Boston’s Colonial Japanners: The Documentary Record

FOR decades, scholars have been looking with fascination at colonial japanned furniture made in Boston. They have lavished attention on these pieces, elegant or gaudy, according to your eye, and their writings have expressed a deep yearning to know who decorated them. As so often happens, history has not been co-operative. No one, in the past, has been able to combine documentary evidence and decorative detail to form vocabularies of ornament and technique attributable to individual japanners. Because the yearning for identification was very great, and because much is known about one Boston japanner, Thomas Johnston,87 a number of examples of japanning were attributed to him, often with the wistful suggestion that a detail of his engraved trade card of 1732, showing a shop sign and lettering listing his skills and wares, might be identified with a detail of a particular piece of furniture. There might have been at least a shred of plausibility to these identifications if Johnston had been a carver or joiner who might, at one time, have fashioned an elaborate shop sign with his own hands. He is first identified in Boston records, however, as a painter-stainer and later, almost invariably, as a japanner. He was also a printmaker, painter of coats of arms, and organ-builder. During the past four decades, discussions of Boston japanning in books and articles have been peppered with “possiblys” and “probablys”: “probably by Thomas Johnston”; “a possible William Randle piece”; “perhaps japanned by Robert Davis”; “perhaps by Nehemiah Partridge.” Refreshingly, Dean Fales has reined in the adverbs. He is less interested in attributions than in telling what really is known.

Documentary information, meanwhile, continues to surface. In the light of our inability to identify most pieces of colonial japanning as the work of a particular man, we need this information badly; and I suspect we will soon go beyond quoting it and will try to bring together and print a substantial amount of it in one place.

Our list of Boston’s colonial japanners is still primarily the list painstakingly put together and published by Esther Stevens Brazer in her May, 1943, article in Antiques: Nehemiah Partridge, active in Boston between 1712 and 1714 and later living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; William Randle, active in Boston beginning in 1714 and apparently for more than four decades following; Joshua Roberts, who died in Boston in 1719; Robert Davis, who died in Boston in 1739; Thomas Johnston, active from the late 1720s to his death in 1767, and his son-in-law, Daniel Rea, Jr., who bought out the business and continued it into the nineteenth century; Johnston’s sons, Thomas, Jr., John, and Benjamin, who for a time worked in the family business and were described as japanners by occupation; two people who advertised that they taught japanning, John Waghorne in 1740 and Mrs. Heller in 1755; David Mason, who opened his shop in Boston in 1758; and both Stephen Whiting, Sr., active between 1743 and 1773, and his son Stephen, Jr., active between 1767 and 1773. Three additional names discovered after the appearance of Esther Brazer’s article are Roger Pendleton, who died in 1712; Robert Hughes, active in 1726; and John Gore, who worked as a japanner, painter, and “colour merchant” from about 1740 to 1796.88 The list also includes William Price, who from my own study of his career did not himself practice japanning but had associations with two japanners, Robert Davis and Thomas Johnston. Price, who sold japanned furniture along with maps, views, looking glasses, spy glasses, toys, and musical instruments, is one of the key figures in the study of the arts and crafts of Boston after 1720.

We know a good deal about Price and a great deal about Johnston, and more information about them comes to light every year. We know remarkably little about the others.

Pursuing the possibilities of documentary evidence, let me suggest five kinds of documents which yield, or might yield, valuable facts about japanned furniture made in colonial Boston.

First, in terms of abundance of detail, are the inventories of the japanners. “The Boston probate records,” wrote Esther Brazer in a sentence which some scholars probably can quote from memory, “are a fertile field for information concerning the early japanners, since virtually all of them died insolvent or intestate.” We have the inventories of Joshua Roberts, who died in 1719; of Robert Davis, who died in 1739; and of Thomas Johnston, who died in 1767. All contain detailed listings of tools and materials. The Roberts and Davis inventories are quoted in Brazer’s Antiques article of 1943; the Johnston inventory is printed in full in the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’ volume, Boston Prints and Printmakers 1670–1775, pages 126–128.

A second major source are account books, the ones with which I am familiar being the accounts of the Johnston & Rea decorating business. There are ten volumes of these, from 1764 to 1802, in the Baker Library at Harvard Business School. They have been extensively mined,89 and it would be surprising if, in the next few years, at long last, they were not transcribed and printed to join the easily available sources in all major libraries. In the accounts, I have found no references to the japanning of chests, clocks, or other pieces, but frequent entries in several volumes refer to the japanning of compass boxes. At first I thought of these as boxes with japanned decorations, but Martha Gandy Fales suggests that they were simply painted black or dark green, the base colors of japanning. They would then have been varnished, making them waterproof and more durable. She owns a ship’s compass in a wooden box painted blackish-green, along with a large triangular sextant-box painted black. The varnish on both boxes has long since disappeared, and the paint, as on other such boxes she has seen, has come to look as if it had been through a fire. She points out that this description of the japanning of the boxes would fit what is known of japanned metal work. A number of metal workers advertised japanning, and their surviving products are painted black, dark green, and occasionally red or blue, without decorations. An example is the japanning of clock dials.

Third, among documentary sources, are bills and receipts. Four splendidly detailed bills from Thomas Johnston to several customers are in the Massachusetts Historical Society. Two of them, one dated in 1746 and 1747, the other covering work done in 1754–1756, mention japanning: of compass boxes by the dozens, of a spy glass in one entry, and of two large prospect glasses in another. In addition, the making of a new foot for a clock case is listed, as is the “Japaning Cleaning & pollishing” of it.

My fourth category of documentary evidence is the voluminous surviving record of court cases. We might hear of japanning—in fact, we do, briefly—in these records. The Johnstons of Boston were litigious Yankees, sometimes suing, more often being sued; there are records of no fewer than eleven suits involving Thomas Johnston, Sr., and his sons Thomas, Jr., and Benjamin. The elder Johnston in various cases is described as “Japanner”; Benjamin is called “Painter-stainer” and “Japanner”; Thomas, Jr., is called “Gentleman” and “Japanner.” There are no other references to japanning. Benjamin, incidentally, was living in Salem in 1763–1764 at the time of two of the suits concerning him. The records of these cases are in the offices of the Clerk of the Superior Court in the Suffolk County Courthouse.

Fifth and finally, there is a “possible.” We might have mention of japanning in letters, though not in my personal knowledge. We come close in a long letter of May 4, 1770 (owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society), from William Johnston in Barbados to John Singleton Copley in Boston. Johnston included a recipe for boiling oil. As one of the sons of Thomas Johnston, and a graduate of the family business (he went on to become a limner and organist), he knew what he was talking about.

To turn very briefly from manuscript evidence to the printed word, familiar and easily available newspaper advertisements suggest to me the picture of shops in which ready-made japanned furniture was an eye-catching feature. No record of a bill or receipt for major pieces of japanned furniture, either ready-made or made to order, has come to my attention. To have such a bill, coupled with the piece itself, would be ideal; but perhaps we should be grateful for a documentary record more extensive than the record available to past generations. The record as we know it suggests to me that the application of decoration to japanned furniture was, like the making of other decorative details, a secondary craft which would seldom be occasion for signed work. Cabinetmakers were the real builders of furniture, after all. They often signed their handiwork, and their individual craftsmanship will continue to be identified. In contrast, I doubt if we shall ever be able to point to more than a few examples of japanning and say, this is by Johnston or Davis or Partridge or Randle or Roberts. We haven’t even reached that level of variety and certainty, yet. As more pieces of the puzzle are found and fitted, from study of the furniture itself and of surviving documents and printed advertisements, we should be able to establish that sound, though still modest, working knowledge.