A Lively Experiment

Notes on collections at the RIHS

Of Feet and Seats


Roundabout chair made for John Brown, 1760. Mahogany and maple, attributed to John Goddard. Bequest of Norman Herreshoff, 1990.36.1

If you were to eavesdrop on some specialists discussing furniture without seeing the objects they see, you might wonder what you were listening to. Enthusiastic descriptions of curvaceous and sensual legs, tense toes, and springy arches can be as funny as they are accurate.

There will be a chorus line of shapely legs and ranks of serious chests and tall case clocks on view soon at the Yale University Art Galley, and the RIHS is pleased to be lending 11 works of various kinds to the show.

Some of us prefer chairs, and some of us tables, but the quality and craftsmanship of Rhode Island furniture makers is undisputed.

Every day the John Brown House Museum is open, you can see some of the finest examples of Rhode Island furniture in their natural habitat: a home, where the objects we revere and admire today were everyday tools for comfortable living for their owners.

Chest, 1600-1625. Oak and pine, attributed to John Clawson. Gift of William Field, 1865.2.1

Chest, 1600-1625. Oak and pine, attributed to John Clawson. Gift of William Field, 1865.2.1

Provenance is everything, but we can we lose sight of what that provenance might mean: for this chest, descended in the Field family, the provenance also means use. Perhaps decades storing blankets, sheets, or out-of-season clothes. An afternoon spent as the fortification behind which a six-year-old defended his kingdom. A sunny surface on which a cat reclined. Fantasies, of course, but not beyond the realm of possibility before 1865.

If you visit the exhibition at Yale, you can see the Clawson chest, among other objects, and I hope you’ll enjoy not just the objects themselves, but also imagine the stories of the people who, over time, enjoyed and loved and used these beautiful, useful, objects.

~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections


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