In the fall of 2009, a force of nature hit Massachusetts: Brock Jobe arrived with a big idea. It was time to revisit the history of four centuries of furnituremaking in Massachusetts, one of the most productive centers of the trade in the United States. Brock Jobe will be no stranger to the readers of this volume. Over four decades, he has worked as both curator and teacher at Colonial Williamsburg, Historic New England, and Winterthur Museum. His publications include Harbor & Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850; New England Furniture: Essays in Memory of Benno M. Forman; Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast; and New England Furniture: The Colonial Era, all truly landmark works of scholarship.
But as enjoyable and enriching as Brock’s books are, they can’t quite convey the infectious enthusiasm and passionate engagement with the decorative arts that he generates in person. There is nothing quite so much fun as scrambling under an eighteenth-century table with Brock Jobe and a flashlight! His eagerness also makes him an unmatched public speaker and fund-raiser. He is a master at engaging everyone in the room when he talks, and even though the list of individual contributors to this project eventually grew long, he never failed to graciously acknowledge each one. He can winkle impressive amounts from the wallets of donors without their hardly realizing it. He is the very definition of a cultural smooth operator.
Any scholarly endeavor concerning Massachusetts furniture could hardly occur without the cooperation and endorsement of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Early on, Brock recruited as his coconspirator Gerry Ward, Senior Consulting Curator and the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture Emeritus. Gerry was coeditor of New England Silver and Silversmithing, 1620–1815, volume 70 of the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and a principal organizer of the 1996 conference on the same subject cosponsored by the Colonial Society and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gerry’s list of publications is no less impressive than Brock’s: Silver in American Life (coeditor and author), American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University, Perspectives on American Furniture, American Folk (coauthor), The Maker’s Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940–1990 (coauthor), Silver of the Americas, 1600–2000 (coeditor and author), and The Cabinetmaker and the Carver. Gerry is also a much sought-after lecturer, thanks to his wry sense of humor and creative way of looking at traditional forms. (His essay on pigeonholes in this volume is a prime example of this talent.) I can say from previous experience working with Gerry that he is a meticulous editor who excels in giving clearer shape and expression to other people’s ideas.
There were important historical reasons that explain why, when Brock and Gerry first floated the idea of a new conference on Massachusetts furniture, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts was one of the first organizations they approached. In volume 48 of its proceedings, the Colonial Society published the essays delivered at the 1972 conference Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, organized by Jonathan L. Fairbanks, curator of the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The meeting was held in the genteel surroundings of the Colonial Society’s Bulfinch townhouse on Mount Vernon Street, on Beacon Hill, and a very young Brock Jobe delivered one of the papers and served as editorial assistant. The time seemed propitious for a second conference that would draw together new scholarship from the intervening forty years.
It often takes a bit of arm twisting to persuade the Council of the Colonial Society to venture into the world of decorative arts, but it certainly helped that Boston Furniture was the all-time best seller among its eighty-seven volumes of scholarship on early Massachusetts. Boston Furniture had run through two editions and begun to achieve astronomical prices in the rare book market. (One happy outcome of the renewed interest in Massachusetts furniture is that the book will once again be available at reasonable prices as a print-on-demand title from the University of Virginia Press, distributor of the Colonial Society’s list.)
The Council of the Colonial Society was also breaking new ground when it agreed for the first time to cosponsor a conference outside the historical boundaries of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. This new conference would take place not on Beacon Hill or in Worcester, but on the grounds of Winterthur Museum. And so, on March 6–8, 2013, furniture enthusiasts from all over America gathered at Henry Francis du Pont’s former estate in the rolling countryside north of Wilmington, Delaware. Attendees, perhaps hoping for an early glimpse of spring in du Pont’s renowned naturalistic gardens, were a little alarmed to find snow instead. Nevertheless, Winterthur’s hospitality was warm and its facilities much better suited than those of the Colonial Society to host such a large public conference.
I will leave it to Brock and Gerry to tell in their preface how Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture grew from being a single conference into an unprecedented example of collaboration among eleven cultural organizations, encompassing eight separate exhibitions and countless lectures. October 2013 was indeed “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture” month in the Commonwealth; those of us on the steering committee rarely had a night at home, so many special events were occurring.
Any book is the work of many hands. Principal thanks are due to Brock and Gerry, its editors. Lynn McCarthy provided invaluable assistance in gathering the hundreds of photographs illustrating this volume. Mary Ellen Wilson served as copy editor, and Paul Hoffmann acted once again as designer par excellence, as he has for so many Colonial Society books.
I sincerely hope that readers will not only learn much they did not already know about Massachusetts furniture but also catch a bit of the eagerness and excitement that swept through Massachusetts cultural institutions in 2013 as we celebrated four centuries of furnituremaking tradition.
JOHN W. TYLER
Editor of Publications
Colonial Society of Massachusetts