On the shore of the Piscataqua River, the small city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is approaching the four-hundredth anniversary of its settlement by English immigrants. Although much has changed, portions of the city still retain the air of an early English seaport town, made manifest by its many historic houses, both public and private, that contain important collections of locally made material.


The furniture of the Portsmouth area, which had long been of interest to the collecting world, became the subject of intense scrutiny in the late 1980s by a team of scholars led by Brock Jobe of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). Their efforts resulted in a landmark exhibition in 1992, and an accompanying catalogue, Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast, published in 1993. With introductory essays by James L. Garvin, Johanna McBrien, and Jobe, and with 117 catalogue entries by ten other authors, Portsmouth Furniture instantly became, and has remained, the Bible for studies of the subject.


The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Portsmouth furniture project is upon us, and the Portsmouth Historical Society has prepared a small show that revisits the ground-breaking effort of the early 1990s, while adding a few objects to the record. Four Centuries of Furniture in Portsmouth includes objects made and used in Portsmouth after 1825 (the rough stopping point of the earlier exhibition) and also encompasses a corollary exhibition of contemporary masterpieces by members of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association. The show also includes several examples of vernacular furniture that reflect a genre of furniture that was largely omitted from the previous show. One of the leitmotifs of the exhibition is the gradual transition—as was the case for so many towns—of Portsmouth from a center of furniture production, with a mix of locally produced objects augmented with some imported goods, to its current status as a retail market for objects made elsewhere—even for IKEA furniture—supplemented by works created by a few studio furniture makers still practicing the workmanship of risk.


One lens through which to view this evolution and some of its nuances is the realm of seating furniture, a constant necessity for four centuries. By the early eighteenth century, Portsmouth craftsmen were producing chairs in large quantities not only for local use but for export to ports as far away as Newfoundland. Some local artisans created banister-back chairs (Fig. 1) with carved crests and turned elements that are a significant contribution to the expressive arts of the William and Mary period. Chairs made by members of the Gaines family, such as John Gaines III (Fig. 2), have long been recognized for their distinctive forms, including pierced and carved crests. Vernacular seating furniture, such as slat-back chairs, were produced in larger quantities than the more expensive carved furniture, though unusual examples, presumably made to order, survive (Fig. 3).


One large subset of Seacoast-area seating furniture that has intrigued collectors and scholars for many years is the group of so-called “fish-tail” chairs (Figs. 4, 4a). In the evocative words of Philip Zea in Portsmouth Furniture, these chairs have crest rails with “paired fish-tails perpetually poised for a dive into the briny deep,” and feature “dorsal fins and flukes” fashioned from thin boards with the aid of a template. (Wallace Nutting referred to these elements as “winged rails,” a term perhaps as accurate but far less picturesque.) First identified as a local Piscataqua-area product in 1930 by Walter A. Dyer, as Zea notes, these chairs were probably made by a local chairmaker or turner such as George Banfield (or Banfill), William Dam, John Mills, or Richard Mills. Graphically compelling and linked to the sea, the area’s “fish-tails”—some if not all surely from Portsmouth—represent a local preference that persisted for much of the eighteenth century.


The Portsmouth Furniture exhibition brought to light the work of Robert Harrold, a London-trained craftsman, who arrived in Portsmouth and introduced his version of the English rococo (Fig. 5), drawing on pattern and design books. Fancy-painted seating furniture from the early nineteenth century (Fig. 6) was both made and imported into Portsmouth. After the economic Panic of 1837, Portsmouth’s furniture makers entered a difficult period, many closing their shops because of lack of business caused by debt or competition from cheaper imports. Some imported objects are important documents of local material culture, whether used in the negotiations for the Portsmouth Peace Treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War (Fig. 7) in 1905, or at Rock Rest (Fig. 8), an important African-American guest house in Kittery Point, Maine. Such average-quality objects, from a connoisseurship point of view, are nevertheless powerful, tangible reminders of momentous events and significant aspects of American life. The craft of furniture making continues into the twenty-first century (Fig. 9), with artisans creating reproductions of classic forms as well as craftsmen who put their own spin on today’s “bespoke” work. Furniture making in and around Portsmouth remains a strong tradition.

