Jobe is best known for his 1993 book Portsmouth Furni----ture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast. The Ports------mouth project convinced him of the necessity of thorough fieldwork: assembling groups of furniture allowed him to see broader patterns of design, construction, consumption, and use. Before the idea of the comparable Southeastern Massachusetts Furniture Project had taken shape, he told an audience in New Bedford in March 2003 that a careful assessment of the region’s furniture was needed. “Suddenly, I knew I couldn’t resist taking on the subject myself,” he recalls.
Since the infancy of American decorative arts scholarship, advances have been made by gifted enthusiasts driven by curiosity and passion for their material. Jobe recruited several such individuals as research partners: Derin Bray, a recent Winterthur graduate now with Northeast Auctions in New Hampshire; Jack O’Brien, a Massachusetts teacher and Americana specialist affiliated with Leigh Keno Traditional/Modern in New York; and Gary R. Sullivan, a Sharon, Massachusetts, antiques dealer who had quietly collected information on local makers of clocks and their cases for twenty-five years. Boston conservator Robert D. Mussey Jr., the author of The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour (2003), vetted many of the team’s discoveries.
Intensive fieldwork conducted mainly in 2005 and 2006 took the team to 70 towns, 120 private collections, and 100 historical organizations. The New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Nantucket Historical Association had the most remarkable public holdings of southeastern Massachusetts furniture, but small museums such as the 1749 Spooner House, administered by the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, yielded unexpected treasures as well. One was a mahogany dressing table of about 1760 to 1775, probably acquired by the Plymouth merchant Ephraim Spooner soon after his marriage in 1763.5
Finding objects with local histories also required tapping into the long memories of pickers, the discreetly assiduous foot soldiers of the antiques trade. “One of our great joys was meeting the dealer Henry Brownell and others like him, who shared their stories and insight into local craftsmanship,” Jobe says. “Henry bought from old families in the region. He knew where everything in his house came from, and everything came from within twenty miles of Fall River.” Eight of Brownell’s finds (see Fig. 4) are illustrated in the catalogue to Harbor and Home, a lasting tribute to the lifelong dealer who died early last year.
The researchers canvassed Plymouth, Bristol, Barnstable, Nantucket, and Dukes Counties, an area roughly the size of Delaware. They concluded that, influenced by a web of family, religious, cultural, and commercial ties, southeastern Massachusetts craftsmen in the eighteenth century looked to the major cabinetmaking centers of Boston and Newport for stylistic direction. Broadly speaking, artisans in the port towns of the old Plymouth Colony, from Scituate to Plymouth and along Cape Cod, were attentive to Boston styles (see Fig. 14), while Bristol County residents, especially those along the Taunton River or in the border towns of Swansea, Rehoboth, and Dartmouth (see Fig. 13), were attuned to Newport. Perhaps not surprisingly, the team noted that the furniture made in southeastern Massachusetts tended to be simpler than the high-style products of Boston and Newport. In addition, they found that early residents often supplemented their furnishings with imported goods not only from those cities but also from elsewhere: windsor chairs from Philadelphia, fancy chairs from New York, and clocks from England and the Continent.
“But people often did not know what they had,” says Jobe of their search. “We were able to provide context, which was key to making identifications.” In all, the researchers located more than two thousand objects, some previously unknown, and compiled a list of more than one thousand artisans, indexed in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Casting such a wide net imposed its own huge demands: in all, 140 pieces of furniture were photographed at improvised sets in Sharon, Hingham, Taunton, and Orleans in 2006 and 2007.