November 5, 2009 | Sometimes you have to move every object in a collection to fully appreciate it. In January the curatorial team at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts did just that. We moved virtually every exhibited object in the museum's galleries and opened our new 45-minute guided tour, called Southernisms: People and Places, in one week's time. Exhausted, and with sore muscles, I had a newly intimate relationship with many of the heavier objects—and some new favorites.
Court cupboard, probably York County, Virginia, 1660-1680. White oak, yellow pine, and walnut. Gift of Frank L. Horton.
This is probably the most iconic object in MESDA's collection, and the first thing visitors see when they begin the new Southernisms tour. It is one of only two southern court cupboards known-the other is at the Wadsworth Atheneaum in Hartford, Connecticut-and one of only a small handful of 17th-century objects that survive from the American South. MESDA is lucky to own more than half of those objects, many of which are displayed in the museum's first gallery. The woodwork in that gallery—installed when the museum first opened in 1965—is a reproduction of the hall at Criss Cross, a 17th-century house in New Kent County, Virginia.
The craftsman responsible for this court cupboard masterfully used different woods to create contrasts between the oak stiles and rails, the yellow pine panels with vibrant bacon-stripe grain (yes, we are a southern museum!), and the ebonized walnut bosses. It descended mother-to-daughter through the Vines, Collier, and Hicks families of York and Brunswick Counties, Virginia—a pattern of matrilineal descent we see repeated with a number of objects in our collection.
Coffeepot by Alexander Petrie (c. 1707-1768) and shop, Charleston, South Carolina, 1750-1760. Silver and wood; height 10 3/8, width 9, depth 4 inches. Gift of Frank L. Horton.
MESDA owns not one, but two coffeepots by the Charleston silversmith Alexander Petrie-this one with plain sides, and the other with chased and repoussé rococo ornament. MESDA also owns a salver and a marrow spoon by Petrie, a Scottish-born craftsmen, is one of the few pre-Revolutionary southern craftsmen for whom a sizeable body of material survives (sizeable in this case meaning fewer than twenty). He was one of the first American silversmiths to work with sheets of silver rolled mechanically, rather than hammered from an ingot. This laborsaving choice allowed him to "mass-produce" objects like our two coffeepots, and then offer them with, or without, additional decoration.
[Compiled by Claudia J. Nahson, Morris and Eva Feld Curator at the Jewish Museum, New York. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazin» View All