MESDA and the Study of Early Southern Decorative Arts

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

It has become almost a folk legend among decorative arts scholars: the story of Joseph Downs (1895 – 1954), then curator of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, announcing at the 1949 Williamsburg Antiques Forum that “little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore.”1 The comment prompted an offended woman from Kentucky to ask whether Downs spoke from prejudice or ignorance.

At the time, the unfortunate gaffe threw down the gauntlet, so to speak, inspiring collectors of southern decorative art to prove Downs wrong. The first large public effort in this regard was the seminal 1952 Loan Exhibition of Southern Furniture 1640 – 1820, spearheaded by the editorial consultant to The Magazine ANTIQUES, Helen Comstock, and produced by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Among those who contributed to the exhibition was Frank L. Horton (1918 – 2004), a meticulous researcher and ardent collector with a mind like a computer and a penchant for organization that even the most sophisticated computer would have a hard time duplicating. Horton and his mother, Theodosia “Theo” Taliaferro (1891 – 1971), loaned to the exhibition the mid-seventeenth-century Virginia court cupboard shown in Plate IV, which many consider to be one of the earliest extant examples of Virginia furniture.

Horton was determined that a museum dedicated to the study of southern decorative arts was an essential follow-up to the 1952 exhibition. His natural proclivity for recognizing significant information about them made him the perfect advocate for the study of southern decorative arts. Due in large part to his efforts, the field continues to flourish today. Horton’s contribution was the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MEDA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary as the only institution in the country dedicated to the study of the pre-industrial decorative arts from North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The core of the museum’s holdings is the collection of the founders, Frank Horton and his mother, whose gradual donations culminated in the gift of 284 objects in 2000.

The museum opened in January 1965 with fifteen period rooms and four galleries in a reconfigured Kroger grocery store building at the south end of Main Street in Old Salem, a restored Moravian town in Winston-Salem. The period room woodwork was salvaged from southern structures in danger of demolition or reproduced from examples in surviving southern houses. The woodwork from the Charleston Parlor (see cover), for example, was reproduced by John Bivins Jr.  from the Humphrey Sommers house (c. 1769 – 1770) which still stands in Charleston. The furnishings in the room were all made in Charleston between 1750 and 1775. Horton had been instrumental in the restoration of Old Salem and the opening of the town as a museum composed of historic houses and shops. MESDA was created as a part of Old Salem and remains so today. The museum has grown to include twenty-four period rooms and seven galleries.

Shortly after Horton and his mother donated the funds in 1960 to purchase the building that would house MESDA, an editorial in the Winston-Salem Journal noted “the value of such a museum, both to the [Old Salem] restoration project and to the cultural life of the country, cannot be over emphasized.”2 Alice Winchester, the editor of The Magazine ANTIQUES, called the opening of MESDA, “the most significant event in this field since the 1952 exhibition.”3

As Horton sought out southern antiques, first for the Old Salem buildings and later for MESDA, he carefully documented even the examples he did not purchase. By 1972 Horton and his staff at the museum determined that it was essential to formalize their efforts to record southern decorative arts, and with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities they established the field research program whereby objects identified by Horton and field researches as southern and made prior to 1820 were photographed and carefully described. Today there are nearly thirty thousand such records in the MESDA Research Center under the title Catalogue of Early Southern Decorative Arts, which is consulted by hundreds of scholars each year. Horton also initiated a complementary program to search historical documents such as newspapers and court records for information about craftsmen working in the South and the products of their shops. This electronic database called the Index of Early Southern Artists and Artisans now documents more than seventy-five thousand artisans working in 126 different trades prior to 1821.

