Journal

A Masterful Adirondack Table … with Provenance

03.19.2019

Identities of the vast majority of the skilled woodworkers who created rustic furniture in the mid-19th to early-20th centuries are unknown. So it is a particular thrill when an antique example of outstanding rustic craftsmanship can be traced to a known maker, and thereby placed directly into the historical context of that person’s home region and the time period in which he lived.

The circa 1920 Adirondack center table (35” x 41” top, 28” high) that we are now offering for sale is just such a piece.

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

This table was made by Elmer Patterson who was born in Amboy, New York in 1859. By the age of 26 he was living in the Adirondack town of Speculator, NY, making pack baskets and snowshoes with his father to sell to guides, trappers and visiting rusticators. By the 1920s he had turned his talents towards creating rustic furniture at his home in the Adirondack foothills of Osceola, NY, where the yellow birch that he liked for furniture making was more abundant than in Speculator.

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

This center table showcases Patterson’s masterful use of his preferred Northern hardwood species. It has four sturdy yellow birch branch legs and a creatively designed base. There is a yellow birch pole at the center of the base from which four straight yellow birch branches extend outward, creating spoke stretchers to brace the legs.

 

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

Back view of the table.

 

In contrast to the straight yellow birch spoke stretchers, the four yellow birch branches that serve as leg-to-leg stretchers, plus the two branches that anchor those side stretchers to the center pole, are pleasingly sinuous. Four other curvy yellow birch branches that extend from near the bottom of each leg to beneath the table top add additional grace and stability to the table.

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

Side view of the table.

Patterson extended the decorative use of yellow birch in this table by applying half-round branch segments in tight rows all along the four sides of the apron.

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

The table top is made of smoothly processed and finished cherry boards that create a handsome reddish contrast to the golden yellow birch base and apron.

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

All of Patterson’s tables that we’ve seen and owned have had cherry tops in an incredibly smooth original finish, demonstrating that he was as good at finish work as he was at woodworking.

 

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

This table top has some surface scratches plus a shrinkage crack, but it retains its overall satiny sheen.

 

Provenance

This table was included in a special exhibition of rustic furniture at the Adirondack Museum in 1976, and a photo of it appears as Figure # 67 in the landmark 1987 book Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition, written by former Adirondack Museum Director and scholar, Craig Gilborn.

 

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

Figure #67 from Gilborn’s book (left) and the same table currently in our gallery (right)

 

According to Gilborn, most of the known pieces of Patterson’s furniture descended in his family after his death in 1949. In the endnotes of Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition where Gilborn thanks people “for permitting the reproduction of furniture, vintage photographs, and other works from their collections,” he credits Earl and Clarice Stanyon (of Wells, NY) for the Elmer Patterson table that he photographed as Figure # 67. Clarice Stanyon, born in 1906, was Elmer Patterson’s niece.

The Stanyons have now passed away, and we are not sure of the exact date in the late-1980s to mid-1990s when the table was transferred from their family’s ownership to that of an avid Adirondack furniture collector, although we do know the dealer (now retired) who handled the sale.

Other than being familiar with the table through its photograph in Gilborn’s book, we did not see it in person until late 2009 when we visited the home of its owner who was anticipating downsizing. We sold it on behalf of that collector in 2010 to the owner of an historic Adirondack Great Camp who was actively restoring and decorating its multiple buildings.

Subsequent transitions led to this table coming on the market once again recently, and we were fortunate to reacquire it.

Some Additional Context

We have bought and sold six additional Elmer Patterson pieces, all of which we acquired when we purchased the Richard S. Marrus collection of Adirondack furniture early in our rustic antiques career.

Dr. Marrus was a prominent collector who filled the buildings of his 1906 Adirondack Great Camp compound on Tupper Lake, Hemlock Ledge, with outstanding examples of rustic furniture and accessories. He was a passionate connoisseur who worked to preserve classic Adirondack camp style and tradition up to his death in 2001.

Birch Cottage exterior

The “Birch Cottage” at Hemlock Ledge.

