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William Hosley on New England Folk Art for Antiques & Arts Weekly 08-14-15 cover

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William Hosley on New England Folk Art for Antiques & Arts Weekly 08-14-15 cover

  1. 1. {   Newsstand Rate $1.75 INDEXES ON PAGES 36 & 37 August 14, 2015 Published byThe Bee Publishing Company, Newtown, Connecticut “Edward Hibbard,”artist unidentified,probably Quincy,Mass., circa 1845. Oil on canvas, 3515/16 by 291/8 inches. “American Folk Art, Lovingly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum. “Two Children In Blue,” attributed to Mary B. Tucker (active circa 1840–1844), probably Massachusetts, circa 1840. Watercolor and graphite on paper, 201/16 by 245/8 inches. “Ameri- can Folk Art, Lovingly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum. By William Hosley WORCESTER COUNTY, MASS. — In his four-volume work Travels in New-England and New-York, posthumously published in 1821 and 1822, Yale president Timothy Dwight chronicled 13 trips made over the course of 20 years, covering 18,000 miles and featuring detailed descriptions of hundreds of towns and localities. It is our first American homegrown tourism literature. Of the hundreds of places Dwight visited, examined and described, not one surpassed the effusions of his reflections on the Quinebaug — a small river valley that begins on the outskirts of Sturbridge, Mass., and heads south through eastern Connecticut. Dwight wrote, “The Quinebaug .... lined with handsome intervals ... varying gradations ... hills of every form ... from small knoll to the lofty eminence. No country … when unaided by mountains, large rivers, lakes, or the ocean, can be compared with this for the beauty of its scenery. ... verdure which overspreads a great part of the whole region is of the finest tint and produces the most cheerful sense of fruitfulness, plenty, and prosperity. ... Trees ... handsomer groves cannot be found. Orchards ... everywhere. Herds of cattle ... grazing ... Neat farmhouses standing on hills, a succession of pretty villages with their churches ornamented with steeples, most of them white and therefore cheerful and brilliant, lend the last touches of art to a picture so finely drawn by the hand of nature.” This was interior New England at the birth of our nation. It was not Boston, Newport, Charleston or Philadelphia. It did not face east to the Atlantic. While most of New England was connected by varying degrees to the Atlantic trade, these American places were defined not so much by the ocean as by the as- tonishing abundance of fresh water that traveled south through hundreds of brooks and streams. Dwight continued,“There is scarcely a town in New England which has not a complete set of gristmills and sawmills … probably no country in the world where millstreams are so numerous and universally dispersed.” Water power, cheap land, with farms of several hundred acres often a mile apart — this was interior New England, especially in Worcester County, Mass. This was the birthplace and source of the notion of Yan- kee ingenuity. “Adapt and improvise” was its hallmark. The inhabitants of this region were truly more self-reliant and, by necessity, versatile and diversely skilled. Everyone was a multi-occupational jack of several, if not all, trades. Most inhabitants were not especially rich nor were they poor. Writing about inland Massachusetts, Dwight further observed that it occupied “that middle state of property … termed golden ... [where] few are poor, and few are rich.” This rich, water-powered interior world of plenty was the source of America’s folk art and its mid- dle class. It is the essence of Old Sturbridge Village, where “Kindred Spirits: A.B. Wells, Malcolm Watkins and the Origins of Old Sturbridge Village” is on view through January 15. It is what in- spired Barbara and David Krashes to jump out of bed every day, passionate about unearthing more evidence that would tell the story of their chosen place. The Krasheses’ treasures are presented in “American Folk Art, Lovingly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum through November 29. These exhibitions are, of course, about things that are old and beautiful. But they are also about collecting, collectors and the cultural underpinnings that influence how we think about art, history, our locali- ties and the American spirit. Crock, New England or New York, early Nineteenth Century, stoneware. “Kin- dred Spirits” at Old Sturbridge Village. ( continued on page 5C ) Soldier, artist unidentified, probably Webster, Mass., circa 1820. Paint on wood, metal hardware; 16¾ by 4¾ inches. “American Folk Art, Lovingly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum. Portrait of an unidentified woman, circa 1805, oil on board. “Kindred Spirits” at Old Sturbridge Village. Folk Art In New England
