Shearer Energy

Ross was hooked. She loved Shearer’s eclectic aesthetic. And she loved the “note in a bottle aspect” of his work. “This was a very smart man,” she says, “I think he knew someone would find the notes one day.” Increasingly, she was the person finding them. Every house, every shop, every sale, every auction where she heard a Shearer piece might be available, she was there. And yet, for a man who said so much inside his furniture, Ross could find out very little about him. In 1979 John J. Snyder Jr. published an article in the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts that purported to identify Shearer, but soon afterwards a piece was discovered with a date that showed that Snyder’s Shearer was the wrong man.2 Despite persistent sleuthing by Ross and others since then, virtually nothing concrete about the man behind the furniture has turned up. Even the meaning of seemingly straightforward statements inscribed in his furniture, like “From Edinburgh 1775,” is unclear. Was 1775 the year he emigrated, or the year of his birth? Was he born in Edinburgh, trained there, or was it merely his place of embarkation? And then there are the politically charged slogans hidden throughout his pieces.3 A number of these are discussed in the article by Elizabeth A. Davison that follows this one.

Following her restoration of Macsfield, Ross and her growing collection of Shearer furniture moved a few blocks away to a house called Carter Hill, built in 1949 by Louise Anderson Patten (1880–1973), a direct descendant of Robert “King” Carter (1663–1732). Patten modeled her house after Mannsfield, a long long-lost Carter family house that had stood along the Rappahannock River. A proud Virginian—her papers and much of her personal collection are now in the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond—Patten even moved a stone wall from Mannsfield to surround her house and garden in Winchester.

Visitors to Carter Hill today enter into a wide center hall with wainscoting, fluted columns, and a wide arch framing a staircase that rises in the back half of the hall, architectural details popular in the grandest eighteenth-century Virginia houses, and even more popular among colonial revival architects in the first half of the twentieth century (see Fig. 3). Ross has a tall-case clock signed by the Winchester clock and instrument maker Benjamin Chandlee in the center hall to help establish a sense of time and place for her visitors. Benjamin was the son of Goldsmith Chandlee (1751–1821), who moved to Winchester in 1775 and was one of several instrument makers there during the late eighteenth century, providing surveyors with the compasses and other tools necessary for their trade.4

Indeed, surveying was important to the development of Winchester and was where a young George Washington got his start as a surveyor at age sixteen. Ross has placed a compass by one of Goldsmith Chandlee’s successors, George B. Graves, on a table with Shearer’s elongated spade feet in an upstairs bedroom (see Fig. 11). Among Shearer’s earliest dated pieces, this table is a particularly Scottish form called a bedroom table, with only one drop leaf.5 The Scottish nature of the form is particularly interesting in light of the message scrawled inside the front rail: “I am a true friend to my King + / country and tell the whole World Round Grate [sic] / Gorge [sic] is King Hurah [sic].” The inscription was discovered in the early twentieth century, when the owner of the table had what was a faux drawer in the serpentine front cut out and made into an operable drawer.

Given Shearer’s affection for the British crown, it is ironic that Ross has paired his other earliest known work, a desk dated 1798, with an 1845 mezzotint engraving of John Trumbull’s General Washington Before the Battle of Trenton of about 1792 (Fig. 5). Washington’s military career began in Winchester, where he was the colonel of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War and the builder of Fort Loudon. Ross, who serves on the board of the French and Indian War Foundation, is fascinated by the young Washington, particularly how the lessons he learned in Winchester helped to shape the leader he would become. The early desk, signed only “Shearer / Joiner” and “Shearer / from / Edin / 1798,” is stylistically tame in comparison with much of the craftsman’s later work. Nonetheless, some of his signature elements are already present, such as the oversized feet and his use of a sliding tambour mechanism made to look like an actual prospect door, with a faux lock and hinges.

By contrast, another desk in Ross’s collection—this one dated 1818—shows Shearer at his most mature (Fig. 6). Acquired in 1999, it has slightly attenuated proportions and proportionately large feet, and the top of the prospect is embellished with a boldly carved oversized shell. The brasses are affixed at odd angles that follow the shape of its arched serpentine front, and the lopers are pierced with so-called Federal knots. This motif, found on many of Shearer’s desks and on some of his tables (see p. 148, Fig. 3), was an early nineteenth-century backcountry design that is thought to allude to the popular perception that the new Federal government was ineffective and hopelessly entangled.6 A tambour mechanism made to look like a prospect door again hides the prospect drawers. The fall board is elaborately inlaid and rests at a particularly steep angle when closed. (The inlay on the desk is discussed in Davison’s article.)

It is tempting to see Shearer’s work as an extreme example of regionalism in furniture, but his aesthetic becomes all the more remarkable when it is compared with the work of other craftsmen working in the corridor between Winchester and Martinsburg. Among his contemporaries in and near Winchester were Christo-pher Frye and James Lee Martin, who influenced a generation of craftsmen whose production stretched as far west as Nashville, Tennessee. At the top of Ross’s staircase stands a chest of drawers with ogee bracket feet and fluted quarter columns that may be related to a group of furniture attributed to the Frye-Martin shop (Fig. 7). It descended in the Lupton family of Apple Pie Ridge, outside of Winchester, where Frye and Martin worked extensively, most notably on furniture for Cherry Row, the house of David Lupton (1757–1822). Winchester cabinetmakers like Frye and Martin were heavily influenced by the forms and styles of the Delaware River Valley. The transference of these styles to Winchester along the Great Wagon Road is evident in a book press in Ross’s living room that exhibits the Frye-Martin shop’s distinctive swan’s neck pediment, with astragal molding below and stop-fluted quarter columns. The feet, which were missing when Ross acquired the piece, were sensitively re-created by Mack S. Headley based on an example in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s collection that came out of Cherry Row.7

[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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