Furniture Details: Nathaniel Gould

Curator, Dean Lahikainen, leads the press tour of the Nathaniel Gould exhibit at PEM. He stands beside the account books that revealed to the world Gould was far more than we ever suspected.
Curator, Dean Lahikainen, leads the press tour of the Nathaniel Gould exhibit at PEM. He stands beside the account books that revealed to the world Gould was far more than we ever suspected.

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.

Two Gould chairs – built in his shop by two separate journeymen working in the same time period.
Two Gould chairs – built in his shop by two separate journeymen working in the same time period.

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?

Manwaring's illustrated plate showing the basic designs of the two Gould chairs.
Manwaring’s illustrated plate showing the basic designs of the two Gould chairs.

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.

And if you’re liking what you see so far on 360 WoodWorking, why not subscribe? There’s going to be tons more of this kind of information, which as of January 1, will be available only to subscribers – all for about what you pay for two cups of coffee at your favorite Seattle-based coffee shop, or that Net-based flick subscription you hardly use. You’ll get great content from people with the experience you can trust, and we’ll be able to keep on bringing it to you each and every month. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

— Chuck Bender

 

Acanthus carving from one of the two Manwaring inspired Gould chairs.
Acanthus carving from one of the two Manwaring inspired Gould chairs.
A look at the carving from the second Manwaring inspired Gould chair.
A look at the carving from the second Manwaring inspired Gould chair.
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2 thoughts on “Furniture Details: Nathaniel Gould

  1. Few questions
    Why don’t they put the chairs on the floor where they belong (so we can see them at the proper viewing angle )? Or – if you have to levitate them – put them at eye level so we can see the detail. Rhetorical question I know.
    As to the carving on the second chair . Is it to early for an Asian influence? The segmentation is almost reminiscent of bamboo.
    Any more thoughts on the “Nathaniel Gould not his work” inscription.

    1. Don,

      I think they don’t put chairs on the floor for two reasons. First, it gets the thing up so people can see the lower details without having to crawl on the floor (I almost always do…I’ve crawled on some of America’s finest floors) to get a look. And second, it stops (or slows) people from having a seat. This is particularly the case in house museums.

      Both chairs exhibit asian influence. Manwaring was a Chippendale contemporary (and rival) whose designs show Asian and French influence. It’s a sign of the times – give the people what they want. The guy who carved the leg in the second photo was a little crosshatch happy. I can’t decide if I like the stippling in the background or not.

      As far as “Nathaniel Gould not his work” goes, I’m not through reading the catalog yet and would like to talk more with Kemble Widmer about the inscription. The funny part about this is, Glen and I were standing in the crowd of journalists listening to Widmer talk about Gould and some interesting facts about the inscription, and I leaned toward Glen and joked, “It was probably a disgruntled apprentice or journeyman.” Moments later, Widmer said exactly the same thing to the crowd.

      It reminded me of a time when I was working on an 18th century tiger maple bonnet top highboy in my shop. It had an enclosed bonnet, and the boards were loose. I removed them so I could patch the nail holes in order to give them better grip. Boxed inside the cavity was an inscription that ran on for several sentences. Being completely enclosed it was clear, unfaded and most certainly a rant from the cabinetmaker about his unreasonable (putting it mildly) customer. A rare thing to be sure, but the motive could certainly be similar to the inscription in the Gould blockfront desk.

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