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. 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 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.