We were able to purchase the entire Adirondack collection from the Marrus estate in 2002 because of a recommendation that Jeff’s mentor in rustic antiques, Bert Savage (who had helped Dr. Marrus form his collection over the years), had made to the executor of Dr. Marrus’s estate shortly before Bert himself passed away, also in 2001.

The Marrus collection included important examples by renowned rustic furniture makers who worked in the Adirondacks in the late 19th through early 20th centuries. Those artisans included Ernest Stowe, John Champney, Lee Fountain, Elmer Patterson, E. E. Sumner and George Wilson, along with many anonymous makers of high-quality, iconic rustic furniture.

Birch cottage interior

John Champney yellow birch beds inside the “Birch Cottage.”

One of the Patterson pieces that Dr. Marrus owned was a center table that is a near match to the table that has now come into our possession again. Either Patterson made the two tables as a pair for a particular room placement, or he was simply pleased with the aesthetic power of his innovative design, so made a second one.

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

We shot this photo in 2002 shortly before selling the table from the Marrus collection to a designer who was working on a project for an Adirondack camp owner. This table was exactly the same size and design as the yellow birch and cherry table we now own, with the only difference being the natural shapes of the sinuous branch stretchers within the base and along the length of the four outside corners.

Dr. Marrus used his Patterson table in the “Indian Room” at Hemlock Ledge to display some of his Native American artifacts.

The other Patterson furniture that we acquired within the Marrus collection (shown below in photos we took in 2002)  were a two-seat settee, a pair of yellow birch side tables with square cherry tops, a yellow birch side table with a half-round cherry top, and a yellow birch book stand.

Elmer Patterson Adirondack settee

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Tables

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

 

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Book Stand

 

All of these additional pieces of Elmer Patterson furniture are still being used and appreciated in rustic lakeside homes within and beyond the Adirondacks.

The Next Chapter

Being specialists in antique rustic furniture over the course of several decades has allowed us to develop our own relationship with the significant pieces of Adirondack furniture history that we’ve had the opportunity to look after, however briefly. One of the privileges of playing a role in this furniture’s legacy of ownership is that we’re able to tell its past and evolving story, in which our customers become a new chapter.

 

Elmer Patterson Adirondack Table

Hunter with Dog: A 19th Century Vernacular Sculpture

01.23.2019

19th century hunter with dog carving

 

This gracefully stylized, full-figure, three-dimensional portrait of a hunter with his dog, is carved from black walnut. It is signed on the bottom in careful cursive lettering: “Jas. Smith 1842 Albany, New York.”

 

 

19th century hunter with dog carving

 

The carving captures the affectionate relationship between the man and his dog. The dog looks relaxed, faithful and trusting, while the man conveys his own attachment to the dog by letting it rest its head comfortably, almost possessively, across his thigh.

 

19th century hunter with dog carving

 

The following photos from the same time period—daguerreotypes from the 1840s to 1860—show very similar poses of hunters with dogs and shooting accessories. Unlike the smiling norm of modern photo portraits, these men look rather formal and somber, as does the carved hunter. (Images sourced online from ebay and other auction sites.)

 

early photo of hunter with dog

early photo of a hunter with his dog

 

early photo of a hunter with his dog

 

Although the hunter sculpture is relatively large for a figural wood carving (16″ high, 10.5″ deep, 5″ wide), the overall detailing is minimal. The man’s face, ears and hair are representationally rather than realistically carved,

 

19th century hunter with dog sculpture

 

as are the dog’s body and face.

 

19th century hunter with dog sculpture

 

The hunter’s clothing is similarly sparsely represented as a simple single-breasted coat with a collar continuous with its lapel.

 

19th century hunter with dog sculpture

 

The only other elements in the sculpture are the hunter’s gun and shot pouch, both of which are carved with just enough detail to capture the essence of the objects and communicate clearly what they are.

 

19th century hunter carving

early photo of a hunter with his dog

The man on the right carries a shot pouch similar to the one depicted in the carving.

 

We believe that it is the minimalist representation and restraint in decorative detailing that give this sculpture such a compelling presence.

