Dining with Antiques

Bruce Shostak with photographs by Pieter Estersohn Furniture & Decorative Arts, Living with Antiques

American figured maple chairs of c. 1820 surround a twenty-year-old reproduction tiger maple table set with early nineteenth-century Wedgwood creamware dishes and compotes, Parisian porcelain cups and saucers, and vintage American glass and rococo revival silver. The two large c. 1881 Staffordshire figures on the mantel depict Ira David Sankey (left) and Dwight Moody, nineteenth-century American evangelists who were immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Twenty-five years ago we bought our 1822 Federal house in the Hudson River valley, and it has now passed its two-century mark in age. We were a new couple back then and yearned for a place to settle, a place with a sense of history and permanence. Each of us, the last child at home when the homes broke up, now has lived in a house longer than either of us had ever lived in any one place before.

Waking up the first morning in the house was the beginning of a wonderful journey. We agreed with one another that we must always listen to the house and property and buy old things as much as possible. That led to a mad hunt to fill and furnish the house, which started and continued with visits to countless dealers’ shops and to countless antiques fairs on the Eastern Seaboard.

My own obsession during this search was to have more than enough supplies to be able to set tables and host parties—whether for a few friends over a weekend, for a birthday brunch for a pal and twenty guests, or for a holiday party for eighty. I have been quoted as saying “I never set the table the same way twice.” My goal has always been to share, to be generous, and to create a special and possibly unusual experience for everyone, whether close friends or new acquaintances. So I have been building a collection of stacks of dishes and platters, shelves of stemware, and drawers of flatware for decades, all with one thing in mind: to be with fellow travelers and entertain.

Having an old American house of the early nineteenth century has been a gateway to collecting American, French, and English antiques of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That era has always been our sweet spot. And our goal has always been to respect the house—a strong taskmaster—and be period-ish. We paid special attention to the convivial, antiques-abundant atmosphere that interior decorator Henry Davis Sleeper (1878–1934) conjured at Beauport, his harbor-side mansion in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As devoted readers of this magazine, we have the great and singular pleasure to be able to share how we use our house and antiques to celebrate friends, history, and our good fortune.

In the living room, a mix of Federal furniture and Louis XVI-style chairs conjures the ambiance that Americans who had returned from stays in Paris created in their homes during the early years of the Republic. The wallpaper panel, a scene from the Joseph Dufour’s panoramic Psyche series, printed c. 1870–1889 from the original 1815 woodblocks and purchased from Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz at the Winter Antiques Show, provides a backdrop for sharing tea and sweets.
A silver Directoire bouillotte lamp and brass New York andirons, from Stair Galleries auctions in Hudson, New York, provide glow and warmth for afternoon tea.
A silver Georgian tea urn sits atop an early nineteenth-century mahogany drop-leaf table, possibly from the workshop of Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854), purchased from Levy Galleries in New York. The table is flanked by Regency-era chairs; a large portrait medallion of George Washington made around the time of the 1876 Centennial hangs on the wall above.
The classical columnar-form pier table, an iconic piece of New York City furniture made around 1815, is laden for a drinks gathering in the upstairs room we call the “snuggery.”
The small early nineteenth-century mahogany worktable in the corner, most likely made in Albany, New York, holds a collection of small mid-nineteenth-century marble mourning relics and a Parian figure of George Washington from later in the same century.
An important c. 1825 desk-and-bookcase from the Albany workshop of John Meads (c.1777–1854) was featured in a full-page ad in The Magazine ANTIQUES. At first, we glanced at it and thought it was the one the great curator Wendy Cooper bought for the Baltimore Museum of Art. Then we realized our error and immediately got on the phone with Connecticut antiques dealer Charles Clark. Here it is.
Another piece of New York furniture attributed to the workshop of Duncan Phyfe, a server that fits perfectly between the windows and was acquired from Levy Galleries, is surmounted by a pair of vintage twentieth-century tole pagodas from antiques dealer John Rosselli in New York. The c. 1790 Chinese export porcelain punch bowl commemorates a naval battle in the Caribbean. The Regency convex mirror is from Susan Silver Antiques in Sheffield, Massachusetts.
The table is set for dinner using late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century neoclassical allegorical Staffordshire figures and topiaries to suggest an allée. The English dishes are stamped “Semi-China” on the bottom. I like guests to be in charge of their own destinies where wine service is concerned. The individual cut-glass decanters were collected over the years from the shop Fisher London.
A Federal-era portrait in the manner of Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) presides over the dining room, flanked by American girandoles representing stylized Native American warriors from Charles Clark.
The vivid yellow glossy paint on the walls of the dining room reproduces the original paint used in the room in the 1820s. An English Regency coal hod and music stand provide visual balance for a collection of mostly Wedgwood basalt ware, all c. 1800, on an unusually large English mahogany dumbwaiter of the same period.