  2. 2. August 14, 2015 — Antiques and The Arts Weekly — 5C ‘Kindred Spirits’ Old Sturbridge Village is an important story and, as this exhibition shows, a more influential one than most people realize. The Magazine Antiques dedicated its September 1955 issue to the living history museum. Editor Alice Win- chester wrote, “Not so many years ago when we first saw the site of Old Sturbridge Village it was a dreary spectacle. Only a few buildings scattered over a barren field raised their venerable post and beams in various stages of re- construction. ... [In] Southbridge … we were shown collec- tions of antiques that were to go into these buildings … so vast that in their way they were as dismaying as the bleak village site. Cellars and subcellars … filled to overflowing with early furniture, pewter, glass, pottery and a thousand other things collected by the brothers Albert B. Wells and J. Cheney Wells.”Winchester could later write that the vil- lage “looks today as though it had always been there.” Some of this is undoubtedly attributable to site selection. Today, as always, one of the most alluring aspects of Old Sturbridge Village (OSV) is its topography. Even though all of its 40-plus structures were brought onto the site from elsewhere, the canvas was a real farm with a real millpond and very real and rolling topography. That said, landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff (1870–1957), famous for his contributions to Colonial Williamsburg, was hired by the Wells brothers to lay out OSV. The effect is trans- porting, lovely and very much in and of its Quinebaug re- gion surroundings,a milieu shaped by the proto-industrial agrarian economy that has always been this institution’s focus. Organized by Tom Kelleher, the museum’s historian and curator of mechanical arts, “Kindred Spirits” is about the formation of OSV from its inception in 1935 as the Wells Historical Museum, a Victorian mansion crammed floor to ceiling with collections amassed by founding partner Albert Wells. In 1936, Wells hired C. Malcolm Watkins as curator. When Albert’s son George B. Wells insisted that his dad’s collection “was of no interest but to old fogies” and suggested he “build a living village,” Albert Wells and Malcolm Watkins made history. George Wells’s wife, Ruth, became OSV’s first director. AlbertWells caught the collecting bug while on a golf out- ing in Vermont in 1926 and soon lured his younger broth- er, J. Channing Wells, a clock collector, to “go in with you 50-50 … to develop a village.” Its opening in 1946 could not have been better timed, coinciding as it did with the post-World War II, Cold War-era wave of patriotism and the urban renewal-era exodus from the crowded, industri- al cities. This was the first demographic surge many New England rural communities, now suburbs, experienced in a century. All this triggered an interest in the restoration and re- newal of old houses. The 30 years that followed, up to the Bicentennial in 1976, witnessed a tremendous surge of interest in antiques, Americana and restoration; a prolif- eration of house museums; the rise of the auction industry and antiques shows; and a general boom in the collection and study of American fine and decorative arts. OSV was a huge success, attracting visitors from near and far who viewed it as the quintessential New England family va- cation. What makes OSV special, besides its setting and the deep pockets of its founders, is the legacy of C. Malcolm Watkins (1911–2001), who in turn was inspired by Albert Wells’s unusual instinct and sensibility about antiques. Watkins noted Wells’s “predilections for the simple, the di- rect or the ingenious,” observing that Wells “identified with it as he never could with more sophisticated pieces.” “An old Con- necticut table covered with worn and dirty brown paint would send him into parox- ysms of delight,”Watkins noted.Wells was a kindred spirit of the antiques dealer Roger Bacon, who, more than anyone and notably through his influence on the prolific writing and teaching of John T. Kirk, gave birth to the “leave it alone” preservation aesthetic that is one of the great intellectual achievements of the early American collecting field. OSV would be no Winterthur, a place of over- the-top mahogany masterpieces and Chinese porcelain.Two years out of Harvard, young Wat- kins had the entry-level job of his dreams, help- ing the Wellses give form to an emerging vision.Watkins’s mother,LuraWoodsideWatkins,a renowned pottery schol- ar and pioneer in what we now call historic archeology, got her son involved in the