 

19th century hunter with dog sculpture

 

Vernacular Art

This carving is a stellar example of a genre of art created by untrained artists, also known as “vernacular art” or folk art to distinguish it from fine art produced by professional artists. In 18th and 19th  century America, where academically trained artists such as Charles Wilson Peale painted fine oil portraits of famous politicians and war heroes, regular people such as Jas. (19th century shorthand for James) Smith used materials they had on hand to capture familiar scenes and people in their everyday lives.

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Historical Canoe Trip Journal

12.07.2018

1864 canoe trip journal
This small (3” x 5”) leather-bound journal documents a canoe trip taken by five men in two birch bark canoes in the Moosehead Lake region of Maine during the Civil War. The diary, titled “Moosehead Lake, ME. Trip in Canoes,” was kept by L. G. Barrett of Newton, Massachusetts from August 22 – September 13, 1864.

1864 canoe trip journal Moosehead Lake Maine

All entries are in pencil so luckily have not faded and are readable—albeit with the help of a magnifying glass to interpret the small, cursive handwriting. There are 77 pages of writing, plus the author’s name, hometown, and date on the flyleaf, and trip expense tallies on the endpapers.

1864 canoe trip journal

There are also 9 charming small sketches.

1864 canoe trip journal Moosehead Lake Maine

Barrett’s sketch showing two canoes traveling up Moosehead Lake toward Kineo House, with Spencer and Katahdin Mountains to the east.

 

Barrett’s chronicles provide descriptions of traveling to and within Maine during the time period, as well as insights into the personalities and adventures of the canoe trippers. Rich historical details are packed into the journal’s pages.

The Region and Canoe Trip Itinerary

Moosehead Lake is the largest lake in Maine (40 miles long x 10 miles wide), with 400 miles of shoreline, a maximum depth of 230’, 40 islands, and a famous geological feature called Mount Kineo whose cliffs rise 700’ straight up from the lake shore.

Mt. Kineo cliffs

(image: mainememory.net)

By 1864, Moosehead Lake and Greenville, Maine, the town on its southern shore, were already bustling with lumbermen passing through on their way to northern forests, and well-to-do rusticators and sportsmen visiting the elegant Kineo House hotel.

Kineo House

Kineo House on Kineo Point, Moosehead Lake, c. 1880 (image: mainememory.net)

 

The first steamboats had begun providing ferry service along the length of the lake in 1835, providing access to hunting camps, farms, and villages before railroads were built. By 1900, 25 steamboats were actively transporting people, livestock, mail and supplies up the lake on regular schedules.

steamboats on Moosehead Lake

Two steamboats docked on Moosehead Lake, c. 1890 (image: mainememory.net)

Barrett and his canoe tripping party planned to paddle up Moosehead Lake from Greenville, portage across the Northeast Carry to the West Branch of the Penobscot River, and then go downriver to Chesuncook Lake, and thus into the true wilderness of Maine.

1864 canoe trip journal Moosehead Lake Maine

It is plausible that their trip itinerary was influenced by the writings of fellow Massachusetts adventurer Henry David Thoreau who had lived in Concord, just 15 miles northwest of Barrett’s hometown of Newton. Thoreau’s book, The Maine Woods, published posthumously in 1864, documented a canoe trip up Moosehead Lake, over to Chesuncook Lake and beyond. One can imagine the men from Newton being inspired to visit this area that Thoreau so eloquently described.

Chronology of the Trip with Journal Excerpts

The following provides some daily highlights of the trip, along with photographs gleaned from the internet that provide images of what the men were experiencing (although most of the photos are from a slightly later time period, taken after the 1888 introduction of the first roll film camera which made it easier for travelers to take photos).

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White-tailed Deer Family: Three Wall Sculptures by Noah Weiss

09.19.2018

Noah Weiss carving

These large-scale carved deer – a buck, doe and fawn – are products of the artistic vision and incredible talent of self-taught carver Noah Weiss (1842-1907).

The wall sculptures are carved from pine – in relief on the front and flat on the back – to be approximately half life-size, and they are in fairly accurate proportion to one other.

deer family

The upright buck is 35” wide x 47” high; the grazing doe is 40” wide x 29” high; and the standing fawn is 25” wide x 20” high. (The shoulder height of an adult White-tailed Deer is 32” to 40” and their body length runs 52” to 95”.)

