Nathaniel Gould: The (nearly) Forgotten Cabinetmaker of Salem

The Bombé desk and bookcase that drove an 18th century mystery.
The Bombé desk and bookcase that drove an 18th century mystery.

First off, I want to thank Whitney Van Dyke and the rest of the folks from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. for inviting me, and Glen, to the press preview of the Nathaniel Gould exhibit. It was a blast being the only woodworkers at this early morning preview nearly two weeks ago (November 13). We got to meet and speak with Dean Lahikainen, the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Art at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), as well as Kemble Widmer and Joyce King who were the researchers who revealed Nathaniel Gould’s undiscovered prolific nature as a cabinetmaker and business man (you’ll get to meet all of them later in the post).

It was the folks at C.L. Prickett in Yardley, PA who sparked this whole investigation. They came to possess the Bombé desk and bookcase pictured at the head of this post. They knew it wasn’t a Boston piece because of the differences in construction and decoration. With no signature there was no way to determine who made the secretary – or was there? Enter historical mystery buster Kemble Widmer who has been studying Salem furniture for years.

Widmer’s first thought was Nathaniel Gould. Why? He was, after all, a rather insignificant cabinetmaker from Salem, MA, who, until recently, only had a handful of pieces attributed to his shop. The key term there is “until recently”. In 2006, Kemble Widmer and Joyce King came across an 18th century treasure trove that would change the perception of Nathaniel Gould forever.

Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Widmer made the leap to Gould based on the blockfront desk and bookcase at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The desk and bookcase contain the inscription “Nathaniel Gould not his work”, but there’s a bit of a mystery there as well. The signature is in one hand, while the “not his work” is clearly in another. Was this the work of a disgruntled journeyman or apprentice or was it something completely different? For a cabinetmaker of so little renown, how could he have made such a masterpiece? Surely, if this was the quality of work coming from his shop, there would be other pieces of similar quality. How is it possible so few Gould pieces exist?

When looking at the Bombé secretary, the quality of workmanship and materials are stellar (along the same lines as that of the blockfront at the MET). Widmer assembled his team and began looking for clues.

Some time later Joyce King, a key member of the team, came across a reference to a Nathaniel Gould’s account books in the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not knowing if the account books were related to the Nathaniel Gould that was a cabinetmaker in Salem, she and Widmer “trucked into Boston” (as she puts it) to see what they might find.

Amazingly, the three account books were not only the records of the exact Nathaniel Gould they were seeking, but they illustrated a rich and lavish career spanning 20 years and some 3000 pieces of furniture. Gould was not so insignificant after all. He was, in fact, the largest importer of mahogany in the colony (which explains why his pieces display such magnificent figure). He had a modest shop of three or four journeymen and a couple of apprentices, but he commissioned work for his customers from other shops as far away as Boston.

There’s so much more to this mystery than I can cover in a single blog post. So, beginning next week, I will restart my “Furniture Details” blog posts with some more in-depth exploration of Nathaniel Gould and his furniture. The great thing about talking with people like Kemble Widmer, Joyce King and Dean Lahikainen is you get a chance to see details they’ve discovered from their focused research that you might not otherwise learn on your own. Each of the three gave tremendous insights into Gould and his work. They also presented several as yet unsolved mysteries, which I am sure will not remain so forever. It’s just a matter of time. There’s lots more to come, but for now, check out the video below to hear part of the tale in the words of Kemble Widmer and Joyce King.

 

 

The exhibit, “In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould”, shows off 20 pieces of Gould’s furniture. There is a richly illustrated catalog available to go with the exhibit (you can buy it here).  The exhibit opened on November 15, 2014 and runs through March 29, 2015 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The pieces are varied in nature; everything from chairs to desks to tables and secretaries. All of it is worth the trip to Salem even if you couldn’t wander the rest of the museum (but do because it’s filled with amazing stuff…some of which you’ll see in the near future…hint, hint).

— Chuck Bender

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One thought on “Nathaniel Gould: The (nearly) Forgotten Cabinetmaker of Salem

  1. Ok, I’ll have to add this to the list. It’s a shame the exhibition runs for such a short time. I’m going to have to make a point of getting up there I think.

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