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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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nathaniel Gould Furniture Exhibit in Salem, Starting 15 Nov.

On 15 November, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem opens a new exhibit called “In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould.” The museum explains:
At the dawn of the American Revolution in a city bustling with trade, politics and commerce, a craftsman of unusual ability was working tirelessly to create fine furniture for his wealthy patrons. Nathaniel Gould (1734-1781) established one of the region’s most sought-after workshops, producing thousands of technically sophisticated and aesthetically refined works for clients at home and for export. With an astute business sense, Gould thrived in one of the most tumultuous political and economic eras in American history.

Despite all of this, until recently, Gould’s life and legacy was largely unknown. Masterworks sat in anonymity in the halls of major museum collections, unsigned by their maker and identified only vaguely by their geographic origin. In 2006, everything changed. In the vaults of the Massachusetts Historical Society, among the records of Gould’s estate lawyer, researchers discovered documents that cast fresh light on — and forever enhance our understanding of — American furniture history.

Three of Gould’s bound ledgers kept between 1758 and 1783 document in detail the production of almost 3,000 pieces of furniture in his Salem workshop. Painstaking analysis has revealed the identity, preferences and transactions of more than 500 of Gould’s patrons as well as the names of his journeymen and probable apprentices. This veritable data dump of information has led museums, antique collectors and the general public to examine their collections with fresh eyes and piqued interest. Works whose significance was obfuscated by the passage of time and lack of provenance are now being reconsidered and reappraised.
The exhibition includes “Stately desks, bombé chests and scalloped-top tea tables made of the finest imported mahogany…alongside paintings, archival materials, decorative arts and an interactive workbench and desk.”

Even the press release is full of intriguing details:
  • “Gould’s work is distinguished by its careful attention to graining, distinctive carved ball-and-claw feet, extended knee returns and superbly carved pinwheels and scallop seashells.”
  • “Gould built his career on his ability to translate London’s latest designs — sometimes gleaned from British pattern books, including Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Makers Director — into a more conservative style that pleased the tastes of the region’s wealthy elite.
  • “The Gould ledgers reveal a high percentage of domestic furniture produced to fill wedding orders, mostly from members of the merchant class.”
  • “His ledgers reveal 616 pieces of furniture that were sold in the Caribbean and of this inventory, 62 percent were desks, half of which were made of cedar — an aromatic wood prized for its ability to deter insects in the semitropical regions.”
The exhibit is scheduled to be up at the P.E.M. until March.

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