Noah Weiss deer carvings

 

Weiss painted and varnished these deer, as he did all his carvings, and he added a real antler to the buck (he was also known to have added real antlers to a carving of an elk head, and horns to the carving of a bison head). Most compellingly, Weiss captured each deer’s elegant body shape and proportions – their long, thin legs, pointed snouts and alert ears.

Noah Weiss deer carvings Noah Weiss deer carvings

 

These circa 1890-1900 deer carvings turned up recently in Northampton, Pennsylvania, the town where Weiss lived, worked as an innkeeper, and produced sculptural works of art to decorate the walls of his inn. Fortunately, newspaper accounts during Weiss’s lifetime as well as research by art historians have documented details of the life history and creations of this incredible self-taught artist.

Noah Weiss: Hotelier and “Untaught Sculptor”

Noah Weiss was born in 1842 in Pennsylvania where his paternal great-grandfather had settled upon emigrating from Germany. He grew up on a farm in the Lehigh Valley region (near Allentown, PA) where as a boy his artistic talents were recognized by a wealthy doctor who offered to send him abroad to study art. But his father declined, saying he needed Noah to work on the farm. Thus Noah had little formal education and no encouragement or tutoring in art.

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“The Fighting Muskellunge” by Arnoud Wydeveld

07.23.2018

fish painting by Arnoud Wydeveld

 

This dramatic scene of natural predation depicts a Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) capturing an adult Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis). The brass plate on the frame titles the painting “The Fighting Muskellunge” but more appropriate titles may have been “The Fighting Green-Winged Teal” or “The Predatory Muskellunge.” Although anyone who has ever had a Muskellunge on a line knows that it is indeed a fighter, in this portrayal it is the duck that is fighting for its life while the Muskellunge is about to enjoy easy pickings.

 

fish painting by Arnoud Wydeveld

 

This circa 1875 oil on canvas is signed (lower right) “A. Wyderveld N.Y.” Arnoud Wydeveld (1883-1888) was a distinguished Dutch American artist who was born in Holland and immigrated to America in 1853 to join his brother who had settled in New York a few years earlier.

His original Dutch name was Arnoldus van Weydevelt, but in America he was known as Arnoud Wydeveld—although he exhibited at the National Academy in New York using several different spellings of his last name including Wydefield, Wydefeldt, and Wyderveld, which is how he signed this painting.

 

fish painting by Arnoud Wydeveld

 

In America Wydeveld became known primarily for his luminous still-life portraits of flowers and fruit. He was influenced by the 17th- and 18th-century works of Dutch Old Master genre painters such as Johannes Vermeer, but his elegant paintings also incorporate elements of more contemporary mid-19th century European styles.

 

(from questroyal.com)

 

During his lifetime, Wyderveld’s still-lifes were exhibited in prestigious galleries, such as the National Academy in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Brooklyn Art Association.

 

fruit still-life painting by Wydeveld

 

In the 1870s, however, Wydeveld turned his attention to painting fish in their natural habitats. Whereas most of his flower and fruit still-lifes were portrayed on table-top settings, he sometimes depicted arrangements in outdoor settings, so he did have some inclination towards representing natural landscapes throughout his career.

Wydeveld also sometimes included fish and seafood as components of meals in his dining table tableaux, and also painted freshly caught fish, so he had previously portrayed fish from an edibles perspective.

 

Wydeveld fish painting

 

What inspired his transition towards painting lively fish in active scenes—artwork that fits within the sporting art rather than still-life genre—is not documented. One possibility is that he had taken up fishing himself and was thus inspired by observing the beauty of fish and their behaviors in their natural element.

 

Wydeveld fish painting

 

Wydeveld applied the skills he had honed during his years as a still-life painter to portraying fish in the wild, including an eye for detail and the ability to impart texture and a life-like presence in his painted depictions. This painting of a Muskellunge and Green-winged Teal is a masterful product of the artist’s focus on fish during the 1870s.

