Archives: 2023

Editor's Welcome
Research Note: Provenance and Profile — The Rediscovery of the Earliest Known Southern Chair

Dale L. Couch

The monumental increase in the online availability of archives and other primary sources has completely revolutionized American decorative arts research. The efforts of the past to find even the most basic facts required massive investments of time and travel—today, such information is accessible with just a few key strokes. At the same time, the relatively weak and few finding aids of archives and other repositories have been supplanted by massive scanning and indexing projects, often full-text keyword searchable. The result is that today’s researchers can quickly and easily find information that was elusive to their predecessors—even those scholars working as recently as a decade ago. An additional result is that the re-examination of provenance with these tools can shift the profile of unique objects within the field of southern decorative art. An excellent example of this transformation in material culture research is the attribution of a seventeenth-century American turned armchair … Continued

Porter Clay, “A Very Excellent Cabinetmaker”—Part One: Biographical Account

James D. Birchfield
Fig. 1: “The late Rev. Porter Clay,” engraved by Waterman Lilly Ormsby (1809-1883), New York, NY; published in the “Biographical Sketch of Rev. Porter Clay,” The Baptist Memorial, and Monthly Record, Devoted to the History, Biography, Literature and Statistics of the Denomination, Enoch Hutchinson, ed., vol. X, New Series vol. III (1851), 213. Available online: (accessed 10 December 2014).

  Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a two-part article presenting new research into the life and furniture of the cabinetmaker Porter Clay. The companion article, Porter Clay, “A Very Excellent Cabinetmaker”—Part Two: Associated Furniture, authored by Macklin Cox, will be published by the MESDA Journal in 2016. Among Kentucky’s earliest and finest cabinetmakers was Porter Clay, brother of one of America’s foremost statesmen, Henry Clay.[1] Henry Clay is said to have declared of his brother, “He was the greatest man I ever knew.”[2] And, in an 1844 speech to the cabinetmakers of Columbia, South Carolina, Clay made a point of asserting that his brother was “once a very excellent Cabinet Maker.”[3] While Henry Clay devoted his life to a long and conspicuous career in national politics, one in which he attained lasting fame, his sibling Porter Clay led a mercurial existence. Brother to a United States senator, … Continued

Research Note: “…that ingenious artist Mr. G. Beck” — George Beck’s American Wilderness

Daniel Kurt Ackermann

Died — On the 14th of this month, after a long and tedious illness, Mr. George Beck, in the 64th year of his age… his eminence in landscape painting may rank him amongst the best painters of wild nature… but he languished here almost unnoticed… .[1] In March of 1813, three months after the notice of George Beck’s death in the Kentucky Gazette, the auctioneer Daniel Bradford advertised in that newspaper that he would soon sell a choice collection of pictures by the late artist to benefit his widow, Mary Beck. “As the talents of Mr. Beck were so much neglected during his life,” Bradford advertised, “it is to be presumed that the citizens of Lexington will show their liberality and public spirit in purchasing these pictures… [which] are the only specimens of Mr. B.’s genius that they can ever have an opportunity of possessing.”[2] Not all of the pictures … Continued

Pioneer Refinement: Kentucky’s Mitchum Family Silver Purchased from Asa Blanchard

Gary Albert

Brightly reflecting the August afternoon sun, the impressive silver service is displayed on a round mahogany table at the center of an elaborately appointed parlor. Along with the tea service—which includes a pair of matching teapots—there are a pitcher, tankard, and a dozen beakers. An elderly woman, aged yet stately, sits at the table nostalgically stroking the polished surface of the teapot nearest her. The year is 1868 and Susan Mitchum Ball is dying. She has asked her adult children to gather that day at Maple Hill [Figure 1], the plantation carved from the wilderness by her father and mother in the 1780s, situated four miles south of the Kentucky town of Versailles. She wants each of them to have and cherish—just as she has—the heirloom silver that their grandparents had commissioned fifty years earlier from the Lexington silversmith Asa Blanchard. — ♦♦◊♦♦ — While the above scenario is loosely … Continued

Research Note: Scottish Bedroom Tables from Scotland to the American South

Elizabeth A. Davison

Simple curiosity drove this research note on Scottish bedroom tables. Although I did not realize it at the time, I first encountered a bedroom table during my study of the Scottish immigrant joiner John Shearer.[1] I first learned of Shearer’s single-leaf table (Figure 1) during Robert Leath’s talk at the international conference Transatlantic Craftsmanship: Scotland and the Americas in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Winterthur Museum in October 2009.[2] At that conference, Scottish furniture historian David Jones gave the lecture “Scottish High-Style Furniture: The Key Types, 1750-1850,” which included a discussion of the bedroom table form.[3] A Scottish bedroom table (Figure 2) is a single-leaf table with the leaf, or “flap,” hanging down the back of the table, most often with a drawer on the front rail but sometimes on the end rails (Figure 3). It was intended as a multi-functional table … Continued

Reflecting on the Price-Strother Map of North Carolina: An Uncommon Exercise for an Uncommon Map

Jay Lester
Fig. 1: “…First Actual Survey of the State of North Carolina…,” Jonathan Price and John Strother (surveyors), W.H. Harrison (engraver), C.P. Harrison (printer), 1807, Philadelphia, PA. Ink on paper; HOA: 72 cm, WOA: 152 cm. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Washington, DC, G3900 1808 .P7 Vault. Online: (accessed 27 May 2014.)

Over two centuries have passed since Jonathan Price and John Strother published their noteworthy map of North Carolina (Figure 1). The Price-Strother map is significant for a number of reasons, but foremost because it was the first map of the state of North Carolina that was drawn from an actual survey. Unfortunately, the map’s importance has largely been overlooked by scholars and historians since its creation. Indeed, a scant fourteen years after the map was published, Jonathan Price’s eulogist observed: “It is believed that neither the public utility and vast importance of the [map], nor the difficulty in executing it, have ever been reflected on by one in a thousand.”[1] Those words would prove to be prescient. In the ensuing two hundred years since the map was released, very few scholars have “reflected on” Price and Strother’s remarkable achievement that was more than fifteen years in the making. The first … Continued

2014 Editor’s Welcome

Detail from a sideboard by William Buckland and carved by William Bernard Sears, 1761-1764, Richmond County, Virginia. Walnut with marble top; HOA: 34-3/16", WOA: 44-7/8", DOA: 28". Collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), Acc. 3425.

For those interested in material culture, the American South has been—and for some continues to be—terra incognita. The 1952 exhibit “Furniture of the Old South” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and its catalog, published in The Magazine ANTIQUES, is generally recognized as the beginning of serious scholarship in southern decorative arts. They are correct (mostly), but it is always a pleasant surprise to come upon a much earlier attempt to champion southern antiques against the bias of collectors above the Mason-Dixon line. This summer, I received an email from Sumpter Priddy, a friend and respected antiques dealer and scholar. Attached to Sumpter’s email was the foreword to a 1923 auction catalog that immediately captured my attention for its very early attempt to promote an appreciation of furniture made in the South—nearly thirty years before the 1952 exhibit. For sale was the Mrs. Caroline Coleman Duke collection being auctioned … Continued

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