Classical Maryland Historical Society exhibit shows what was the latest in early 1800s' design

April 11, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Gregory Weidman's normal level of enthusiasm is pretty high, but it rises even higher when she talks about her recent discoveries. "It was like finding the Rosetta Stone," she says. "We can attribute with certainty maybe 10 times -- 10? maybe 50 times -- what we could before."

It's every researcher's dream to find the key that makes everything fit into place in her field. The Rosetta Stone was the key that led to deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphics. In Ms. Weidman's case, the "hieroglyphics" are Baltimore painted furniture of the early 19th century.

For the past 15 years, she has been working on Maryland furniture at the Maryland Historical Society; and for almost the past 10 years, one of her principal projects has been preparation for the major show, "Classical Maryland 1815-1845," opening Saturday. In all that time her particular love has been painted furniture, whose elaborately decorated surfaces make it the most colorful of all the furniture made here, and probably the most appealing to Baltimoreans, too.

But who made it? There were numerous firms making painted furniture here in the first half of the 19th century, and the shop of John and Hugh Finlay has long been recognized as the leader. But since the Finlays never signed their furniture, attribution of most work to the firm could not be certain. Some pieces, such as the set at Hampton Mansion in Baltimore County, had documentation in the form of owners' orders, but much remained unknown until two breakthroughs in the past few years.

In 1987 a set of chairs that had belonged to Richard Ragan of Hagerstown came up for sale at Christie's. The Historical Society bought six and kept two (the others went to other institutions). Subsequently, Richard Ragan's account book showing he got them from Finlay in 1815 turned up.

That documented the Ragan chairs, and paved the way for an even more significant development. When one of the Ragan chairs and a pier table from the extremely important, stylistically similar but undocumented Alexander Brown set were sent to Boston for restoration, the paint on the two pieces and the way it was applied were discovered to be identical.

That established with certainty the origin of the Brown set and much other furniture of about the same date. Then Ms. Weidman tracked another documented Finlay piece, a couch at the Prestwould mansion in south central Virginia, which proves the origin of another large group of slightly later furniture.

Pervasive design

Ms. Weidman says it is now clear that all the more important painted Baltimore furniture of the post-War of 1812 era came from the Finlays. That has to be reckoned the most significant result of the research leading up to "Classical Maryland." But this show isn't only about painted furniture. It's about the taste for classical design that pervaded every aspect of the arts in Maryland (as elsewhere) in the early 19th century.

Archaeological excavations of ancient sites at Pompeii and elsewhere inspired a taste for classical design that swept first Europe (especially Napoleonic France) and then America. From Egyptian-inspired heads decorating sideboards to chairs after Greek models to a teapot in the shape of a Roman oil lamp to mythological characters cavorting on porcelain, classical was everywhere, as "Classical Maryland" demonstrates.

The show proceeds in rational fashion but also leads the viewer to certain highlights calculated to sustain interest. At the beginning, for instance, we're presented with another major discovery to come out of research on this show, the design origin of a great set of silver made by Samuel Kirk in 1841 as a wedding present for Haslett McKim and Sarah Birckhead.

MHS chief curator Jennifer Goldsborough calls it "one of the most extraordinary silver tea and coffee services ever made in America." But then an 1824 English design book known to have '' been used by Kirk came into the society's hands, and one day Ms. Goldsborough turned a page and came upon a design after a Roman lamp that was virtually identical to the teapots in the McKim set. "This only happens once in a lifetime," the curator says.

Another of the show's grabbers is a dining room setting with the table holding porcelain and silver owned by Baltimorean Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, who married Napoleon's youngest brother Jerome (a marriage Napoleon later annulled by imperial decree). The curious thing about the Patterson-Bonaparte set is that it isn't a set. Betsy bought it in Paris at the "going-out-of-business" sale of Stone, Coquerel and Le Gros d'Ainsy in 1819, and it contains pieces from a number of different sets.

Ms. Goldsborough notes, "It is interesting that a 19th-century woman of Betsy's imperious personality was content with this 'mix-and-match' approach in the interest of saving money while still setting a stylish table."

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