 

Arnoud Wydeveld fish painting

Frame size: 34.5″ h x 42.5″ w; Sight size: 27.5″ h x 35.5″ w

 

fish painting by Arnoud Wydeveld

The painting (seen from the back) has been relined and restretched for longevity.

 

Detail of the painting’s period frame.

 

Clearly the star of this painting is the Muskellunge, affectionately known throughout its range as “muskie” (it is also the state fish of Wisconsin). Wydeveld depicted this muskie lurking in the bay of a large, horizonless lake, perhaps meant to represent one of the Great Lakes that it populates.

 

Muskellunge painting by Arnoud Wydeveld

This muskie’s dark coloration and spotted pattern are typical of Muskellunge found in the Great Lakes, while in other locations their skin can be more barred or clear.

 

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Rare Old Hickory Daybed

05.22.2018

Old Hickory daybed

Having handled lots of hickory furniture over the years, we’ve seen the majority of furniture forms that are documented either in books or in our collection of vintage hickory furniture company catalogs. While no antique hickory furniture could be called common, some forms appear on the market more frequently than others.

There are several reasons for the differing availability of hickory furniture forms. One is that certain types of furniture, such as hickory hoop arm or “Andrew Jackson” chairs (shown below), were made in every decade of hickory furniture production for over 50 years, and several different hickory furniture manufacturers made nearly identical versions of popular styles.

hickory hoop arm chair

Another reason is that a greater number of certain forms were produced and sold in a given year reflecting differing demand, for side chairs versus desks, for instance. Finally, some types of furniture such as dressers and other case pieces, have very little market turnover—once they are in a home they tend to stay there, even when the homes themselves (especially summer cottages in remote locations) change hands.

 

Old Hickory dresser

 

So it is always a bit of a thrill when we find a form that we have never or seldom seen on the market. That is the case with this Old Hickory daybed, which is only the second one that we’ve seen or owned in over 25 years of buying and selling hickory furniture.

 

Old Hickory daybed

Old Hickory Daybed dimensions: 74″ wide, 27″ deep, 33″ high back, 17″ high seat

 

This daybed appears in the 1942 catalog titled “Old Hickory Furniture by Old Hickory of Martinsville.”

 

Old Hickory 1942 catalog

 

It was listed as No. 949W “Day Bed With Back” and the description includes the note: “Back is adjusted with ropes.” That pretty well sums up this intriguing piece of furniture. This one is in good vintage condition, retaining its original open-weave rattan cane seat and back.

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George Browne’s “A Bluebill Drake”

02.19.2018

When I look at a duck painting by George, I am immediately transferred there with the duck; I am on its level, whether it be a power stroke, setting wings, or a flight pattern.
To me that is the greatness of George.
(Sporting art dealer Robert Fraser, Ordeman & Schreiber, 20041)

 

The best sporting art—appreciative representations of game, fish, waterfowl, and upland birds, along with their landscape settings and sometimes sportsmen in the act of pursuing them—is interpretive rather than academic. Sporting artists strive to do more than accurately represent the physical features of an animal; they also seek to capture the ambiance of a moment in time, such as a misty trout stream at dawn, the startled flush of a covey in grasslands, or—as in this oil on canvas panel painting of a Greater Scaup by George Browne that we are now offering for sale (update: sold 2/19/18)—a duck alighting on an open patch of water.

Painting titled verso “A Bluebill Drake,” signed lower left George Browne. Untouched condition with light soiling and minor abrasions, in its original molded gilt frame. Canvas size is 16″ x 20″ and frame size is 20.75″ x 24.5″.

In the opinion of sporting art connoisseurs, George Browne (1918-1958) was not only a master at painting animals and their habitats, but also of that hard-to-capture essence of place, time, and the spirit of wildlife. Browne was as talented as, yet less well-known than, his sporting art predecessors and contemporaries—luminaries such as Frank Benson (1862-1951), Carl Rungius (1869-1959), Frances Lee Jacques (1887-1969), and Aiden Ripley (1896-1969). Although Browne was quite prolific as an artist, he produced a more limited body of work than these other sporting artists, and had less time to be promoted and appreciated, given the brevity of his professional career due to his untimely death in a shooting accident at the age of 40.

