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Luxury and Innovation: Furniture Masterworks by John and Thomas Seymour


Through February 15, 2004 the Peabody Essex Museum is presenting Luxury and Innovation: Furniture Masterworks by John and Thomas Seymour. The exhibition is the first major retrospective on this renowned father and son team, and brings together the finest and most visually stunning examples of their work, demonstrating why the Federal era is considered one of the most important periods of creativity and craftsmanship in American furniture making history.

Luxury and Innovation takes visitors into the world of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Boston, to showcase the exceptional beauty, refinement, and scope of John and Thomas Seymour's work. The exhibition is organized around 70 of their most superb pieces of furniture, arranged according to setting: parlor, dining room, and bedroom. Luxury and Innovation will also include contemporaneous decorative art objects, works on paper, and paintings.

"John and Thomas Seymour, although always admired for their talents, are often not credited for their contribution to the refinement of American decorative art," says Robert Mussey, guest curator of Luxury and Innovation. "The Seymours combined their own superb cabinetmaking and inlay skills with those of other English immigrant carvers, turners and upholsterers, to produce superb interpretations that set the standard for an entire generation of Boston cabinetmakers. Although the origins of their craft and styles were English, their brilliance was in execution of their uniquely American interpretations."

After first settling in Portland, Maine in 1784, the Seymours relocated to Boston in 1793, arriving in the thriving city at an opportune moment in history. The changing social landscape, shifting social roles, new leisure activities, and a growing number of wealthy individuals in Boston led to larger houses and created demand for higher quality furniture and new forms, including sewing tables, ladies' desks, sideboards, and lap desks. Increased wealth and foreign trade also secured a consistent supply of the exotic and rare woods and veneers, such as mahogany and rosewood ,prevalent in the Seymours' designs.

Although the exhibition focuses on the genius of the Seymours, Luxury and Innovation also pays tribute to the skilled artisans that worked in consort with the father and son team. The sophisticated labor model, employed by the Seymours, was based on a large network of English immigrants with specialized skills. John and Thomas Seymour conceived the design, completed the basic casework, and undertook any veneer-work, leaving left the woodturning, ivory inlaying, carving, upholstering, gilding, and decorative painting to others. Thomas Wightman, a London-trained wood carver, was one of the Seymours' most talented sub-contractors. Not only was he able to adapt his English design sensibilities to American tastes, but also his intricate carvings increased the level of sophistication and surface variety of the Seymours' furniture. Examples of Wightman's work can be seen in a card table from Cleopatra's Barge and an ambitious sideboard from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, possibly made for Elizabeth Derby, the style-setter of Salem.

Stylistically, the Seymours' furniture ranges from Neo-Classical to Regency, to Classical or Empire.Geometric forms, inspired by Greek and Roman architecture, and sharply contrasting woods and veneers, characterize their earlier work. In 1804, Thomas Seymour founded the Boston Furniture Warehouse, a separate venture from his work with his father. During this time, Thomas' Regency interpretations used bolder reeding and distinctive applied moldings to substitute for inlays, and spectacular crotch mahogany veneers. He also introduced new forms such as lyre-based tables and scrolled arm supports, as seen in the Winterthur settee included in the exhibition. At the end of his independent career, he introduced the new Classical styles to Boston with their simplified by elegant carvings, such as those found on a Grecian card table from the Adams National Historic Site on view in the exhibition. After Thomas' own business closed, Thomas continued working as foreman for other cabinetmakers such as James Barker, where he was thought to have made a spectacular pair of card tables for America's first pleasure yacht, Cleopatra's Barge, one of which is currently on view at the Peabody Essex Museum His ability to create designs in varying styles demonstrates his talent for incorporating his own formidable skill with the diverse talents of other specialist artisans.

Luxury and Innovation will be presented in the newly transformed Peabody Essex Museum. Designed by renowned architect, Moshe Safdie, the new museum includes 250,000 square feet of new and renovated gallery and public spaces, allowing the Peabody Essex to showcase for the first time in its 204-year history the entire range of its collections. Featured prominently in the new museum, is the Peabody Essex's exceptional collection of American Decorative Art. Organized by themes, the collections demonstrate the craftsmanship and growing sophistication of American decorative art and design from seventeenth century through the present.

The exhibition, related programs, and catalog publication received major support from the Kaufman Americana Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Croll Foundation, Americana Foundation, Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers, Inc., Christie's, and the Elizabeth McGraw Foundation.

The American Decorative Art Collections at the Peabody Essex Museum One of the more complete of its kind, with objects dating from the mid-seventeenth century to the present, the American Decorative Art at the Peabody Essex Museum comprises more than 40,000 examples of American art and culture. The museum's collection houses an exceptional assortment of portraits and landscape paintings, recently acquiring a John Singer Sargent portrait. The Peabody Essex also houses major collections of American glass; furniture, sculpture and folk art; textiles and needlework; and a spectacular collection of American costumes, ranking among the best in the nation.

The exhibition catalog for Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour by Robert Mussey is based on 10 years of research focused on primary sources from American and English archives. While British influence was pervasive in American furniture design prior to 1850, this is the first scholarly study to trace in detail the English origins of an important American cabinetmaker. Consultants for the exhibition catalog are Wendy Cooper, curator of furniture at Wintherthur Museum, and Peter Kenny, Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art. The catalog is published jointly by the Peabody Essex Museum and the University Press of New England.


The Boston Furniture Symposium

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Peabody Essex Museum hosted The Boston Furniture Symposium: New Research on the Federal Period from November 14 to 16, 2003. The symposium presented important new scholarship in fields of study related to Federal-era furniture.

Papers accepted for presentation at the symposium include: David Conradsen, Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, The St. Louis Art Museum: "Émigré CabinetmakerDavid Poignand and the Furniture Hardware Trade in Federal Boston;" Brock Jobe, Winterthur Museum: "The Upholsterer's Trade in Federal Boston; English Upholstery Fabrics for Seating Furniture;" Lady Elizabeth White, Curator of Decorative Art, Holburne Museum, Bath, England: "The Influence of the British Furniture Pattern Book 1740-1820;" and Damie Stillman, University of Delaware:"The Seymours and the Neoclassical Tradition in the Devon Region in England."

Editor's note: RLM readers may enjoy the Museum's thoughtfully-prepared online exhibition for Luxury and Innovation: Furniture Masterworks by John and Thomas Seymour.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Peabody Essex Museum in Resource Library Magazine

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2004 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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