The Wall Street Journal | January 12, 2015

"Bewitching Wood in Salem"

by Barrymore Laurence Sherer

Salem, Mass.

The Salem witch trials lasted from May to October 1692, but that brief spell of mass hysteria gave this handsome New England city its most enduring identity. Salem’s legacy, however, is a great deal more than mere witchery. Among Colonial America’s busiest seaports, Salem boasted a wealthy citizenry who relished fine things for their homes, and it became an important furniture-making center. The study of that decorative legacy is a particular strength of Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, which in the past has mounted exhibitions of the work of cabinetmakers John and Thomas Seymour (in 2003) and of cabinetmaker and consummate woodcarver Samuel McIntire (in 2007). Now, through March 29, the PEM’s “In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould” concentrates on a figure relatively forgotten for two centuries.

In 2006, The Massachusetts Historical Society cataloged the papers of Nathan Dane (1752-1835), an attorney whose trove included “3 account books of client Nathaniel Gould.” The three ledgers meticulously recorded the Gould workshop’s production of almost 3,000 pieces of furniture for more than 500 clients over a quarter-century span before and during the American Revolution. The documentation proved that Gould had produced all manner of furnishings, from elaborate mahogany desks and bookcases to utilitarian kitchen chairs, pine cradles and coffins. Suddenly unattributed or tentatively attributed masterpieces in public and private collections were revealed to be by Gould and his workshop, and his obscurity was transformed into renown as one of the most important 18th-century American cabinetmakers.

If the McIntire show was about wood as a medium for elaborate carving, the Gould show is about wood itself, especially mahogany in all its lustrous splendor. Apart from running his cabinetry workshop, Gould (1734-1781) was a major importer of raw materials and exporter of furniture, especially insect-resistant cedar furniture, which he bought from other cabinetmakers and profitably resold on the Caribbean market. Gould’s primary imports were cedar and Caribbean mahogany logs—he virtually cornered New England’s mahogany market, selling some logs to other workshops while keeping the very finest specimens for his own use. Gould’s discerning eye for this material is apparent in every mahogany piece on display. Hence the case pieces, tables, chairs and related objects arranged in a single spacious gallery constitute an exhibition overwhelming not in size but in beauty.

A selection of complementary period objects vividly places Gould’s work in context, including portraits of Gould clients by John Singleton Copley and other artists, and a copy of Thomas Chippendale’s influential design book, “The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director”—Gould was a primary force in introducing Chippendale’s style to Salem. To illustrate Gould’s own woodworking techniques, a video shows master cabinetmaker Philip C. Lowe, director of the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts, hand-carving various furniture elements using Gould’s time-honored methods.

An introductory display shows the options he offered clients. First came form—desk, chest, table, chair, etc. Second, the primary wood—mahogany and walnut, most expensive; cherry, maple and birch, cheaper. Clients could select styles of leg, foot and carved ornament—the more complex the detail, the more costly. Choices were based on where a piece would be used. Parlors, libraries and dining rooms called for the costliest pieces; bedrooms less so, as they were not seen by visitors. Kitchen furnishings, normally used by servants, were the cheapest—instead of fine mahogany or walnut, a well-carved rush-seated Gould kitchen chair here is made of mahogany-stained birch. Instead of fashionable cabriole legs, its sturdy turned legs and fringelike Spanish scroll feet are throwbacks to an earlier era.

One of the most striking Gould pieces is the commanding mahogany desk-and-bookcase made for merchant and shipowner Jeremiah Lee. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is displayed with a loan from the Lee Mansion in Marblehead, Copley’s equally commanding 1769 portrait of Lee, his protruding waistcoat obviously “with good capon lined,” as Shakespeare would say. Lee was one of Massachusetts’ wealthiest citizens, and the Gould desk corresponds to an order of wedding furniture Lee made in 1775 as part of his daughter’s dowry. An adjacent showcase contains a Gould daybook and account book, both opened to entries relating to this large order.

This majestic piece reveals how as a designer Gould masterfully exploited the exceptional beauty of a specific parcel of mahogany lumber. One’s eye is immediately drawn to the mirror-matched satin grain of the arched bookcase door panels. The left panel bears the black, flame-shaped scar of a burning candle once positioned dangerously close on one of the paired candlestick slides just below the door. Light raking across the desk’s slant-top emphasizes the rippled surface of hand-planed, hand-polished grain. Adding rhythm to the broad polished expanses are the crisply fluted pilasters framing the doors, and the block-front shaping of the desk supported by ball-and-claw feet whose short legs curve sharply inward. This almost crouching appearance is characteristic of Salem furniture by various makers, observes the show’s organizing curator, Dean Lahikainen. Gould’s signature motif, the carved scallop shell on the bottom skirt of the bureau section, is echoed at the bonnet top of the bookcase by an applied ornament that Mr. Lahikainen has seen only on Salem case pieces by Gould: a gracefully carved concave shell that is canted (i.e., positioned with a downward slant).

A similar concave shell mounted with an even more pronounced cant embellishes the curvilinear bombé desk-and-bookcase made about 1765 for the Cabot family. Inspired by the decorative pear shape popular since the 17th century, gracefully swelling bombé cabinets had been produced by the best Boston makers since the 1750s. Gould apparently introduced them to Salem. Though 19th-century cabinetmakers like John Henry Belter used steam to soften and bend wood into curvilinear shapes, steam technology had not yet been invented in Gould’s day. Discussing this with me at the exhibition, Mr. Lowe confirmed that Gould and his workshop produced the bombé shape using only handsaws, chisels and planes to hew the curving elements out of mahogany planks several inches thick. And the bombé cabinet had to be conceived on two planes—the curves of cabinet sides and drawer fronts had to match up at the corners. It took Gould time before he achieved just the right proportion of straight and curved planes, so that a finished piece would be graceful and not potbellied.

This exhibition has also resulted in an equally beautiful exhibition catalog by furniture scholars Kemble Widmer (the show’s consulting curator) and Joyce King, with splendid contributions by Mr. Lahikainen and scholars Glenn Adamson, Daniel Finamore and Elisabeth Garrett Widmer. In addition to superb photography and detailed discussions of each piece, the book includes appendices reproducing and categorizing the contents of the Gould ledgers, making it an invaluable resource for collectors as well as scholars and connoisseurs of American antiques.

Mr. Scherer writes about music and the fine arts for the Journal.

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