George Browne with his dog “Kelly” (from Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

Browne’s painting of a Greater Scaup, known colloquially as a “bluebill” or “broadbill,” exemplifies his expert ability to capture a bird’s shape, feather patterns, and posture.

Wildlife artists such as Browne must have superb observational acuity, a skill they have in common with both naturalists and sportsmen.

A Greater Scaup coming in for a landing (photo from gardenwalkgardentalk.com)

 

This label on the back of Browne’s painting reads “A Bluebill Drake” Canvas size: 16″ x 20″ “The bluebill or broad bill is the larger of the two scaups and generally inclined to salt water bays and estuaries of both coasts of this continent in winter.”

George Browne’s observational skills were honed during his many hours in the outdoors watching wildlife as well as hunting. His field notes, a sample of which follows (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004), are not unlike those that a naturalist would write while observing birds, although Browne’s observations of the subtle plays of light are distinctly those of someone with an artistic eye and purpose:

Bird: Canada Geese 13
Background: Timbered Ridges
Lighting: Sun just set, Early twilight
Distance: 35 yrds over River
General Impressions: Birds noticeably flying fast. General color tone cold. Black areas noticeable lack of detail. Head and body unaffected by motion of wings, but base of neck and chest rise and fall alternately with wing beats. Chests cool whitish gray, check marks buckskin color. More light areas visible on geese in profile than when coming and going. Flock seemed dense, birds between 6 and 8 ft. apart on average.

Browne often captured the finer details of feather colors and patterns of the birds he had shot by creating small oil sketches that he then kept in his studio for reference. His wife Tibby once wrote:

Fishing and shooting were his relaxation, inspiration and spiritual refreshment…George prided himself in deriving the multi-faceted satisfaction from the hunt: the bird in the hand, the sketch of the same, the meal of the same, and finally the use of the feathers of the same for fly tying. (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)

Browne’s total immersion in his subject matter comes forth in the insightful representation of a Greater Scaup in this painting.

 

Signature in lower left of “A Bluebill Drake”

Fortunately, Browne was as fastidious in keeping records about his art production as he was about the accuracy of his paintings, which allows us to trace the creation of this painting to 1945, and its original sale to 1950. Before exploring this painting’s history, however, let’s first put it into the context of Browne’s life and career.


George Browne’s Early Development as an Artist

The life story of George Browne must begin with his father, Belmore Browne (1880-1954), an accomplished artist, author, explorer, mountaineer, hunter, all-around outdoorsman, and widely respected man of integrity. Belmore was arguably the most important influence on George, who followed remarkably closely in his father’s footsteps.

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A Wildlife Woodcut

11.17.2017

In all of the years that we’ve admired the book illustrations of outdoor and natural history artist Henry B. Kane, we had never seen a stand-alone piece of his artwork on the market until recently finding this woodcut (now sold).

mouse woodcut by Henry B. Kane

It is a portrait of a mouse (likely a white-footed mouse, Peromyscus leucopus), rendered in a small scale befitting its subject (frame size: 8.5” wide x 9” high; woodcut size: 4” square). The crisp black and white contrasts that comprise the image of the mouse nestled on a small branch of a red pine in its woodsy home habitat, are the distinctive attributes of woodcuts. The artist was able to achieve great clarity of detail by carving a block of wood so that when inked and pressed onto paper the portions of the woodblock that were raised in relief join with those that were gouged away to create a stunning black-and-white image.

mouse woodcut by Henry B. Kane

This woodcut is one of a limited edition, number 16 of 100, and is signed by the artist in pencil in the lower right.

mouse woodcut by Henry B. Kane

The artwork was matted and framed in Boston, not far Lincoln, Massachusetts where Kane lived for many years with his wife, two daughters, and a son.

mouse woodcut by Henry B. Kane

mouse woodcut by Henry B. Kane

While Kane’s personal and professional lives were rooted in the Boston area, his artistic abilities and book projects allowed him to travel in his mind’s eye, by immersing himself in the variety of habitats and settings that his collaborating authors explored. He was a rare individual who was equally drawn to and adept at science and art, as well as skilled in administration. What else do we know about this accomplished man?