 


Fig. 1: Banister-back armchair with carved crest, possibly Portsmouth, 1725–1735. Maple, ash. H. 45, W. 25, D. 17 in. Private collection. Photo by Ralph Morang.

Banister-back chairs of this general type were a common form in the early baroque (or William and Mary) period in American furniture. Tall, stately, and with elegant turnings and robustly carved details, they were a staple of chair production throughout New England. This distinctive variant has been attributed to northeastern coastal Massachusetts and, as we are suggesting here, to Portsmouth. Its carving is related to that on a group of chairs, including a pair of side chairs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and at least six other examples in private collections. The carved scrolls and foliage on the crest rails of these chairs bear markedly similar characteristics to carving on at least two other pieces of Portsmouth furniture: an altar table (St. John’s Church) and a dressing table (private collection), both attributed to the cabinetmaker Joseph Davis (w. 1726–1762).


The maple crest rail of this chair, as yet the only known armchair in this group, is masterfully carved and displays evidence at the back of having been riven. The crest here displays a high degree of development—it is surmounted by a foliage-carved broken scroll pediment, while the side chairs have a large C-scroll at the top. Each member of the group, however, has identical notching on all the large scrolls. They all also display leafage at the center, with opposing outward-curling leaves on each side of a central drop, and all are adorned with carved veining. This formula is also seen on the aforementioned altar table and dressing table. In addition, these chairs have double-ball turned side stretchers, a vernacular feature now generally also accepted as part of the design of more formal chairs produced in this area. The result is a tribute to the elegance that defined Portsmouth’s English-based aesthetic since the beginning of the eighteenth century.

 


Fig. 2: Side chair, attributed to John Gaines III (1704–1743). Portsmouth, 1735–1740. H. 39⅞, W. 18¼, D. 19 in. Collection of Craig and Alison Jewett. Photo by Ralph Morang.

Chairmaking was a staple of Portsmouth’s furniture-making industry for much of the eighteenth century. Chairs featuring the design elements seen in this example—the distinctive carved crest rail, vase-shaped splat, shaped skirt, ball-and-ring front stretcher, and turned legs ending in Spanish feet—are associated with John Gaines III, a craftsman trained by his father in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and active in Portsmouth in the second quarter of the century. Key specimens in this attribution are chairs at Strawbery Banke Museum (1998.125) with a history in the Gaines/Brewster family. This chair was from the collection of the famed collector Mitchell M. Taradash (1889–1973).


Like many objects misnamed “transitional” by some authors, or termed “compromise solutions” by others, chairs such as this one exhibit characteristics of more than one of the international styles popular in the period. From the waist down, it could well be from the William and Mary period, while from the seat up it makes a nod to the Queen Anne aesthetic in its solid splat and yoke-shaped crest rail, while still retaining a carved crest that is almost an abstracted echo of the more elaborate carving found on earlier chairs. Such idiosyncratic combinations are popular in many provincial and rural areas.

 


Fig. 3: Slat-back armchair with drinking arm, Portsmouth area, 1735–1770. Maple, ash, pine. H. 47¾, W. 22, D. 17 in. (not including arm). Private collection. Photo by Ralph Morang.

Published in 1921 in Wallace Nutting’s Furniture of the Pilgrim Century, 1620–1720, when it was owned by the legendary dealer Israel Sack, this slat-back armchair exhibits many characteristics of the Seacoast area. But it also sports an unusual feature: a pine “drinking arm,” affixed to the proper left arm support, which both tilts and swivels. When in the horizontal position, as illustrated here, the round surface provides a convenient place about a foot in diameter for such articles as spectacles, reading material, and a mug, cann, or tankard. Reminiscent of a writing-arm Windsor, this device offers less surface area but more flexibility, and is testimony to the New England penchant for inventive, innovative solutions. Although Nutting dates the chair to 1720–30, it probably was made a little later in the eighteenth century. Remarkably, a second example (private collection), probably by the same maker and featuring the same swivel attachment, has also survived.

 

Nutting republished this chair as no. 1868 in his classic Furniture Treasury (1928), when it was owned by R. P. Pauly, an antiques dealer with a shop at 5 Charles Street in Boston, near the corner of Beacon Street and not far from Sack’s shop. Pauly advertised in Antiques magazine in 1922, its first year of publication, and specialized in furniture, although he offered a general assortment of goods. This chair passed through several hands over the years before entering a distinguished private collection.


