Wallace Nutting was dean of American antiquers


November 10, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

The collectors bidding at Mike Ivankovich's auction of Wallace Nutting photographs, books and furniture held in October in King of Prussia, Pa., were well aware of every facet of the life and work of Wallace Nutting, the legendary American antiques collector, author, photographer, preservationist, maker of ersatz antique furniture and wrought iron, and principal spokesman for the Colonial revival movement.

In the teens and '20s of this century, Wallace Nutting was a household name associated with the many colored photographs scenes and interiors he had been making and selling after stress caused him to retire from the ministry in 1904 at the age of 43.

While vacationing in Germany following his retirement, Nutting learned the technique of hand coloring platinotypes, photographs printed on platinum paper. Returning to America, he began taking "camera journeys" into the Vermont countryside and soon turned his hobby into a business. In 1905 he bought a pre-Revolutionary farmhouse in Southbury, Conn, where he established his studio and a second career that occupied him for 30 years and gained him a national reputation. Toward the end of his life he estimated that 10 million of his framed prints decorated the walls of American homes.

A true Colonial revivalist, he believed that the solution to society's problems lay in reestablishing a connection with Colonial times, a period during which he believed "Americans built better homes, were better clad and spoke better English than any time since."

Between 1915 and 1936 Nutting proselytized his beliefs in more than 20 books. In addition to the multivolume "States and Nations Beautiful" series published by his own Old America Co., he began writing about American furniture. In 1917 he issued "A Windsor Handbook." In 1921 he published the first edition of his pioneer "Furniture of the Pilgrim Century," and in 1928 he produced what is probably the best-selling book on American antiques of all time, the two-volume "Furniture Treasury," with 5,000 illustrations. A third volume of the "Furniture Treasury," mostly text with drawings by his secretary, Ernest John Donnelly, followed in 1933.

Nutting was and still is best known for his photographs. At the height of his popularity, he employed 200 colorists, framers, salesmen and support staff at his Framingham, Mass., headquarters. A model picture was colored by the head colorist, and once it was approved by Nutting other colorists would duplicate it. After a whole sheet was colored the pictures were cut and matted. Earlier pictures were signed in pencil, but as business grew ink signatures were used. The pictures were usually framed in narrow gold or mahogany frames. But when Macy's, Gimbels and department stores throughout the nation purchased Nutting pictures in quantity, they usually wanted them unframed so their frame departments could get the business.

The 100 registered bidders who competed at Ivankovich's 11th Nutting auction since September 1988 knew which pictures were in Nutting frames and which ones had been reframed.

No picture topped the record $4,950 paid in 1989 for "The Guardian Mother," a picture of a mother and child, both wearing long flowing white dresses. The record print was in pristine condition with an original label. Moreover, it was sold at the height of the art and antiques boom. Since then the Nutting market has settled down, and other copies of "The Guardian Mother" have sold at subsequent sales for $1,500 and $2,200. The copy in the recent sale went for $1,265, even though it had come from the estate of Ruth Scoville Platt, a Nutting colorist.

"The Meeting Place," a picture of cows by a stream, sold for $1,870. It had been shown at the Wallace Nutting exhibition held in Hartford in 1989 at the Charter Oak Temple Gallery, put together by William Hosley, curator of the Nutting Collection of furniture and household gear at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Another rare sepia print of "The Meeting Place," without color, brought $660.

"Patchwork Siesta," a delicately tinted picture of a mother sitting beside her child napping on top of a patchwork quilt, fetched $1,430; but "Naptime Stories," showing the same mother and quilt but the child awake, sold for $357.50 -- the coloring was not as pristine.

A high-post bed branded Nutting, much like the one the child napped in, brought $1,430. A bow back Windsor chair with a small break in its thin bow but with strong turnings sold for a reasonable $82.50 and a set of four large five-slat ladderback chairs made $1,232. A copy of the 1937 Nutting Furniture catalog, the last catalog he issued, sold for $264. An early picture catalog thought to be about 1910 brought $418 and an expandable 1910 salesman's picture catalog sold for $467.50.

A first edition of Nutting's "Furniture of the Pilgrim Century" brought $231; a copy of Nutting's "Clock Book" went for $49.50 and a first edition of the "Furniture Treasury," Volumes I and II published in 1928 and Volume III in 1933, all in red cloth bindings, sold for $341. A second edition of "Connecticut Beautiful" in a tan cover fetched $33. A first edition of "Pennsylvania Beautiful" in a green cover made $30.20.

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