world of antiques when he was a child. Watkins remained at OSV until 1948, when he be- came a curator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History. At the latter, he managed the decorative arts and American technology collections, and focused on building the museum’s collection of American material culture. The influence of the Smithsonian, with its millions of visitors annually, is in a league of its own. Watkins, who remained there for the rest of his career, always looked back on his decade at OSV as a “training school.” But it was more than that. His mother’s influence was profound, even revolutionary. Mother and son helped invent an ap- proach and mindset about objects and art that respected the importance of the common man not beholden to the biases of the traditional art historical canon. Watkins was nurtured to appreciate “oddities” and the “primitive” ev- eryday stuff of early New England. In his obituary, it was noted that “he believed that American culture could be distilled in an earthenware teacup.”This was years before academics defined the terms material culture and historic archeology. In February 1957, The Magazine Antiques published an article on Watkins’s pioneering masterpiece, the Smithso- nian’s Hall of Everyday Life In Early America. Watkins observations are worth quoting: “Interest in American antiques has spread from the few to the many during the past half century … Museums which used to fill cas- es with objects understandable mainly to the expert now reach out to teach, give pleasure and reward the visitor’s spirit of wonder. Light, colorful exhibits, drawing on the methods of designers and theater technicians almost as much as on curators’ discipline, are now the order of the day. Labels geared to a nation of headline readers, walkie talkies, tape recordings … dioramas, models and movies, all help to bring exhibits to life.” This was brilliant, pioneering museology. It had the OSV sensibility written all over it. Indeed, while today the OSV experience largely centers around interacting with first person role-players, program performances and animals — lots of animals — older exhibits on glass,firearms,light- ing devices and clocks still bear the marks of the Watkins/ Wells vision for how to present and interpret objects, a vi- sion that became the Smithsonian vision. Like the Hall of Everyday Life almost a half-century ago, “Kindred Spirits” draws on the methods of designers and curators, presenting its arguments with the- matic clusters of engaging stuff. One section explores what and why we col- lect. Another invites viewers to reflect on changing values about period finish — the Roger Bacon thing. It notes how “early gen- erations of collectors routinely stripped lay- ers of dirt, wax and original paint to reveal the bare wood,” a practice so prevalent that in the early years OSV actually featured a shop for refinishing antiques as part of the visitor experience. One inspiring takeaway is to accept that the Wells/Watkins/Bacon credo of respecting the integrity of objects and leaving well enough alone was a boldly origi- nal and important idea that brought preserva- tion values to the world of antiques. Another exhibit talks about how “collecting is a basic human instinct,” noting how kids pick Folk Art In New England Trunk, New England, early Nineteenth Century; wood, brass, hide. “Kindred Spirits” at Old Sturbridge Village. A.B. Wells and Malcolm Watkins prized woodenware and other American folk arts for what they re- vealed about life in an earlier time. “Kindred Spirits” at Old Sturbridge Village. Tray, New England, early Nineteenth Century; ash. “Kindred Spirits” at Old Sturbridge Village. “Mary Coffin,” attributed to John Brewster Jr (1766–1854), Buxton, Maine, circa 1810. Oil on can- vas, 193/8 by 16 inches. “American Folk Art, Lov- ingly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum. The 1946 opening of Old Sturbridge Village, where “Kindred Spirits” remains on view through January 15, coincided with a post-World War II, Cold War-era exodus. This was the first demographic surge that many New England rural communities, now suburbs, had experienced in a century. ( continued on page 6C ) ( continued from page 1C )
