Shearer Energy

Much remains to be discovered about John Shearer. More than any other American craftsman of his age, he wrote his biography in wood, leaving tidbits about himself in every object. In one chest of drawers, on loan from Ross to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, he wrote “By me Shearer Martinsburg / Not by George nor Gregory / Nor men that kind / give them their lifetime to try / and before they will / all give up then + die.” Who George and Gregory were is not clear, but it takes little imagination to see this inscription as a taunt by one craftsman to another.

And still, for a man who said so much, we still know so little. It is hoped that continued research will discover new facts about Shearer, the reasons behind his unique worldview, and his apparently deep need to broadcast those views on drawer bottoms, table frames, and backboards.

Sometimes new discoveries just add to the mystery. In the late 1990s dealer Sumpter Priddy III found the clock that now stands outside Ross’s guest bedroom in a Florida estate (Fig. 8). On the clock’s hood, above the face, is inscribed “Shearer 1814” and at the top of the waist, “For Issac Steere,” similarly incised and picked out in either mastic or paint. Nothing is known for sure about Steere. He may have been the Isaac Steer who began serving his apprenticeship in the Frederick County, Virginia, shop of Lewis Barnett in 1799, just as Shearer was beginning to make his furniture less than thirty miles to the north.8 Is this clock evidence of one of Shearer’s apparently few professional friendships?

One of the things Ross loves about living with Shearer’s furniture is “how it looks at you when you walk in.” It also speaks. Each new discovery gives us another glimpse into the world of a cabinetmaker who worked with “Shearer Energy.”

DANIEL KURT ACKERMANN is associate curator of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and the Toy Museum collections at Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina

1 H. E. Comstock, Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley Region (Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, N. C., 1994), pp. 360–363. 

2 John J. Snyder Jr., “John Shearer, Joiner of Martinsburgh,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, vol. 5, no. 1 (May 1979), pp. 1–25. 

3 Ron-ald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown, Southern Furniture 1680–1830 (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va., 1997), pp. 441–448. 

4 George Barton Cutten, The Silversmiths of Virginia (Dietz Press, Richmond, Va., 1952), pp. 210–211. 

5 The term bedroom table is used to describe a single-leafed table for use in bedchambers in the 1811 Edinburgh Book of Prices, p. 60. Such tables were being made in Scotland at least fifty years earlier, however, in the Edinburgh workshop of Alexander Peter (active 1728–1764), where they are described as “square mahogany tables, one leaf”; see David Jones, The Edinburgh Cabinet and Chair Makers’ Books of Prices 1805–1825 (Kirk Wynd Press, Cupar [Scotland], 2000), p. 5. 

6 Hurst and Prown, Southern Furniture, p.444. 

7 Wallace Gusler, “The Furniture of Winchester, Virginia” American Furniture 1997, pp. 232–241. 

8 Apprenticeship of Isaac Steer to Lewis Barnett, April 2, 1799, Order Book, Frederick County, Virginia, vol. 31, 1798–1799, pp. 358–359, microfilm, MESDA Research Center.

[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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