Polishing up 'ugly ducklings' of furniture See it at a museum, buy it for your home

June 27, 1993|By Scott Ponemone | Scott Ponemone,Contributing Writer

Have you ever fallen in love with an object seen in a museum? You wish you could own it, but you assume that if a museum displays it, you could never afford it.

Usually you're right. But that is not necessarily the case with furniture made in Baltimore in the early 19th century.

There is much of this furniture to salivate over at area museums. In fact, more American furniture and related decorative arts from the 1800-1845 period are now on display in Baltimore than ever before assembled in one city.

Or as Gregory R. Weidman, curator at the Maryland Historical Society, put it: "two blockbuster shows of national importance at the same time."

Both "Classical Maryland 1815-1845" at the historical society and "Classical Taste in America, 1800-1840" at the Baltimore Museum of Art run until Sept. 26. The museum show will then travel.

These shows may serve to complete the rehabilitation of furniture of this period, from the ugly duckling of American antiques to a rank equal to the finest furniture of the mid-18th century, what has been called the Chippendale period.

A generation ago, classical furniture was divided into two periods: Sheraton or late federal from 1800 to 1820, and

Empire from 1815 to 1840. Sheraton was considered acceptable, an extension of the slender forms that became popular after the birth of this nation. Empire, however, meant heavy-handed furniture with dark veneers, scroll shapes and heavy carvings.

So derisive was the term "Empire" that antiques dealers would avoid it. Price tags on an 1820s piece would say "late Sheraton" or "late federal" if at all possible.

Now, thanks to a generation of American decorative arts expertise, what was called Empire is seen as the last part of a continuum of interest in the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome that began in Europe in themid-18th century.

Rather quickly these ideas traveled across the Atlantic. Furniture took on whole new shapes. The thin, reeded leg became sturdy, like ancient columns. Tables appeared with pedestals shaped like a Grecian urn and legs that swept forward in an unbroken curve, like sabers. Carvings turned robust, with a menagerie of lions' feet, eagles' talons and dolphins' tails.

In Baltimore, classical furniture made for the upper classes took two forms: painted and unpainted. Painted furniture, called "fancy furniture" back then, was made with cheap woods found in Maryland, like poplar, oak and pine, but was then painted over by hand and sometimes with stencils of classical designs. Ms. Weidman credits nearly all the best Baltimore painted furniture to the shop of John and Hugh Finlay.

Baltimore's unpainted furniture made for the well-to-do had mahogany as the primary wood -- the wood seen on the outside of the piece. The cheaper local woods, particularly poplar, were used exclusively for the internal, or secondary, structure. Mahogany was imported from Central America and the Caribbean.

Mahogany furniture in Baltimore often had particularly broad reeding. Pedestal tables were common. They sported a squat urn as the pedestal and heavy reeding on the upper surface of their saber legs. Ornate carving was rather sparely used, but some Baltimore tables, sideboards and desks had, in place of columns, human heads and feet. In her historical society show, Ms. Weidman gives prominence to two Baltimore makers of mahogany furniture: William Camp and John Needles.

Scouring the area

So for over a month I've scoured the area in search of Baltimore classical furniture, going to antiques shows from Bethesda to York, Pa., visiting antiques shops from Queenstown on the Eastern Shore to Howard Street in Baltimore, attending an auction in Towson, and spending hours on the phone.

Mahogany pieces turn out to be relatively available and not inordinately priced, considering that one can assume the demand for Baltimore furniture may well be strongest right here.

The highest-priced and the choicest piece was at Ron Snyder Antiques in Annapolis: a labeled John Needles cylinder-desk secretary at $12,500. It's a kissing cousin of the Needles piece at the historical society, from the recessed broken scroll pediment to the curly maple drawers inside the desk compartment.

Another labeled Needles piece (he was a prolific labeler, unlike -- William Camp) came up at Alex Cooper Auctioneers in Towson in mid-May. This two-piece bureau with dressing glass had lyre-shaped brackets on both sides of the mirror supports. Its hammer price, $1,100, made it the least costly item observed.

While unlabeled, a small sideboard offered by P. G. Fisher Interiors on Howard Street can be attributed to Needles, too. It combined strong reeding on the columns and front feet, distinctive Gothic arch panels above the columns and repeated across the gallery, and an exaggerated astragal form to the top edge. It's listed at $6,500.

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