Kentucky Sideboard

November 4, 2012

Earlier this year, The Speed Museum purchased an extraordinary Kentucky-made sideboard. Its complex profile, richly figured veneers, precise inlays, and the exceptional quality of its craftsmanship place it among the most ambitious Kentucky sideboards to have survived from the early nineteenth century. It was made between about 1800 and 1815, probably in Lexington or its surrounding area.

It is not known who originally owned the sideboard. The previous owner, Robert Brewer, acquired it from Eleanor Hume Offutt, one of the most important early dealers of Kentucky antiques; she had opened Wilderness Trail Antiques in Frankfort in the late 1920s. He purchased the sideboard in 1951at the urging of his mother, Juliet Goddard Brewer, an influential early collector of Kentucky antiques and an outspoken advocate for preserving Kentucky’s architectural heritage. In this short video, Robert Brewer describes the unique circumstances surrounding his purchase on the day he shipped out for Navy service in the Korean War.

Sideboards have symbolized status throughout their history. In the Middle Ages, wealthy diners might sit to eat at a “side-board”, a type of table set along the side of a room. By the late seventeenth century, the “side-board” had evolved into a service piece, used to hold wine bottles, silver, dishes of food, and other items. The sideboard as we recognize it today, offering a combination of storage and display, developed in the eighteenth century. Within its drawers and compartments, owners stored textiles, silverwares, liquor, candles, and similar domestic goods until they were needed for use. Early nineteenth-century Kentucky: estate inventories and other documentary sources show that sideboards were often among the most expensive pieces of furniture one could own.

Inlay had become the preferred decorative treatment for fashionable American furniture in the late eighteenth century. The cost of inlaid furniture was considerably higher than for plain examples, so most furniture made in Kentucky in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries would have had little, if any, of the inlaid decoration affordable only for those who had the economic means to pay beyond the utility of an object. In Kentucky, regional differences in inlay styles and patterns evolved and today frequently assist in the identification of local schools of early Kentucky cabinetmaking. For example, though the form and inlay of this sideboard were influenced by Baltimore cabinetmaking practices, the decoration on its legs exhibits a distinctive bellflower and line pattern. Similar decoration has only been found on a few other Kentucky pieces, all of which most likely came from the same maker or shop. To date, the group includes The Speed’s sideboard, a pair of dining table ends, and possibly a blockfront card table.

Fortunately, Robert and Kathy Brewer treated this sideboard with great care for over sixty years. As a result, the sideboard remains relatively undisturbed. Preserving, analyzing, and understanding its layers of history became a team effort between furniture conservators, an analytical laboratory, and The Speed’s curators. Several months of conservation treatment and technical analysis included microscopic examinations of wood samples as well as x-ray fluorescence spectrometry and Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy to analyze the compositions of different materials. Some of the discoveries?

  • The sideboard retains an old finish history comprised of shellac coatings. Shellac is made by dissolving in alcohol the resins secreted by particular types of insects, including the so-called lac beetle.
  • The wood used to make the inlay along the bottom edge of the sideboard is most likely eastern hophornbeam, a hard, heavy wood that grows in Kentucky but rarely seems to have been used by early Kentucky cabinetmakers.
  • Three of the “bone” shields around the keyholes are twentieth-century replacements made from celluloid, an early type of plastic.

During conservation, one of the celluloid shields was replaced with a new one made of bone; two celluloid examples still remain.


Great Kentucky Antiques Given to Speed Art Museum

September 6, 2011

Even as the Speed Art Museum’s exhibition, Quilts from Kentucky and Beyond: The Bingham-Miller Family Collection was opening back in June (it closes on September 18), I was already working on the next big thing to hit the Speed:

Silhouette of Cassius Clay by William Henry Brown, 1845

The arrival of almost 120 pieces of nineteenth-century Kentucky furniture, silver, ceramics, textiles, paintings, and works on paper. This extraordinary trove of great Kentucky art was given to the Speed by Bob and Norma Noe. The Noes, both Kentucky natives, assembled the collection over the course of thirty years. Their generous gift makes the Speed’s Kentucky collection the best in the country.

Mason-Fleming-Lewis County, Kentucky, chest of drawers, 1795-1810

Over sixty highlights from the collection are now on view in the exhibition, Kentucky Antiques from the Noe Collection: A Gift to the Commonwealth. If you want to hear Bob Noe talk about his experiences as a collector, check out this and this.

To learn more about the Noes’ gift, read the whole press release.


Kentucky Quilts Are Here!

June 28, 2011

The Speed’s new exhibition, Quilts from Kentucky and Beyond: The Bingham-Miller Family Collection is now open and will remain so until September 18. It features 39 quilts, including ten Kentucky-associated quilts made between 1850 and 1940.

