J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

“Into the Woods” at Historic Deerfield

One highlight of this spring’s Dublin Seminar on “New England and the Caribbean” was a visit to the Flynt Center of Early American Life’s new exhibit of furniture, called “Into the Woods.”

What was the Caribbean connection? The West Indies and Central America were where New England furniture makers got the mahogany and other hardwoods they used to create their most expensive pieces. (At the same time lots of New England oak was being shipped to the tropics in the form of barrel staves, to hold molasses, rum, and sugar.)

The exhibit uses dozens of examples from Historic Deerfield’s permanent collection of colonial and early American antiques. Curator of Furniture Joshua Lane displayed pieces in “exploded view” to offer an inside look. Thus, we can see the drawers for a highboy separate from the frame that held them, or the tools that rendered a graceful chair from a block of wood.

Other parts of the exhibit show furniture-makers developing new methods and trying to keep up with fashions (such as Asian motifs on “japanned” pieces). The technique that awed me was a way to give light wood inlays the appearance of a shadow on one side, and thus the illusion of depth. The joiner cut a veneer of light wood, singed half of it lengthwise, and then cut wedges from the area where the singed and unsinged portions met. I don’t think I did a great job of explaining that; you’ll have to go see.

Back in December 2006 I mentioned how I’d be delighted if anyone wanted to make me a present of a particular Ralph Earl portrait of two brothers (now no longer visible online). I’d be almost as grateful at receiving this exhibit’s two semi-circular chests of drawers with compartments that swing out on hinges at the sides. In fact, even one of those pieces would be lovely.

Here’s the New York Times article about the “Into the Woods” exhibit. It will remain in the Flynt Center at Historic Deerfield until 2013, but don’t put off seeing it. If you visit before 17 August, you can also check out Edward Maeder’s exhibition of what the well-dressed colonial American gentleman wore: wigs, banyans, and fabrics that today would grace only the finest sofas. And through December there’s a display of powder horns from the 1700s.

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