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Pyrography Center Table

09.26.2017

pyrography center table

This graceful center table (30″ wide, 21.75″ deep, 30″ high) is a stellar example of a decorative technique called pyrography, literally meaning fire writing, but better known as wood burning (a.k.a. “burnt wood etching” and “pokerwork”). The table dates from circa 1910, so was created during the late 19th-early 20th century time period when pyrography reached peak popularity with artists and crafters.

pyrography on birch bark

Before describing this table in more detail, it is worth recounting a bit of the fascinating background of pyrography which includes pieces of history from the domains of art, science, society, and commerce.

A Brief History of Pyrography

Burning designs into wood, leather, and bone for artistic expression dates back to at least the 1st century AD. In early times designs were etched with hot implements that needed to be constantly reheated as the artwork progressed.

That inconvenient and tiresome technique changed radically in 1889 when an artist named François Manuel-Perier introduced a “pyrography machine” at the International Exposition in Paris. He had adapted a medical instrument that a French physician had invented in 1875 for cauterizing wounds. The tool had an insulated handle with a sharp tip made of platinum, a metal which was uniquely able to absorb a certain gaseous mixture that could keep the tip hot. 

Within a year, a compact version of Manuel-Perier’s thermo-pyrography tool, made by Abbott Brothers Manufacturing, was being sold in England within a kit called “The Vulcan Wood Etching Machine.”

The basic necessities included in the kit were pencils with varying size platinum tips, an alcohol spirit lamp, a jar of liquid benzene, and two lengths of rubber tubing – one connected to a bellows and the other connected to the hollow platinum pencil tip.

The artist would initially heat the sharp platinum tip of the pencil in the flame of the spirit lamp, then extinguish the lamp. While using the pencil tip to burn a design into wood with one hand, the artist would then constantly pump the bellows with their other hand which transmitted benzene vapor through the tube to the platinum point which then absorbed the gas to keep the tip glowing hot.

Conveniently, in 1891, a year after Abbott Brothers introduced its pyrography kits, a book titled A Handbook on Pyrography written by a Mrs. Maud Maude was published in England, declaring that “the art has lately attracted considerable attention and is now a most fashionable art with enthusiastic feminine amateurs.”

The book, along with a series of articles Mrs. Maude penned for the U.S. magazine The Delineator in 1892, gave explicit instructions for producing pyrographic art using the Vulcan kit, thereby helping the art form became a fad as a home craft, particularly among women. It turns out that Mrs. Maud Maude was a pseudonym for Ann Maud Abbott Freeman, a sister of the Abbott Brothers who manufactured the Vulcan pyrography kit. Savvy marketing, indeed.

Additional publications encouraging the craft of pyrography as a “delightful and profitable pastime” for women followed, including the 1894  Fancy Work for Pleasure and Profit by Addie E. Heron which detailed how women could make decorative objects for their own homes or to sell, and the 1903 book 300 Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Lilla Elizabeth Kelley which had a chapter devoted to pyrography filled with detailed instructions as well as encouragements such as, “If the point does not work well at once do not feel vexed.” Thus began the popular trend of adorning household objects such as small boxes, mirrors, frames, and wall plaques with pyrographic art.

 

Riding the wave of pyrography as a popular home craft, the Flemish Art Company was established in Brooklyn, NY around 1900 to began producing pyrographic objects commercially.

Flemish Art Company

(from pyromuse.org)

The company manufactured its own wooden objects – wastebaskets, hand mirrors, tabourettes, handkerchief boxes, wall plaques and the like – largely from basswood that they sourced “in the cold climates of  Michigan, Minnesota, and Canada” which the company believed produced superior, whiter wood. Their artistic employees, many of whom were women, then hand-decorated the objects with pyrographic designs. The company’s artists also engraved metal plates that were heated and pressed onto wood to decorate some of their commercial products.

Flemish Art Company

A Flemish Art Company production room (from pyromuse.org)

 

A Flemish Art Company artist at work (from pyromuse.org)

This frame (which we owned and sold several years ago), depicting a sporting woman with a tennis racket and bag of golf clubs, was likely handmade by a Flemish Art Company artist.

pyrography frame

(cherrygallery.com archives)

The Flemish Art Company also sold pyrography kits that included paints, stains, waxes and varnishes, instruction booklets, and other handy tools for do-it-yourself pyrographers.

