I’ve lived in the Bluegrass state for more than 20 years but have never necessarily felt like it was part of me (or I was part of it). Yes, I vote and I love my little town, but I sure don’t bleed Wildcat Blue. I’m here because of family and proximity to downtown Cincinnati. Really I’m a Buckeye in the Bluegrass State.
The furniture I like to build is not really of this region. I like to build late 18-th C. to early 19th C. stuff; let’s face it – this area was not especially well populated at the time (at least compared to the east). There is Cincinnati Art Carved furniture from the mid-19th C. that’s heavily influenced by the region’s German artisans. That stuff doesn’t appeal to me as a maker, even if it is amazing. Here in Kentucky there’s the Berea area, where the Shakers made very neat and tidy pieces. I’ve done a little Shaker and I like it. Then I discovered something from this state that is altogether different.
After my first SAPFM MidYear Conference at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in late 2012, I saw a Facebook post from the museum noting they had acquired a “Masterpiece of Kentucky Furniture”. As soon as I saw the single image of that chest of drawers, I knew I had to make it. At the time I was hot to build a Roxbury clock (completed 2014), so I waited a bit. It would be there when I was ready.
Sometime later, maybe in early 2014, I contacted Daniel Ackermann at MESDA. That’s when I found out the chest of drawers was on loan to Colonial Williamsburg for an extended period while MESDA created a new exhibit. I was out of luck until 2015. I did find out there was a museum catalog from an exhibit at the Headley-Whitney Museum (Lexington) in 1997. I managed to get a copy of the catalog on inter-library loan (until I found a copy on Ebay or abebooks.com some time later). That further whetted my appetite.
In October 2015 finally I got to visit the piece. It was a very significant week for me because the day before the visit, I made the connection that led to my current consulting gig. It was a very good week (all the better was it was a vacation with my wife!).
Daniel met me at the appointed time. The exhibit was not yet open and wouldn’t be for another week or two as they finished the lighting and signage. So I had all the time I needed to measure, photograph, and record the chest of drawers. It was fantastic. The only disappointment was it had to remain on it’s stand, so I couldn’t clearly look at the back. But otherwise I had full access. We took the drawers out and I all but crawled inside it. I was there for more than 4 hours.
Chest of Drawers, attributed to Gerrard Calvert (1765-1840), Mason County, KY. Cherry with Poplar secondary woods, light and dark inlays. Circa 1795-1800
The 1997 exhibit catalog suggests it was the the best of a series of “bandy-legged” chests of drawers and sugar chests from the Maysville, Kentucky area. All are attributed to a shop that included three makers: Calvert, Tuttle and Foxworthy. The attribution of these pieces is based on one simple marking of “P. Tuttle” in one piece, their similarities. and historical records from the period. We don’t know a lot about these guys. Read more in The Tuttle Muddle if you can find a copy. But considering the area – even if Maysville was a happening place – this was high style furniture.
The piece itself seems a bit beat up. In the 1997 exhibit photos, both the front knee corner blocks are missing, so there’s been some repairs (and nicely done). On close examination, the left front leg was badly damaged. The veneer is chipped and repaired in places. The stringing/banding is missing or replaced in various areas. I’m not sure I buy the “original” finish argument, though a well-alligatored clear finish can be seen. Some of the hardware is crooked. There used to be locks on every drawer. It’s an honest piece but all in all intact.
I can’t wait to build it.