cabinetmakers such as Gould sold ready-made goods, but most were made-to-order furniture – Ikea was still a couple of centuries off. So, is it unreasonable to think that a customer ordered chairs to their specifications? Something like, “I like the Derby’s chairs, but they look a little broad for my taste. Can we narrow them up a little?”
Second, we have two journeyman chair makers in the shop working for two separate customers. Is it unrealistic to assume each may have wanted to add a bit of their own interpretative flair to the projects? The chairs were almost certainly not built at exactly the same time in the shop, but there would most likely have been a set of patterns kept from the earlier version.
In my shop, every order was a chance to refine designs. Sure, we tried to remain fairly loyal to the patterns created, but a second set of chairs was a second opportunity to fix that slightly wide back splat or that understated rear leg sweep. And this was particularly the case when a different craftsman built the follow-up set. It was a chance for him to “make his mark” by showing off those little design tweaks he saw needed to be made that the previous maker did not. I’m sure that was the case in Gould’s shop too.
Another thought that comes to mind is a specific methodology quirk that was pointed out by Kemble Widmer, but I’ll go into that next week. For now, take a look at the two close-up shots of the knees from the chairs and see if you can spot the differences in design and execution. You can see, the solution to the Nathaniel Gould mystery has really only given us more mysteries to solve. What would you have done? Are there other reasons why these two chairs might vary so? Feel free to speculate in the comments section.
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