(from pyromuse.org)

One particularly interesting accessory was the “Flemish Art non-explosive absorbent – a cotton-like substance called asbestos” which crafters were encouraged to “place in the benzene bottle to absorb the volatile fluid make it safe and non-explosive should the bottle break.”  

Although pyrography instruction books included some ominous warnings such as: “You should always have a fire extinguisher at the ready and preferably another person nearby who could help in case of an accident,” and “If a red flame issues from your vent hole, your benzene is too strong,” no one at the time understood the carcinogenic hazards of working with these materials.

Pyrography and the Rustic Aesthetic

The era of mass popularity of pyrography as a crafting activity, roughly 1890 through the 1920s, coincided with the rusticator era when city folk sought not only experiences in the wilderness, but also decorative reminders of nature and adventures in the outdoors. Not surprisingly, then, pyrographic designs have appeared on antique rustic accessories that we’ve handled over the years.

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Rare Rustic Hickory Armoire

06.23.2017

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

Discovering new forms within a familiar genre of antiques is always a thrill for dealers on the hunt for quality pieces. This rustic armoire qualifies as one of those rare finds that expands the horizons of known hickory furniture types, so the discovery is satisfying from both scholarly and aesthetic perspectives.

Antique hickory case pieces appear on the market less frequently than hickory tables and seating because far fewer of them were produced by the six or so original Indiana hickory furniture companies during their manufacturing heyday from the early to mid-1900s.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

We know that this armoire was made by Rustic Hickory Furniture Company of LaPorte, Indiana because it retains that company’s attractive magenta and green paper label intact on the back.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company paper label

Rustic Hickory produced furniture from 1902-1934. The armoire does not appear in their catalogs and we have never seen one on the market, so we suspect it was available only as a special order or perhaps was made in a limited production run. The 1920s Rustic Hickory catalogs did feature bedroom suites (beds, dressers, and costumers) described as “Up-to-date bedroom equipment for the summer home, in typical Rustic Hickory Construction.” Although complementary in style, the armoire was not part of the company’s catalog line of bedroom furniture.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company catalog

Two pages of bedroom furniture from the 1926 Rustic Hickory Furniture Company catalog.

We are able to date the armoire to circa 1925 because it came directly from an Arts-and-Crafts bungalow-style lakeside summer home that was built in the southern sector of the Adirondack Park around that date. Upon completion of the home, the owners furnished it throughout with quality Rustic Hickory and Old Hickory furniture. The armoire had been in the house since it was built.

Although the house was relatively large with spacious bedrooms on a full-story second floor, closet space was limited. Armoires have provided a storage solution in rooms without closets since medieval times when they held everything from armor (hence the derivation of the French word armoire) to tapestries, rugs, linens, and clothing. Up until the early 1900s, most homes were built with few or no closets, so movable, free-standing wardrobe cabinets were common.

Armoire styles have changed throughout the centuries as storage needs and decorative trends evolved. This unique, rustic-style armoire has four doors, and hickory pole trim along the abutting edges of each door, between the sets of doors, and around the front, sides, and top edges of the whole case.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet
There are different storage features inside the left and right pairs of doors.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet
The doors on the left open to an empty space for hanging clothes from a hickory pole closet rod.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

The doors on the right open to two shelves and four drawers for folded garments. The shelves and drawer fronts are made of pine.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet

The interior dimensions of each half of the armoire are 23” wide x 21” deep x 52” wide (the overall exterior dimensions are 51.5” wide x 24.75” deep x 61” high), so it is roomy enough to hold an array of clothing.

Rustic Hickory Furniture Company armoire wardrobe cabinet
Beyond its functionality, this armoire’s grand scale, warm finish, and bark-on hickory poles make it a handsome anchor piece for a rustic room’s decor. It also evokes nostalgia for the simple lifestyle that early 20th-century rusticators enjoyed at their vacation home retreats.