  3. 3. 6C — Antiques and The Arts Weekly — August 14, 2015 up seashells on the beach and collect coins, stamps and baseball cards “to remember a special time or person.” It invites visitors to recall what they collected and why. In the 1960s, my brother and I built a collection of 800 beer cans, all different. At age 9, I spent hours fishing bottle caps out of Coke machines with a magnet on a coat hanger so I could amass the entire series of 1964 New York World’s Fair ex- hibit buildings illustrated on them.We all have our reasons. Visually, my favorite parts of “Kindred Spirits” are ar- rangements of woodenware and Lura Woodside Watkins’s redware. For Watkins to zero in on redware was a brilliant thing. Unlike anything else in the pantheon of Ameri- can-used ceramics, redware is the earthiest, speaking of place in a way that is close, intimate and personal. I live in Enfield, Conn.Years ago, I stumbled on the fact that we had a local redware potter, a Scotch-Irishman working at the time of the American Revolution. No one has ever studied him. No one knows where his shop was. Not a single piece of his pottery has been identified. This is recoverable infor- mation. Lura Woodside Watkins was persistent enough to have pinned it down. I have always been a sucker for early cast-iron stoves. Their makers figured out early on, as did the Victorians with electroplated silver, that if you are making things in multiples you can spend a little extra on design and dec- oration. OSV has great iron and a lot of early stoves. OSV interprets an exuberant example from the Tyson Furnace in Plymouth, Vt., well. If I had to tell the story of America, I could do it succinctly with a few dozen carefully chosen chairs. “Kindred Spirits” includes a wall of common chairs, fancy chairs, stenciled Windsors and rockers with an interpretive focus on condition. And poor Windsors. Have 90 percent of them been stripped of their original paint? Were not 100 percent of them finished with paint, many decoratively? If only Roger Bacon’s vision had prevailed a generation earli- er. So many chairs, so much damage done. Painted dome top blanket chests of the kind featured in “Kindred Spirits” were all the rage when Robert Bishop and Dean Fales, anticipating what is now done too routine- ly with Photoshop, punched up the color of the illustrations in their books, making great painted objects look even more sensational. Putting all that exuberance in context is hard. With its arguments about the influence of enlightenment science, the advent of kaleidoscopes and Scotch-Irish ar- tistic tradition, Sumpter Priddy’s American Fancy: Exu- berance in the Arts, 1790–1840 (2004) is compelling. But I still wish I could get deeper into the heads of what were essentially agrarian people fashioning their world as if they were on drugs. Might some of it be explained by the presence of a live- ly subculture of ornamental painters who had all kinds of new tricks up their sleeves? Except for certain points in the high Victorian aesthetic, is not High Fancy the loudest, most colorful moment in American domestic life? Why? It is a question that gets to the core of what makes what we call folk art, predominantly rural arts of the 1790 to 1850 peri- od, so deliciously memorable. Maybe such exuberance was connected to a culture of robust democracy, to the empower- ment of an emerging middle-class. Whatever the answer, it is fun to imagine the possibilities.  American Folk Art, Lovingly Collected “American Folk Art, Lovingly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum is also the story of a passion project ongoing since 1956. Organized by Paul S. D’Ambrosio, president and chief executive officer of the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., it is accompanied by a catalog containing essays by D’Ambrosio and historian Elizabeth Stillinger, whose research on collectors, published mainly in The Antiquers and A Kind of Archeology: Collect- ingAmerican FolkArt,1876–1976,informs both exhibitions. The show moves through the golden age of Americana collecting and the explosion of scholarship as graduate programs at Winterthur, Cooperstown, Boston University and elsewhere began cranking out curators and scholars steeped in the decorative arts and folk art. When Barba- ra and David Krashes began collecting, The Magazine An- tiques had been around for 34 years, but you could still fit most of the field’s literature in the trunk of a sedan.Thanks to places like Old Sturbridge Village, Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Deerfield, and to lifestyle dealers like Lillian Cogan, Mary Allis and John Kenneth Byard, people were living with antiques and loving it. It is astonishing to realize that,as recently as 1940,most of the towns in Connecticut and western Massachusetts were no larger in terms of population than they had been in 1800 at the height of the agrarian age. Western New England had a couple thousand Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century houses, too many abandoned and some literally untouched, that could be picked up for a song. This, the availability of relatively inexpensive antiques and greater mobility with the emerging Interstate highways proved in- toxicating to a