This book is the culmination of a two-part project undertaken jointly by the Virginia Museum and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Beginning with the seminal concept—the need to underscore the importance of the decorative arts in American culture—and proceeding w ith the idea that an exhibition and catalog of the fine products of Virginia’s colonial cabinetmakers would best express that concept, Wallace B. Guslcr, Curator of Furniture at Colonial Williamsburg, w as invited to organize the exhibition and to prepare the catalog that would document the display.
With the expert guidance of the Museum’s development director, Paul B. Hood, and associate curator Frederick R. Brandt, financial implementation for the project was secured. Appropriately, funding was received from both public and private sectors: the bequest of Christopher T. Chenery, and the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both federal agencies in W ashington, D. C.
Furniture of Eastern Virginia: The Product of Mind and Hand was proudly unveiled at the Virginia Museum on March 13, 1978, and remained on view through April 30. Carolyn J. Weekley, curator of decorative arts at the Virginia Museum, coordinated the efforts of the staff members at both institutions, and was responsible for the laudable suggestion that the scope of the project should include design sources, models of furniture construction, and archaeological evidence, as well as the furniture itself. Mr. Gusler, assisted by Sumpter Priddy III, studied and selected appropriate examples of the finest works available from generous public and private lenders throughout the region.
Mr. Gusler was further aided in his organization of the exhibition by the Museum’s registrar, Lisa Hummel, and by Programs Division staff members William Gaines and W illiam Rasmussen. Guest installation designer Vincent Ciulla transformed the assembled furniture into a stunning and cohesive display, while Barbara Carson of Colonial Williamsburg translated the exhibition into a fascinating and informative film.
The second half of the project—this book and the exhibition checklist—became a reality through the combined efforts of the Museum’s chief editor, George Cruger, publications coordinator Monica 1 lamm, graphic designer Raymond Geary, and design assistant Gene Rudy. Photographic documentation for both the exhibition and its related publications was ably provided by photographers Delmore A. Wenzel and 1 Ians E. Lorenz of Colonial Williamsburg, and by Ronald Jennings, Katherine Wetzel, and Dennis McWaters of the Virginia Museum staff.
American furniture studies date to the nineteenth- century fascination with “relics.” The turn of the century saw little change in this antiquarian attitude, although a few key exhibitions, such as the 1909 Hudson-Fulton show at the Metropolitan Museum brought new, almost sudden, popular awareness of America’s early arts. The progress of research from then until now has seen continual expansion, redefinition, and scientific examination. Ultimately, we have come to identify regional traditions and technological idiosyncrasies. More importantly, we now recognize that these objects can be studied by the art historical methods of style analysis and iconographical interpretation, and American furniture now has a rightful place in our fine-arts institutions.
The sophisticated furniture analyzed here by Wallace Gusler underscores this new awareness. As a milestone in southern furniture research, this book comes more than twenty years after the only other in-depth study of the same subject, the late Milby Burton’s Charleston Furniture: 1100-1825. Continuing research by Henry I). Green, and Frank L. Horton’s work at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and its Journal have revealed additional information on southeastern furniture.
But this book is not just a regional study; it also synthesizes both new and traditional methods of furniture analysis, thereby offering new insights into furniture’s aesthetic and historic values. Its roots are in early regional publications, such as William I lorner’s Blue Book, Philadelphia Furniture, that first revealed evidence of art in American furniture and signaled the need to investigate stylistic patterns and to document provenance. Later, catalogs by Joseph Downs and Richard H. Randall, Jr. outlined styles by emphasizing iconography, and determined provenances according to wood usage. Then, Charles F. Montgomery’s book on federal furniture at W interthur awakened scholars to the crucial questions that still needed to be answered—to establish where, when, by whom, how, and why American furniture was made. Mr. Montgomery’s work touched everyone connected with Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia. His untimely death occurred last spring, on the eve of the exhibition that preceded this publication. Yet in so many w ays, both that exhibition and this book are tributes to his inspired scholarship and teaching.
It is particularly fitting that the premiere museum institutions in Virginia pooled their talents and resources to produce the exhibition and this document. The Virginia Museum recognizes the support of Colonial Williamsburg’s Chairman of the Board, Carlisle H. Humelsine, its President, Charles Longsworth, and Graham Hood, Director of Collections, w hose early encouragement of Mr. Gusler’s work resulted in this research.
Finally, undertakings of this magnitude arc – made possible by responsive Board members. I w ish to acknowledge the fine support of the Virginia Museum’s Board of Trustees, particularly that of William H. I Iiggins, Jr., and Eugene B. Sydnor. It was their initial idea to organize a major show proclaiming that the decorative arts deserve equal recognition in the museum field, alongside the traditional fine arts.