- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

The Maryland Historical Society has a treasure chest of items, says Jeannine Disviscour, curator at the organization. A new permanent exhibit, “Furniture in Maryland Life,” which opens Friday at the Dorothy Wagner Wallis Gallery in the Carey Center for Maryland Life in Baltimore, will feature more than 100 pieces from the historical society’s overall collection.

“We felt it was imperative to share this with the public,” she says. “We felt it allowed us to tell stories of the people who made and used the furniture.”

The exhibit explores the manufacturing techniques, design and function of furniture in Maryland between 1634 and 2000. In addition to standard furniture, objects on display include paintings, silver, prints and photographs. About one-third of the items in the exhibit have never been available for public viewing.

In the early 19th century, Baltimore was distinct in that it was a wealthy, influential style center, says Nancy Davis, deputy director of the museums at the Maryland Historical Society. It was the third-largest port in America, after New York City and Philadelphia.

“It was from Baltimore that many people got their sets of fancy, painted furniture, even the White House,” Ms. Davis says. “Many pieces were sent to the Caribbean and South America and all over, not just even America.”

The first item visitors will see as they enter the exhibit is a sofa, Ms. Davis says. Dr. William Hilleary of Frederick County purchased the settee from Baltimore cabinetmaker William Camp in 1817. The bill from June 14, 1817, shows a purchase price of $100.

Behind the sofa, a painting by Maryland artist Joshua Johnson features Rebecca Everett and

her children in 1818, sitting on a similar settee. Mrs. Everett was the widow of a Baltimore umbrella manufacturer.

Upon further exploration, visitors will find a section of the exhibit on the manufacturing of furniture, says Ms. Disviscour. When the Colony of Maryland was founded in 1634, most of the residents imported furniture from Great Britain and New England.

By the mid-1700s, cabinetmakers began to set up small shops in the Baltimore area. One of the earliest pieces in the exhibit is a cherry banister-back armchair from around 1710 to 1740. The display also features another armchair possibly made in Frederick County around 1760 to 1780.

“In Hagerstown and Frederick in the 1700s and into the 1800s, a thriving German population supported cabinetmakers whose furniture design and construction were clearly inspired by traditional Germanic furniture-making techniques,” she says. “The town of Frederick had a greater percentage of inhabitants originally from Great Britain, and their furniture also included many English design elements.”

After the Revolutionary War, Baltimore prospered, creating a large cabinetmaking trade, which spawned businesses specializing in fortepianos, upholstery, looking glasses and Windsor chairs, Ms. Disviscour says.

Among the items from this time, the exhibit features a fall-front desk from around 1792, most likely made at the shop of John Bankson and Richard Lawson, the largest shop in Baltimore in the late 18th century.

The organization also has a portrait of Lawson on display, the only known 18th-century portrait of a Baltimore cabinetmaker.

Side chairs with heart-shaped backs also were popular during this period, Ms. Disviscour says. The exhibit features a side chair from around 1785 to 1800 that Samuel Chase likely purchased.

Chase was one of Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1786, he built a house at the corner of Lexington and Eutaw streets.

One of the most impressive pieces in the show is a lady’s cabinet dressing table from around 1800 to 1810, says Gregory Weidman, former curator at the Maryland Historical Society.

She is the author of “Furniture in Maryland 1740-1940, the Collection of the Maryland Historical Society.”

With a gilded American eagle in the center of the table, Ms. Weidman says she wonders if the designer, William Camp, was making a political statement of independence, especially since the rest of the piece is based on an English design.

“It’s probably one of the most elaborate pieces of furniture made in America,” she says. “In addition to being this great aesthetic masterpiece, there are reverse-painted glass panels with allegory figures of commerce and industry. … It tells you about the great fortunes being made at the time.”

Not all the pieces in the exhibit are from upper-class homes, Ms. Weidman says. For instance, a bar stool from around 1830 to 1860 is a rare piece that came from the Sassafras Hotel in Kent County. The stool, which still has its original deerskin upholstery, survived the fire that destroyed the hotel in 1925.

“The exhibit runs such a gamut from the lady’s cabinet dressing table for the elite and wealthy to the simple pieces like the bar stool,” Ms. Weidman says. “You don’t just have the high-end, very elaborate pieces. You have pieces across the whole spectrum.”

As time passed, some craftspeople were asked to reproduce past Maryland furniture, Ms. Weidman says. Enrico Liberti’s workshop, which was in business from around 1930 to 1977, was selected in 1939 to make reproductions to furnish the Old Senate Chamber at the State House in Annapolis. Along with his workbench, guests can admire his tools and patterns in the exhibit.

Although Maryland is home to various furniture manufacturing companies today, most American furniture is now constructed in North Carolina, Virginia and California.

Among modern Maryland artists, Thomas P. Miller’s work from 1945 to 2000 continues the tradition of painted furniture in the area, says Lynn Springer Roberts, co-chairwoman of the Gallery Committee, who served as a consultant for the exhibit.

“Any time there is a collection of Americana furniture, if you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you will find choice examples of Maryland furniture,” she says. “Baltimore was an important contributor to the furniture trade.”

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