Living history: A New England couple reanimates the past

Catskill Landscape by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), 1846, hangs above a mantel in the front parlor on which stands a pair of Chinese style faience vases from the Nevers manufactory, France, c. 1680. On the c. 1750-1780 RhodeIsland maple porringer-top tea table is the English delft­ware plate shown in Fig. 19. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.

In an upstairs bedroom, a joined, carved, and painted oak one-drawer sunflower chest of about 1675 to 1710 survives in nearly pristine condition, much of its old surface and original paint intact (see Fig. 15). Possibly from the Wethersfield area shop of émigré craftsman Peter Blin, it previously belonged to the New York collector Eric Martin Wunsch, whose name also attaches to a 1710 to 1730 veneered walnut Boston dressing table with a cross-stretcher base in the front parlor (Fig. 7). Of the latter, Christie's deputy chairman John Hays, a longtime friend, says, "It landed in the right collection. It is one of the great surviving William and Mary dressing tables." He cites as virtues the beauty of the veneered case, the shape of its apron, and the emphatic turnings of the legs.

The couple was thrilled when Liverant offered them a cherry flat-top high chest of drawers with its original china steps that was probably made in Hebron or Colchester, Connecticut, be­tween 1760 and 1780 (Fig. 5). To their delight, construction details suggest that the piece is from the same shop as an imposing cherry bonnet-top high chest acquired years ago from Arons (Fig. 8). The lat­ter, as described by Thomas P. and Alice K. Kugelman in Connecticut Valley Furniture, shows the influence of Windsor, Con­necticut, cabinetmaker Eliphalet Chapin in the distinctive intertwined vine carving that decorates its top drawer. 

Dating to the first quarter of the eighteenth cen­tury, a William and Mary easy chair with shaped crest, baluster turned stretchers, and Spanish feet is believed to be the only known example still in private hands (Fig. 2). "It is probably one of our three best pieces of furniture," the husband says.

Another rare piece is an unusual mahogany table with a molded octagonal top and splayed block-and-ring turned legs (see Fig. 1). It dates to about 1720 to 1740 and is thought to have descended in the Franklin family of Massachusetts.

The couple's appreciation for the world of antiques extends to its storied figures, among them Katharine Prentis Murphy, a tastemaker who presented early New England rooms to several museums. For­merly on view at the New-York Historical Society, thanks to Murphy's generosity, and now in the col­lectors' kitchen is a pair of portraits identified as Penelope Pelham of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and her brother Nathaniel that dates to about 1650 (see Fig. 9). "These portraits inspired us to collect silver and ceramics of the same period," says the wife, pleased to imagine that John Singleton Copley, whose widowed mother married the portrait painter and engraver Peter Pelham, might have been distantly related by marriage to the brother and sister. 

Also in the kitchen are two examples of late seventeenth-century Massachusetts furniture, a maple and ash turned great chair attrib­uted to Ephraim Tinkham II of Plymouth County, and a sophisticated walnut Boston chest of drawers with London style joinery.

"I got interested in decoys in the 1960s and today mostly buy birds by the Cape Cod carver A. Elmer Crowell. He is the Remington of duck sculpture," the husband says, leading the way to a rustic sitting room (Fig. 12), a black Labrador retriever padding amiably alongside. An enthusi­astic sportsman, the husband met Stephen O'Brien Jr. on a fishing trip in the Florida Keys nearly fifteen years ago. "It was a memorable day. As it turned out, we shared a passion for duck hunting and Crowell carvings," says O'Brien, a specialty dealer and auctioneer, who helped assemble what he thinks may be, given its breadth and attention to quality, the best collection of Crowells anywhere. Commissioned by Harry V. Long, a preening pintail drake is one of many stars (visible in front of the shelf clock in Fig. 12). Considered a mas­terwork, it is closely related to a record-setting preening pintail drake made by Crowell for Dr. John C. Phillips around 1915.

The room also accommodates paintings by Alfred Jacob Miller and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait from the couple's extensive holdings of views of the American West as well as watercolors of grouse by Frank Weston Benson, the Massachusetts-born painter and printmaker who, like Crowell, is considered a master of the genre.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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