rising generation of collectors. Many of these young collectors, the Krasheses included, were in their twenties when they started. Living in an early house fur- nished with antiques was — and, for many, still is — a joy. The Krasheses developed a special passion for folk por- traits, especially of children. In the early days, as the lit- erature on folk art was evolving, “ancestor paintings” were not esteemed as art. The name of the sitter was more im- portant than that of the artist, few of whom were known. The Krasheses soon discovered that many of the great folk painters lived and worked in central Massachusetts, near the couple’s home. To quote David Krashes, they “came to realize that these things are part of the cultural heritage of our region.” “Occasionally we have stretched to buy some- thing great … just to keep it here.” “So much of American folk art originated right here in central New England, and yet, unfortunately, most folks in our area know nothing of their heritage. We wanted our neighbors to have a chance to learn from our objects … from their own hometowns or nearby.” Amen. Ruth Henshaw Bascom,a prolific maker of pastel portraits from Worcester County and southern New Hampshire, is a favorite. From further afield is William Matthew Prior, whose success in the business of art making hinged on pro- viding customers with choices. The Krasheses cite pioneer folk art scholar Nina Fletcher Little’s discovery of Prior’s ad- vertisement in the Bath (Maine) Inquirer in 1831: “Persons wishing for a flat picture can have a likeness without shade or shadow at one-quarter the price.” Just as the clockmak- er Eli Terry was figuring out how to grow demand through laborsaving technology, so did Prior identify how to deliver fashion and pizzazz on a budget. Prior and others working in the folk tradition brought domestic art within reach of a rising class of farmers, mechanics and shopkeepers. Scholars of American folk art speak of how these trades- men — artists, if you insist — had no formal training in art. But, truth be told, few people in that period had much formal training in anything. College graduates typically entered the clergy or professions, and even medicine and the law were then just being codified into science and disci- plined formal curriculums. Even Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, was largely self-taught. A gen- eration later, during the 1870s and 1880s, schools of art and architecture proliferated and art making became more of a profession. In 1830, painters often alternated between por- trait painting and ornamental and sign painting to make ends meet. “American Folk Art, Lovingly Collected” contains dozens of tasty morsels, among them “A Vermont Girl with Cat” by Zedekiah Belknap, from about 1830, and a masterpiece family grouping by Joseph H. Davis of Strafford, N.H. Da- vis’s exuberant interiors provide some of the best visual ev- idence of domestic life in the Age of Fancy. Also represented “Child in Blue with Doll,” attributed to William Matthew Prior (1806–1873), probably Boston or East Boston, Mass., circa 1845. Oil on canvas, 303/16 by 251/8 inches. “American Folk Art, Lov- ingly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum. Albert Wells and Malcolm Watkins collected antique boxes, trunks and chests in quantity. The text accompanying this grouping asks whether humble artifacts such as these should be presented in museums. “Kindred Spirits” at Old Sturbridge Village. “Standing Boy With Book,” attributed to Stur- tevant J. Hamblin (active 1837–1856), probably eastern Massachusetts, circa 1845. Oil on can- vas, 36 by 237/8 inches. “American Folk Art, Lov- ingly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum. A wall of chairs provides a tutorial on old surface and admonishes visitors not to be overzealous in restoring their antiques. “Kindred Spirits” at Old Sturbridge Village. Folk Art In New England( continued from page 5C )
  4. 4. August 14, 2015 — Antiques and The Arts Weekly — 7C are Sturtevant J.Hamblin,George Hartwell and John Blunt, who worked in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Gendered conventions in deportment and dress are re- vealed. Despite the red dress and androgynous expression, the kid with a whip and dog — that’s a boy. There are no known instances of a girl being portrayed holding the whip, a symbol of men’s roles managing horses and transportation.It is too bad that little is known about the artist, Mary Tucker. John Brewster, one of the most beloved personalities in portraiture of this period, traveled prodigiously in search of commissions. With her deer-in-the-headlights expression, rosy cheeks and sullen expression, we do not know what is going on with little