At the 1972 Williamsburg Antiques Forum, Horton gave a lecture in which he celebrated the many findings in the field of southern decorative arts between 1949 and 1972. He spoke of the field as ripe with possibilities for discovery and research.4 Horton always considered the context of the objects recorded by the research program to be as important as the objects themselves. In this sense, he was a devotee of material cultural before the field of material culture blossomed into what it is today. More than one beneficiary of MESDA’s abundant resources has argued that Horton’s approach, and by extension of MESDA’s approach, changed the standard for decorative arts documentation and scholarship.

A desire to share the results of the research and collecting programs at MESDA has resulted in a variety of educational programs and publications through the years. In his introduction to the first issue of the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts in 1975, Horton describes the museum’s field research and document-reading programs and ends by saying, “It is, as you see, time to tell you something of our findings, thus the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts. We hope it will grow.”5 Other publications include the Frank L. Horton Series of Decorative Arts Monographs, and there are programs such as the graduate level Summer Institute on Early Southern History and Decorative Arts offered in conjunction with the University of Northern Carolina at Greensboro. These have encouraged the study and publication of information about southern material culture and regional history and greatly increased the consciousness of collectors, scholars, and laymen about their importance.

Bradford L. Rauschenberg served the museum in a variety of capacities over the years and traveled extensively with Horton, documenting objects in the field research program. He recalls many times when objects he and Horton had examined on porches, in barns, and in attics appeared years later cleaned up and displayed in the finest rooms of the house due largely to MESDA’s recognition of the objects as important representatives of southern material culture. As one supporter of the museum recently commented, “MESDA has proven to the nation that the South [and the products of southern artisans] are as important, as classical, as proficient and adept, [and] as desirable as those of any other area of America.”6

When the museum opened in 1965, the court cupboard (Pl. IV) that Horton and his mother had loaned to the 1952 exhibition was once again placed in a position of prominence, this time in the great hall reproduced from Criss Cross Hall (see Pl. X), a house built about 1690 in New Kent County, Virginia. The cupboard has remained there ever since and has become the unofficial symbol of MESDA and its mission to collect, preserve, and study the decorative arts of the early South.

In many ways, the cupboard also represents Horton’s perseverance as a collector and researcher. It descended from a Thomas Vines of York County, Virginia, whose 1737 estate inventory listed an “old cupboard.”7 When it was discovered by the Virginia antiques dealer J. L. Brockwell in the 1920s, it was being used to store smoked hams and tools on the back porch of a Vines family descendant’s house, certainly a humble function for an object, which, when new would have occupied a place of prominence in the house and have been used to display the family’s most valued ceramics, pewter, and silver.

Brockwell exhibited the cupboard at the New York Antiques Exposition in 1929 and later in the shop he ran with his wife, Bessie. When Horton saw the cupboard in the Brockwells’ shop several years later, he was determined to have it. Although it took years to acquire, Horton’s perseverance paid off, and by 1947 he had finally persuaded a now divorced Bessie Brockwell to sell him the cupboard.

One of two southern court cupboards known, this example is the more unusual for its open shelf above an enclosed cabinet. It has frame and panel construction with applied moldings. The turned balusters and the applied half spindles and bosses are ebonized with black paint. Simple incised arches adorn the squared terminals of the balusters that support the top shelf. The cupboard retains its original iron hinges.

Porches as resting places for objects that have declined in value in the eyes of their owners have played an important role in the collecting and documentation efforts of MESDA and the researchers working with Frank Horton through the years. On a summer afternoon in 1977, Horton and Rauschenberg, his ever-present associate in the research program, waited on a porch in Midlothian, Virginia, for the homeowner to let them in to photograph and examine objects identified by a MESDA field researcher earlier that year. While waiting, Rauschenberg spotted an unusual stoneware vessel on the porch that was marked “B. DuVal & Co/Richmond” (Pl. III). A former archaeologist with a particular interest in ceramics, he had never heard of DuVal or any stoneware manufactory in Richmond, Virginia. The construction and shape of the body, neck, lip, and handles indicated a New York influence, resembling vessels from the Crolius potteries (c. 1730 – 1849) in New York City. Still, he wondered if the jug could be from Richmond, England. When the homeowner came to the door; Rauschenberg boldly asked if he could have the jug for the museum. She conceded that it was of no particular value to her and he was welcome to it.

