In February 1994 Linda Quynn Ross flew to Massachusetts. A dealer friend had tipped her off about a chest of drawers by the enigmatic Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), cabinetmaker John Shearer. When Ross walked into Skinner auctions the night of the sale she had not even seen a picture of the bureau. “But I saw it immediately and thought, ‘that is a beautiful piece.’ I would have bought it even if it wasn’t Shearer. It was that beautiful.” But it was by John Shearer and Ross resolved to bring it home to the Shenandoah Valley where it had been made. The bidding soon eclipsed what she wanted to spend. Then it reached twice that amount and was not slowing down. Ross’s hand remained in the air. When the auctioneer finally brought down his hammer there was a new record price for a piece of Shearer furniture. Ross had a new chest of drawers. And she had acquired a new nickname: “Miss Shearer Energy.” As the auctioneer moved on, Ross left quickly to celebrate, and to drink a toast to John Shearer.
When the auctioneer finally brought down his hammer there was a new record price for a piece of Shearer furniture. Ross had a new chest of drawers. And she had acquired a new nickname: “Miss Shearer Energy.”
Today that chest of drawers with its tambour kneehole, shell-carved prospect supported by columns, and quarter columns at the corners with carved swags and “fish scales” occupies pride of place in the living room of Ross’s house in downtown Winchester, Virginia, less than thirty miles from where it was made (Fig. 1). Hidden throughout the chest is a riot of conversation. It is signed at least three times; is dated January 1804; calls itself both a “British Bureau” and a “Ladies Bureau”; likely identifies its original owner, “Armande” Wilcox; and celebrates Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) “for vanquishing the Enemies of / his Country.”
The chatty chest is surrounded by an eclectic group of objects. On top is a late eighteenth-century box from Klines Mill in Frederick County, Virginia. To the left is a Shearer table with the maker’s distinctive elongated spade feet, and to the right are a Shenandoah Valley side table and painted box. On top of both tables is pottery by Anthony Weis Bacher, a Bavarian trained potter who immigrated to Winchester by way of New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1853.1 Overlooking it all is a portrait of a little girl by a still unknown artist that Ross purchased at a Winchester auction many years ago. These things all reflect Ross’s love for collecting, and her passion for what she calls “the beautiful things made here.”
Ross grew up in Winchester, a community nestled in the northern end of the Valley of Virginia, about seventy miles from Washington. After a long absence spent in Dallas, Texas, and then restoring a house in Middleburg, Virginia, called Kentfield, she returned to Winchester in 1989 so that her two sons could attend school there. While they were in school she set about restoring their new home, a colonial revival house called Macsfield, which had been built in the early twentieth century for the textile magnate H. B. McCormac (b. 1875), and was modeled after Homewood House in Baltimore. Ross looked to local antiques dealers and auctions to furnish Macsfield and found herself particularly drawn to Shenandoah Valley craftsmen and artists past and present.
She first found herself face-to-face with the work of John Shearer in 1992, when Gary Heimbuch, a local dealer and expert on his work, pulled into her driveway. He said he had a chest of drawers she needed to see. “When he was lifting it off the truck, the first thing I saw were the feet,” Ross recalls, “and they were the most beautiful ogee bracket feet I had ever seen.” Measuring eight inches high, the feet were just the beginning (see Fig. 2). The chest of drawers Heimbuch had in her driveway had large fluted quarter columns with “Chinese weave” carving on the bases and an arched serpentine front framed by oval brasses placed at angles that followed the curves. Deep inside were at least five signatures and the dates 1800 and 1801.