Harbor & Home

Serendipitous events led to major breakthroughs. “In 1988 I bought a really wonderful tall-case clock with works made by Joshua Wilder of Hingham,” says Sullivan. “I paid what was a pile of money at the time and had to sell it because I couldn’t afford to keep it. Inside the hood, the dial mat was inscribed ‘Abiel White Apr. 2d 1823 maker.’ I checked my references and found that nothing had been written about White. That got me really interested in learning more about him and other makers of clock cases.”

In October 2004 Sullivan skipped a Red Sox World Series playoff game to hear Jobe speak at the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, a lecture also attended by Mussey, the Cape Cod collector and researcher Bill Maurer, and the clock scholar and author Paul J. Foley. In an informal conversation afterward, Jobe learned of their research and discovered that Abiel White and Abner Hersey (1773– 1849) had apprenticed with Stephen Badlam Sr. (1751–1815), one of Boston’s foremost cabinetmakers. Sullivan urged Jobe to be on the lookout for examples of White’s and Hersey’s work.

Lightning struck a month later. Flipping through a catalogue issued by Carmen D. Valentino, a Philadelphia dealer in rare books and manuscripts, Jobe stumbled on an advertisement for White’s account book. Afraid that the crucial document might slip through their hands, Sullivan, who selected the clocks for the exhibition and catalogue, purchased the account book and provided Winterthur with a copy. “The existence of an account book of a known cabinetmaker working in southeastern Massachusetts opened up a whole new avenue for research and documentation,” says Jobe. “Although nearly a dozen such books for southeastern Massachusetts woodworkers survive, White’s is of special importance because it records the activities of someone who worked nearly full time in the furniture trade, making literally thousands of pieces over the course of his career.”

“We found more groups of things than I originally thought we might, but very few pieces were signed,” says Jobe. “After examining hundreds of pieces of furniture, we could separate some of them into groups and link them to their makers through a study of furniture construction details, inscriptions, and woods.” After exhaustively reviewing the documentary evidence—including town histories, court records, deeds, probate materials, and newspaper advertisements—O’Brien and Bray were able to limn detailed portraits of six artisans: White, Lemuel Tobey (1749–1820) of Dartmouth, Simeon Doggett (1738–1823) of Middleborough, Ebenezer Allen Jr. and Cornelius Allen of New Bedford, and Samuel Wing (1774–1854) of Sandwich.6

Sullivan, who began repairing broken furniture from his parents’ attic at fifteen and became a full-time antiques dealer three years later, made some of the project’s most important findings, tracing the activities of the Bailey family of Hanover (see Fig. 1), which over three generations shaped southeastern Massachusetts’s vibrant clockmaking industry by training nearly one-third of the 115 clockmakers who worked in the area before 1850. The Baileys are credited with introducing the South Shore’s signature form, the dwarf clock, which first appeared in the shops of John Bailey II and his brother Calvin Bailey (1761–1835) by 1810. The form came to be closely associated with the Bailey apprentice Joshua Wilder, who, often working in consort with White, created some of the Federal era’s most beautiful timepieces (see Fig. 11).

One key revelation made in the research for the project-—first detailed in the pages of Antiques in May 2007—is that the Bristol County brothers Ebenezer and Cornelius Allen were nephews of the celebrated Newport cabinetmaker John Goddard (1724–1785), who likely took Ebenezer as his apprentice.7 Goddard’s influence is clear in a mahogany chest-on-chest of 1785 to 1790 the researchers found to be signed by Cornelius Allen (Figs. 12, 12a). A careful study of its design, construction, and markings (including the signature) not only helped them to identify other Allen pieces but was crucial to establishing Newport’s dominant influence throughout the region.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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