Meanwhile, back at MESDA Rauschenberg had instructed the document researchers who were reading Virginia newspapers from the early nineteenth century to photocopy any advertisements they found concerning previously undiscovered potters. Imagine his surprise when he found the following advertisement on the top of the pile on his desk when he returned from the field trip with his DuVal pot:

RICHMOND STONE WARE – Benjamin DuVal & Son, at the sign of the Golden Mortar, Richmond, have on hand a large assortment of STONE WARE, of superior quality, manufactured in this place by B. Duval & Co., which they will sell at the New York wholesale prices.

Orders for the above or application made at their Medicine Store, will be strictly attended to. They have also for sale, as above, a very extensive assortment of drugs, Medicines, Dye Stuffs, Paints, Oil &c. of genuine quality and on moderate terms.8

            Benjamin DuVal was not a potter himself, but by 1811 he had, “commenced a STONE WARE MANUFACTORY” in which he apparently had potters working for him.9 DuVal indicates competition from New York stoneware, shipped to the South by firms such as the Crolius potteries, by mentioning that he will sell his wares at New York wholesale prices. In several advertisements he compares his products and prices to New York’s. At first he used his pharmacy as an outlet for the wares produced in the pottery manufactory, but later he advertised other outlets. In an 1817 advertisement announcing that he had turned the business over to his son James, DuVal claimed that his Richmond stoneware manufactory was “the first of its kind in this city.”10

            The serendipity of discovering a jug by an unknown Richmond pottery manufactory at the same time that a document researcher discovers evidence of the same business is a truly remarkable testament to the success of combining the recording of objects with information from the written record.

            In many cases MESDA researchers’ field visits have resulted in gifts, bequests, and offers to sell objects to the museum or other public collections decades after the original contact. One such acquisition is a sideboard table (Pl. IX) first examined by MESDA in the 1970s at Mount Airy, the Richmond County, Virginia, house build between 1748 and 1758 by John Tayloe II (1721 – 1779). This and another Mount Airy sideboard table documented by MESDA were designed by William Buckland, an English-trained builder commissioned to complete the interior woodwork of Mount Airy. The tables were carved by William Bernard Sears, who worked for Buckland. They are rare examples of American furniture designed by a builder to complement the interior architectural woodwork of the house for which they were made.

            Much of the interior of Mount Airy was destroyed by fire in 1844. However, Buckland’s first commission in the United States survives – the architectural woodwork in Gunston Hall (built c. 1753 – 1759), the Fairfax County house of George Mason (1725 – 1792). A careful comparison of the two sideboard tables from Mount Airy with interior architectural woodwork at Gunston Hall has convinced scholars of the close relationship between Buckland’s architectural woodwork and the furniture he designed to complement it.11

            The table illustrated in Plate IX was on loan to MESDA briefly in the 1980s when it was the subject of extensive study by Luke Beckerdite, then a research associate at the museum, who published two important articles about Buckland and his work.12 It was not until 1993 that MESDA was given the opportunity to acquire the table for its permanent collection. It is strongly related in design to one in Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director (Fig. 1). A copy of this book was listed in Buckland’s estate inventory taken in 1774.

            One of the remarkable things about MESDA and its research and collecting efforts throughout its forty-year history is the diversity of objects and information that have been recorded. Some of the objects considered most important today served a humble purpose when made. An example is the expressive pottery lion in Plate II, which is believed to have been made as a doorstop by the potter Solomon Bell, but is now called “one of the most magnificent examples of all of the [Shenandoah] Valley modeled ware.”13 It has become one of the most beloved and recognizable objects in the MESDA collection. Sometimes it is the more whimsical wares, such as this lion, that cause collectors and scholars to consider craftsmen artists rather than technicians.