Preparing quilt for display

One of the best Kentucky quilts (and, in my opinion, the best quilt in the exhibition) arrived just a week before the show opened after it had…sneaked away…for several years! It was made between 1860 and 1870, probably in Henderson County, Kentucky (though possibly in Jefferson County). Its design is remarkably similar to a Logan County quilt by Virginia Mason Ivey in the Speed’s collection. The exhibition brings these two wonderful quilts side-by-side for the first time.

Quilt, 1860-1870, probably by Emma Bridges, Henderson County, Kentucky

Quilt, about 1860, by Virginia Mason Ivey, Logan County, Kentucky


Kentucky Quilts Are Coming!

May 5, 2011

On Sunday, June 19, the Speed Art Museum will open the exhibition Quilts from Kentucky and Beyond: The Bingham-Miller Family Collection. Drawn from an outstanding private collection, this exhibition of almost forty American quilts will include a selection of great Kentucky quilts dating from the antebellum era to the twentieth century. The exhibition will close on September 18. Watch for an update as we install the quilts next month!

Schoolhouse Quilt, about 1920. Kentucky


Treasures from the Kentucky Historical Society

February 3, 2011

The Kentucky Online Arts Resource, a project of the Speed Art Museum, is pleased to add the Kentucky Historical Society to the site’s growing list of museum partners!

KOAR now features several highlights from Kentucky Historical Society’s exhibition, Great Revivals: Kentucky Decorative Arts Treasures. Curated by Estill Curtis Pennington, the exhibition brings many of KHS’s best pieces together in a single installation at the Old State Capitol in Frankfort.

Among my favorites: a terrific example of “art-carved” furniture with carved decoration by Kate Perry Mosher of Covington, Kentucky (located just across the river from Cincinnati). I first saw this cabinet several years ago in one of KHS’s storage areas and was blown away the quality of Mosher’s work. Her carvings of herons, Kentucky cane plants, and other plant forms reflect great skill and a great eye for design.

Cabinet

Cabinet with carving by Kate Mosher, 1892

Mosher learned from a master: Cincinnati’s Benn Pitman, the godfather of Cincinnati’s late nineteenth-century art-carved furniture movement. Pitman established a wood carving program at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1873. Like Mosher, many students of art carving were women. She ranked among the best, exhibiting her work at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.


Documented Kentucky Furniture Now Available

January 27, 2011

Click on over to the Kentucky Online Arts Resource (KOAR) and you’ll find some great new additions, notably sixteen pieces of Kentucky furniture from one of the state’s best private collections. You can see a few highlights on KOAR’s Recent Additions page.

Many of the pieces can be tied to particular locales, owners, and even makers. In some cases, the connection comes through a piece’s provenance. One of my favorites: an elegant gaming table that descended in the Brown family of Frankfort.

Brown Family Gaming Table, 1800-1810

In other cases, the owners’ passion for research helps us reconnect the furniture to its original context. An imposing tall clock, made as early as the late eighteenth century (a fairly rare thing with surviving Kentucky furniture), can be tied to William Calk, an early settler, thanks to the collectors’ research. Calk’s 1775 account of his journey from Prince William County, Virginia to Kentucky makes for interesting reading.

Calk Family Tall Clock, 1790-1810

Along with furniture, new additions from the same collection include several examples of decorated stoneware.


Silver in Kentucky, 1800-1860

December 10, 2010

I’m pleased to announce the opening of Silver in Kentucky, 1800-1860, a new installation at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum. The exhibition features over twenty-five outstanding examples of silver hollowware, including pitchers, tea sets, and other forms. All come from the state’s finest private collection of Kentucky silver.

Along with the work of well-known Kentucky silversmiths like Asa Blanchard (about 1770-1838), the exhibition also includes pieces by less familiar makers like Charles Plimpton (working from at least 1814). Judging by period advertisements, Plimpton was more active in Lexington as a “silver plater” than as a silversmith, perhaps explaining the relative scarcity of silver pieces with his mark.

Charles Plimpton's mark

Other highlights include: an extremely rare coffee or hot water urn bearing the mark of Lexington’s George Stewart (active in Kentucky from about 1857 until about 1864), a Stewart horse racing trophy for the 1846 Chiles Stake, and an Asa Blanchard teapot that retains an old, and perhaps original, cloth strainer bag mounted on a silver collar.

Photos of pieces in the exhibition, including images of their marks, will appear on the Kentucky Online Arts Resource in early 2011. (As you can see from the image below, photographing the pieces wasn’t a point-and-shoot operation!)

Photographing a George Sharp, Jr. pitcher