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Yale University Art Gallery Visits The Henry Ford

October 17, 2014

Patricia Kane investigates a piece during her visit to The Henry Ford.

Just weeks before Henry Ford Academy students returned to their school inside Henry Ford Museum, one of their classrooms was transformed into a small furniture study gallery as The Henry Ford hosted visitors on a mission, hoping to bring clarity to a very important time in American furniture making.

Patricia Kane, the Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts at Yale University Art Gallery, along with Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow, Jennifer Johnson, traveled to Michigan in August as part of an ongoing research project to identify pieces created by woodworkers from Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Furniture Archive seeks to document all furniture made in that small state from its beginnings into the early 19th century. To collectors and appreciators of 18th century furniture, the most important town in 18th century Rhode Island was Newport.  There, the craftsmen of the intermarried Goddard and Townsend families created furniture with a unique look and construction. Their work is not only sought after but tells us a lot about that fashionable Rhode Island town during the 18th century. Indeed, their distinctive style was emulated by craftsmen not only in Rhode Island, but also in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut. 

While their pieces are definitely unique, the details are sometimes so minute that other pieces are often misidentified as Goddard-Townsend works; instead the pieces are emulating the Newport-based style that made the Goddards and Townsends famous. That’s where Pat comes in. She’s trying to correctly identify as many pieces of Goddard-Townsend, Newport and Rhode Island-made furniture from this era as possible as the Yale University Art Gallery gears up for a Rhode Island Furniture exhibit in 2016.

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Pat’s project to help institutions correctly identify their artifacts has taken her across the country and will continue throughout 2014. At The Henry Ford, Pat looked at about 30 pieces that we thought might be designated as Rhode Island-made. Charles Sable, our Curator of Decorative Arts, has been corresponding with Pat for several months and was more than happy to welcome her here on campus this summer.

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What helps Pat correctly identify pieces? Small details like makers’ marks, construction details and choice of woods are the biggest identifiers. New pieces of technology, like an infrared camera, are incredibly important in looking for repairs and revealing those small details that often help solve the identification mystery. On top of all that, Pat’s keen eye, and countless years of research knowledge, play a very important role as well.

During her visit to The Henry Ford, Pat helped us reattribute many pieces within our collections according to Charles. Many of the 30 pieces were made in Massachusetts or Connecticut, by individuals emulating Newport styles.  Fortunately Pat also found some pleasant surprises, this dressing table, created between 1750 and 1765, was identified by Pat as having definitely been made by Job Townsend, a first-generation furniture-making member of the Townsend family. Henry Ford himself purchased this table in 1929 for his then-new museum.

Also correctly identified was a bureau table likely made by John Goddard, a second-generation member of the family, between 1770 and 1785.

A piece like this high chest of drawers, often referred to as “The Beast” due to its heavy proportions, was made in the Goddard-Townsend style but wasn’t actually made by them, as Pat reiterated.

Why is it important to know what’s real and what’s not? While Pat looks at more pieces that weren’t made by the Goddards or Townsends more than they were, those pieces were often made by makers of generations past that were trying to emulate their style, a style they greatly looked up to. The same is true today; the work of mid-20th century designers like Ray and Charles Eames is often copied and reproduced without the consumer knowing the wiser. Having a comprehensive understanding of real vs. fake helps researchers like Pat group trends and time periods together to help tell this bigger story from such an important time in our country’s past.

Pat’s work reminds us that ultimately imitation really is one of the most sincere forms of flattery, especially when it comes to classic design.

Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.

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