            The Sacrifice of Isaac (Pl. XI), a needlework picture worked in Norfolk, Virginia, by Elizabeth Boush, exhibits not only outstanding technical skill but also considerable artistic flair. Boush completed this remarkable piece in the same year her own portrait was painted by John Durand (w. 1765 – 1782).14 Her work is noteworthy for many reasons, not least because it is the earliest colonial southern example on which the student identifies her teacher: MESDA’s Index of Early Southern Artists and Artisans records the names of many needlework teachers, and its Catalogue of Early Southern Decorative Arts contains photographic files documenting the work of numerous students, many of whom stitched their own names on their works, but it is rare to find a piece that identifies both student and teacher.

            Many boarding schools for girls included instruction in drawing and painting as well as needlework. Although it is not known where Henrietta Johnston received her artistic training, her pastels (see Pls. XIII, XV) have drawn considerable attention because she was the first professional woman artist working in the American colonies. She was the daughter of Cesar de Beaulieu, a Huguenot minister, and his wife Suzanne Du Pre, who fled from France to England about 1685. In 1694 Henrietta married Robert Dering (b. 1669) and moved to Ireland. Her earliest surviving portraits date to the period immediately after Dering’s death about 1700. In 1705 Henrietta married Gideon Johnston (1668 – 1716), who became the commissary for the bishop of London at Saint Philip’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Once in the colony Henrietta Johnston contributed significantly to her family’s income by drawing portraits of Charleston’s Huguenot residents and members of Saint Philip’s Church. Frustrated by debt and misfortune in South Carolina, her husband wrote the bishop in 1709, “Were it not for the Assistance my wife gives me by drawing of Pictures … I shou’d not have been able to live.”15

            These details about Henrietta Johnston’s life and work illustrate MESDA’s impact as a clearinghouse for research into the work of artists and artisans in the South. In 1991 MESDA was host to an exhibition comprising the largest number of Johnston’s extant pastels ever exhibited together. The biography in the catalogue, entitled Henrietta Johnston: “Who greatly helped … by drawing pictures, was written by MESDA’s paintings consultant Whaley Batson. However, the identity of Johnston’s father had eluded Batson as it had every other scholar who had researched Johnston. Recently, the catalogue made its way into the hands of an English descendant of one of Henrietta Johnston’s brothers, who contacted MESDA with the missing information about her parentage. Ironically, the letter arrived the same week that I was writing an entry about the artist for The Encyclopedia of American Folk Art, published in association with the American Folk Art Museum in 2004.

            When the small walnut desk shown in Plate XIV came to the attention of furniture scholars, they believed it to have been made in the Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia or Maryland. The style and construction techniques are strongly associated with England, and walnut was a commonly used primary wood around the Chesapeake in the eighteenth century. The use of cypress as a secondary wood indicated an origin further south along the Atlantic Coast, however. The mystery was solved when one researcher discovered that the desk is stamped “W/CARWITHEN” several times. Fortunately, MESDA’s research files recorded a William Carwithen as advertising as a cabinetmaker in the Charleston South Carolina Gazette on April 21, 1733.

            The use of walnut as a primary woof in Charleston furniture is rare after about 1735, when mahogany came to be favored. The desk Carwithen made and marked is considered to be the earliest signed piece of Charleston furniture. The implement he used to mark the desk was one with which he marked his tools. Stamped marks on furniture other than chairs are unusual on American furniture. Could he have marked the desk as his personal property? Even MESDA’s research files cannot provide all the answers.

            Each of the objects described in this essay bears on an aspect of the museum’s forty-year history of documenting, collecting, and educating in the field of southern material culture and regional history. But even a consideration of all the objects in the MESDA collection would not tell the whole story of the institution. No matter how much information and how many objects are discovered and documented, there is always more to find. As the staff is fond of saying, “MESDA is not just a museum; it’s a state of mind.”