Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Eighteenth-century Williamsburg and its environs have been the subject for more than fifty years of one of the most intensive investigations ever conducted into a relatively small place over a comparatively short period of time. Researchers—architects, archaeologists, craftsmen, curators, to name but a few —have approached it from innumerable vantage points. Thus one might be excused for thinking, a few years ago, that little of major importance remained to be discovered about the colonial capital, and that attempts to improve our understanding of it would be rewarded more by lateral movements than by forward ones. Yet to assume that would have been to discount the sharpness of the human eye and the inextinguishable curiosity of the human mind— two qualities with which Wallace Gusler is endowed, in abundant measure.
Approaching the subject of furniture made in this area in the eighteenth century w ith the insights of a craftsman and the instincts of an historian (in both capacities self-trained), Mr. Gusler has undertaken a major revision of accepted theories. By sifting old evidence with a newly-fine mesh and relating it both to previously-known and to hitherto-unknown objects; by making extremely precise visual analogies between various objects; and by incorporating evidence not normally taken into account by furniture historians, such as the finding of the archaeologist, Mr. Gusler has pieced together a remarkable picture of cabinet-makers in Williamsburg and the products of their craft. As a result of his discoveries, the idea of the abundance of English imports overwhelming the native product is no longer tenable, while the local production of elaborate ceremonial objects should cause us to look at Virginia society in the eighteenth century anew.
Not only do w e watch here the emergence of the Peter Scott shop, for example, active over a longer period than any similar colonial establishment yet know n, but we also see the appearance of probably the most sophisticated ceremonial chair in the colonies, a virtuoso piece fully marked by a Williamsburg cabinetmaker. At this late date in studies of American regional furniture—the categorization of which is probably the greatest accomplishment of furniture historians in this country—it is extraordinary to witness the delineation of a new and major regional school, the Williamsburg group. No longer need the South be regarded as the repository of mainly rural, regional styles. Indeed, the discoveries embodied in this book should force us to look again for the products of the South’s major and remarkable urban centre, Charleston, South Carolina. If little Williamsburg can compare so favorably in quality to Philadelphia or Boston, what might Charleston not have done?
Colonial Williamsburg is very grateful to W illiam Gaines of the Virginia Museum for his initial suggestion of an exhibition of eastern Virginia furniture, which thus precipitated the idea of this book, and to R. Peter Mooz and Carolyn J. Weekley of the same museum for then making the exhibition and the book realities; to Frank I lorton for generously providing information from the research files of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, N. C.; to I larold B. Gill, Jr. for his professional historian’s advice, to Sumpter Priddy III for assistance and contributions far beyond the call or expectation of duty; but above all, and in a permanent way, to Wallace B. Gusler for the originality, energy, tenacity, and brilliance with w hich he has expanded our know ledge and appreciation.
Vice-President and Director of Collections
Ehe Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The furniture covered by this work is divided into a number of related groups, with major emphasis on production in Williamsburg. T he reasons for this latter concentration are threefold. Primarily, the research and study of furniture made there is many years ahead of efforts in any other area of eastern Virginia. Secondly, the documentation, together w ith the surviving furniture, indicates that W illiamsburg was the leading furniture-producing center of colonial Virginia. Finally, the time has long passed for general surveys. Notwithstanding the importance of Williamsburg, the subject of colonial furniture from eastern V irginia could, from present know ledge, comprise a number of books equal in scope and volume to this work.
The extensively detailed approach taken in this book utilizes evidence provided by both the furniture and its related documents. It has resulted in a technical work that examines and interprets a number of complex relationships. Some of the conclusions reached through this process may seem overly specific, some perhaps startling. I lowever, the evidence for these conclusions is illustrated and discussed, and its interpretation is explained in detail.
If the study of furniture is to progress beyond a pseudo-science, an intense analysis of both artistic and constructional features must be painstakingly pursued. Only w hen the results of such studies are correlated w ith documentation, however, does an accurate picture begin to emerge. In the past, furniture scholarship has centered on documentary research, in many cases skillfully handled and interpreted. But there are few furniture studies that attempt to analyze the evidence offered by the objects themselves—either artistically or technologically—although several books and some excellent articles have appeared in the last few decades. These mark a valuable beginning, but the essential questions regarding English and American furniture of the eighteenth century go unanswered and, in many instances, have yet to be asked. Earlier studies, many of which create an air of legitimacy by mentioning individual characteristics, may make fine coffee-table books, but they do not make a lasting contribution to a further knowledge of the subject.
Here, a number of related pieces have been brought together in groups that share constructional and artistic characteristics. Each is designated according to a shop group, although it must be admitted that little is known regarding the movement of journeymen or apprentices. As research and study progress, the intricate relationships used to define each group here w ill undoubtedly prove to be more complex and result in additional sub-groups. The captions accompanying each illustration carry the shop attribution and an approximate date that suggests the most probable time of production. T herefore, if a piece is dated “circa 1770,” the time bracket is 1765 to 1775, w ith the midpoint favored. In pieces where historical circumstances suggest a more exact time, these will be indicated by a date range. Within each shop group, the pieces are arranged in chronological order.
In the second half of the book, pieces from areas other than Williamsburg are shown. These are not covered with the intense approach that was possible with the Williamsburg examples. The impracticality of thoroughly dissecting all of the furniture groups from eastern Virginia is evident, for the time spent in researching the documents and seeking out the pieces from any one of these areas is astounding. These pieces are included to give an overview of cabinetmaking in eastern Virginia and to put Williamsburg production in perspective. More than anything else, this section points out not only the production of other localities, but also the need for intense studies to clarify their valuable contribution to cabinetmaking in the colonial South.