Living with antiques: Shaker

The family has eaten supper at the beautifully simple trestle table shown in Figure 4 for twenty-odd years, almost every night they have spent at their upstate New York farm. Except, of course, when the table is on the road, gracing some museum exhibition. Which is often enough, for this is a superlative example of Shaker design and craftsmanship, made for the elders of the Watervliet, New York, community, the very first Shaker settlement in America, sometime around 1830, in the heyday of the utopian sect’s youth. The table spent the summer and fall of 2007, for example, at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, and the spring of last year in New York City at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts.

Now, though, the table is back, and it seems very much at home in the decidedly contemporary kitchen. It is among friends, after all. The spacious farmhouse is furnished almost entirely with Shaker masterpieces. Together they constitute a remarkable collection, a monument not only to Shaker ingenuity and skill, but also to a twenty-five-year partnership between the dealer John Keith Russell and a very dedicated pair of collectors (who, in the true Shaker spirit, prefer to remain anonymous).

The collection is not huge—fifty to sixty pieces, no more than a hundred even if you count all the objects in sets, such as the eight dining chairs, separately. The quality, though, is superb. The kitchen table, for example, is one of only three  so-called ministry tables in private hands(Fig.4). One compromise was unavoidable—to obtain eight matched chairs for their dining room table (a large, cherry based table (Fig.3) made about 1830 to 1840 at either the Harvard or the Shirley, Massachusetts, Shaker village), the collectors settled for a set made during the 1920s for sale to outsiders (to “the world,” as the Shakers put it) by Brother William Perkins and Sister Lillian Barlow, the last two cabinetmakers at the Mount Lebanon, New York, Shaker village. Otherwise though, aside from one other chair with a rare two-slat back, everything in this collection was made by Shakers for use within their own communities, and for the most part during their classic period, the era before the Civil War when the sect was flourishing, and its members were living largely independent of outside influence.

But it is more than just the quality that sets this collection apart. What distinguishes it in Russell’s view is the owners’ insistence that each piece fills a need in their day-to-day lives. Many collectors want one of every type within a genre, such as Shaker baskets for example; others focus on particular craftsmen or the development of a type—they want, for instance, to own every permutation of the drop-leaf tables made in a particular Shaker community about 1840. Creating such assemblages is exciting and satisfying, but what these particular collectors have done has required investing their lives as well as their funds.

They have also followed the Shaker ethic of keeping only what you can use. When Russell found an irresistible cherry and poplar sewing counter with butternut drawer fronts, used by Eldress Fanny Estabrook, according to Sister Mary Frances Dahm, who sold the piece at the time the Shaker village in Hancock, Massachusetts, was failing, the couple decided it would fit perfectly into a spot in the master bedroom (see Fig. 9). That meant the superb 1840s drop-leaf table that had occupied the place had to be sent back to Russell’s showroom. For the most part though, the collection has been unusually stable: once a piece has been adopted, it is cherished.

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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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