Mary Coffin, painted by Brewster around 1810. The catalog entry suggests that the strange object in her hand was a tool used for quickly drying wet ink or a rat- tle. Under different circumstances and in a different age, I might guess a Molotov cocktail. I want to know what became of this Mary. Deacon Robert Peckham of Westminster in Worcester County is an underappreciated master. His portrait of two girls with fashion-forward hairdos, signature coral necklaces and Mona Lisa gazes is the quintessence of childhood, cir- ca 1830. The vigor of Peckham’s conception makes it all the more frustrating that this and so many other sitters remain unknown. There is something disturbing about the fact that the identity of someone who might have been my grand- mother’s grandmother has been lost to history. We know how this happened. For all their gifts and talents, too many antiques dealers buried provenance out of fear of revealing their sources to competitors. Additionally, Modernism emphasized design and aesthet- ics at the expense of the historical record. Out with the an- cestor portraits, in with the proto-modernist, flattened, qua- si-abstract perspective. The problem with the Modernist ap- proach is that it alienates object from meaningful context. In the early 1980s, when I was starting out as a museum cura- tor, one of the most prominent dealers of the time said to me with a straight face that “a provenance and 50 cents won’t buy you a cup of coffee.”Though I am sure that he would not say that now, a lot of damage has been done. Histories have been destroyed and finishes stripped.We should not love our antiques quite to death. “American Folk Art, Lovingly Collected” features a won- derful overmantel painting and fireboard from a house in Ashland, Mass. I hope someone knows more about its prov- enance and original context. Details matter. Nina Fletcher Little snapped up dozens of architectural paintings on board in the course of researching and writing American Deco- rative Wall Painting: 1700–1850, one of the great scholarly achievements of its generation. Some of the paintings were salvaged from houses that are no longer with us. Others were pried off walls under the worst circumstances — again, to bury provenance and protect sources — severing the con- nection to history. Students in the female academies that proliferated in the early Republic produced some of the most fascinating art of that era. Theirs is an astonishing legacy. A foremost exam- ple of needlework in the Krasheses’ collection is a mourning picture that Mary Chapin Warren of Grafton, Mass., made around 1815 to remember her sister Polly. A few examples of painted furniture round out this pre- sentation, complementing a show-stopping blanket chest at- tributed to Nehemiah Randall, a house carpenter in Belcher- town,Mass.With its boldly fluted ovals,architectural dentils, cornice and corner fans, the circa 1810 chest echoes the era’s ornate interior woodwork and is a tribute to a joyful epoch in rural New England. A champion of the past,William Hosley of Enfield, Conn., is the founder and principal of the cultural resources consulting firm Terra Firma Northeast. He previously directed the New Haven Museum & Historical Society and Connecticut Land- marks, and served as curator of American decorative arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Hosley writes and speaks exten- sively on American art and history. Overmantel, artist unidentified, circa 1830, probably eastern New Hampshire. Oil on wood, 335/8 by 443/16 inches. “American Folk Art, Loving- ly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum. Blanket chest attributed to Nemiah Randall (1770–1850), probably Belcher- town, Mass., circa 1810. Paint on white pine, metal hardware; 34½ by 42 by 19 inches. “American Folk Art, Lovingly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum. Overmantel, artist unidentified, circa 1800, found in Ashland, Mass. Oil on wood, 26 by 47¾ inches. “American Folk Art, Lovingly Collected” at the Worcester Art Museum. Guests toured the galleries at the May 1 opening of “Kindred Spirits: A.B. Wells, Malcolm Watkins and the Origins of Old Sturbridge Village.” Old Sturbridge Village. A regionally based middle class, a term no one used in the Nineteenth Century, was born out of the conditions of the rich, water-powered interior world of plenty that was Worcester County, Mass. This source land for American folk art gave birth to, and is the essence of, Old Sturbridge Village. It is also what inspired Barbara and David Krashes to tell the story of their chosen place. Exhibitions at Old Sturbridge Village and the Worcester Art Museum honor the passion for place that inspires many great collectors and collections.