Fig. 4: Banister-back side chair with fish-tail crest. Portsmouth area, 1740–1790. Maple. H. 43½, W. 19¼, D. 15¼ in. Private collection. Photo by Ralph Morang.
Fig. 4a: Ambrotype of Civil War soldier, ca. 1860s, with chair featuring a fish-tail crest, found in the Kittery, Maine, area. Private collection.

The side chair (Fig. 4) is perhaps the stateliest example of the known fish-tail crest examples. It is the most formal rendition of this locally popular vernacular type, usually seen in more rudimentary expressions, and exhibits a well-designed formula and vigorous components not often seen in the general type. Its turnings are well articulated and boldly conceived, clearly produced by a seasoned master chairmaker. One would perhaps expect to see a carved crest rail on such a finely turned chair, but the fish-tail crest, more common on much simpler chairs, nevertheless serves as a fitting top for this elegant example.


Other features, both turned and molded, also indicate its local production. The ogee-molded stay rail, across the base of the back, shares a commonality with other turned furniture from the area, being related to the molded stretchers on a group of splayed-base tables and to the stay rails and side stretchers on a group of chairs in the Queen Anne style with Spanish feet. The turnings on the front legs also bear similarities to related details on these tables and Queen Anne chairs. The double-ball side stretchers here can also be found on other, more formal banister-back chairs attributed to this area. A different interpretation of this locally popular form is seen in the extraordinary ambrotype (Fig. 4a) of a young Civil War soldier resting his left hand on a chair with this distinctive design.

 


Fig. 5: Armchair, attributed to Robert Harrold (w. 1765–92), Portsmouth, 1765–1775. Mahogany. H. 37½, W. 28, D. 18½ in. Private collection. Photo by Jon Winslow.

This armchair features elements that link it to a large body of related examples attributed to the shop of Robert Harrold, the English immigrant who had such a profound impact on Portsmouth furniture in the rococo or Chippendale style. Its splat design is based on a plate in Robert Manwaring’s pattern book entitled The Cabinet and Chair-Maker’s Real Friend and Companion (1765), a demonstration of the increasing importance of design books in the second half of the eighteenth century.

 


Fig. 6: Side chair, Probably Portsmouth, 1805–18 15. Painted maple, sweet gum, cherry. H. 34⅞, W. 18½, D. 19 in. New Hampshire Historical Society; purchase with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. James L. Garvin (2014.012). Photo courtesy of New Hampshire Historical Society.

This fancy painted side chair bears the brand of Lewis Barnes (1776–1856), its presumed original owner. Barnes, a Swedish immigrant, was a merchant and a sea captain. As befitting a member of the Federal Fire Society in Portsmouth, Barnes apparently took seriously the concept of branding his furniture so that it could be identified and claimed after a potential fire. At least sixteen pieces have survived stamped with his name, as well as at least one of his fire buckets. Barnes lived in a house on Islington Street, fragments of which still survive incorporated into a gas station.


This chair was once part of a large set of eight chairs and two settees that has been dispersed and is now scattered in several public and private collections. Such fancy-painted chairs were made in Portsmouth, but were also imported from New York and elsewhere, and determining their place of manufacture can be difficult. It was a recent gift to the New Hampshire Historical Society from Mr. and Mrs. James L. Garvin, who also gave the Society an elliptic-front chest of drawers (2014.011) branded by Barnes that features many details that link it to high-quality federal-period Portsmouth furniture. Those features include the form of its corner posts, its leg turnings, and the use of a light-colored “wavy” birch veneer that plays off the darker mahogany veneer to create the dynamic color contrasts that are an essential part of the aesthetic of northern New England furniture in this period.

 


Fig. 7: Swiveling office chair, ca. 1905, W.B. Moses and Sons, Washington, D.C.; retailed by Derby Desk Co., Boston, Massachusetts. Mahogany; metal base; replaced leather upholstery. H. 35, W. 22½, D. 19½ in. Portsmouth Athenaeum. Photo by Ralph Morang.

Even utilitarian factory-made objects can become tangible reminders of momentous events and important personages, in this case the Russian-Japanese Peace Conference held in Portsmouth in 1905. This swiveling armchair was used by Baron Komura, the head of the Japanese delegation, and bear inscriptions and a plaque, respectively, recording their use by him on September 5, 1905, when involved in the preparation and signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended hostilities. The Portsmouth Historical Society has recently acquired a matching chair used by Sergius Witte, head of the Russian delegation. In 1905, “revolving” armchairs that could swivel and tilt were still something of a new phenomenon. W. B. Moses and Son, the maker, was a prominent establishment in the nation’s capital from the mid-nineteenth century until its dissolution in 1937. The White House and other branches of the federal government were among their many clients.  Like all the furniture acquired for the meetings, this chair was sold directly after the end of the conference by the Portsmouth Furniture Company. It remains a tangible reminder of the significance of this exceptional episode of civilian diplomacy in Portsmouth’s long history.

 


Fig. 8: Rocking chair. America, ca. 1900; retailed by Margeson Brothers, Portsmouth. Oak; leather upholstery; replaced leather seat. H. 42¼, W. 27¼, D. 33 in. Portsmouth Historical Society; Gift of Bob Shouse, 2014. Photo by Ralph Morang.

This Mission-style rocking chair has two associations with the Seacoast area. Made at an as-yet- unidentified furniture factory, the chair, like much of the modern furniture in use in the area at the time, was retailed by Margeson Brothers of Portsmouth. It bears their label stenciled in black on the inside of the front seat rail on the removable slip seat.


More significantly, it also has a history of having been part of the furnishings of Rock Rest, a house at 167 Brave Boat Harbor Road in Kittery Point, Maine, now a landmark in the history of African-American experience in the Seacoast area. Hazel and Clayton Sinclair of New York acquired this house in 1938 and began taking in guests during World War II. After expanding the house and renovating the garage, they operated Rock Rest from 1946 to 1977 as a summer retreat for an African-American clientele, hosting as many as sixteen lodgers at a time. Rock Rest, now on the National Register of Historic Places, like similar venues throughout the country, provided safe and congenial lodgings for Black Americans before legal and de facto segregation ended in the United States. Through the efforts of historian Valerie Cunningham and the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, the Rock Rest archives are now permanently housed at the University of New Hampshire’s Dimond Library. The site is featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

 


Fig. 9: Jack in the Pulpit armchair, by Jeffrey Cooper (b. 1951). Portsmouth, 2012. Cherry. H. 40, W. 23, D. 22 in. Collection of the artist. Photo by Bill Truslow.

Known especially for his carving and sculptural objects, Jeffrey Cooper works in Portsmouth and is the current chairman of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association. His training began on a commune in Oregon in the 1970s, and continued through study with Ken Harris at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen; at the University of New Hampshire, with Dan Valenza; and continued with additional study at Peter’s Valley Craft Center in New Jersey and elsewhere (see www.cooperwoodsculptor.com).


Informed by his love of nature, evidenced here in the floral carving that adorns both the front and back of this side chair, Cooper’s work is well suited for the office, the home, and the garden. His carved animal benches in the Portsmouth Public Library, for example, delight that institution’s many young visitors and are but one of his commissions for public seating in venues across the country. He was also selected to prepare the coffins that were used in the re-interment ceremony at the African Burying Ground in Portsmouth in 2015.


As a studio furniture maker creating “bespoke” work in a small shop, Cooper has much in common with his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Portsmouth predecessors in the furniture trades, although his artistic vision and approach are contemporary. His work represents an option for today’s consumers, particularly those who value individuality, artistry, and the hand of the maker.

 


Four Centuries of Furniture in Portsmouth, with the New Hampshire Furniture Masters is on view at the Discover Portsmouth Center, Portsmouth, N.H., through June 18, 2017. For information call 603.436.8433 or visit www.portsmouthhistory.org. This article is adapted from the accompanying catalogue by Gerald W.R. Ward, with the assistance of Hollis Brodrick and Lainey McCartney (Portsmouth: Portsmouth Historical Society, 2017). Funding for the catalogue was provided by Craig and Alison Jewett.

 


Gerald W.R. Ward is consulting curator, Portsmouth Historical Society, and the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture Emeritus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Hollis Brodrick, is a member of the New Hampshire Antiques Dealers Association.

 

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, a fully digitized version of which is available at afamag.com. AFA is affiliated with Incollect.