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Purchase Story

Four Centuries of Portsmouth Furniture

Frances McQueeney-Jones Mascolo | July 6th, 2017

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Since the publication of the landmark Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast in 1993 and the exhibition of the same name in 1992, dedicated scholars have continued to explore the subject, widening its scope and adding new objects to the canon. The 2017 exhibition Four Centuries of Furniture in Portsmouth at the Portsmouth Historical Society in Portsmouth through June 18 coincided with the society’s 100th anniversary. It was organized by Gerald W.R. Ward, curatorial director at the society and the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture Emeritus at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Portsmouth scholar and antiques dealer Hollis Brodrick; and curatorial associate Lainey McCartney.


The catalog Four Centuries of Furniture in Portsmouth by Gerald W.R. Ward with Hollis Brodrick and Lainey McCartney is available from the Portsmouth Historical Society at 10 Middle Street, PO Box 728, Portsmouth, New Hampshire 03802, or may be purchased online. For information, call (603) 436-8433 or visit the website (www.portsmouthhistory.org).

While the 1992 exhibition identified Portsmouth furniture as such, Four Centuries looks further at Piscataqua region furniture and decorative accessories, some 50 objects, as they were made and the way they were used in Portsmouth homes throughout the four centuries. Four Centuries also brings to light Portsmouth objects that had not yet been discovered in 1992 and expands the temporal range by including objects made after 1825. At the other end of the spectrum are objects by members of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association, artists who are keeping Portsmouth traditions and techniques alive in 2017. Objects are drawn from public and private collections.


The earliest object on view is a recent discovery, an oak and pine desk box, circa 1685, the fourth known to date among a group of carved furniture from the mid-1680s. Its distinctive carving is seen in the other known examples, and its style and construction links it to the West Country of England. Ralph Morang photo.

What is of more than passing interest is the community that is Portsmouth, which for well over four centuries has been a center of artistry, a town with deep, nurturing respect for its own past and sustained reverence for artifacts. It is a city with a nearly endless list of historic associations. The exhibition and accompanying catalog, Four Centuries of Furniture in Portsmouth, wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation of the remarkable community of scholars, historians, historic entities and museums, dealers, and collectors that is Portsmouth and who have lent or donated objects. It’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to see the city of Portsmouth as the site of some nocturnal game of musical chairs (and other furniture) when objects take to the streets, moving from one collection or another, returning ultimately to their points of origin.


The crest rail of a beechwood armchair, made in England between 1680 and 1690, may have been imported to Portsmouth by Thomas Fernald, one of seven children of naval surgeon Renald Fernald (1605-1656), who served in Colonel John Mason’s company, a group of 80-some initial English settlers who arrived in Portsmouth in 1631. It is carved with a peacock, similar to that on a daybed now at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth. The chair remained in the Fernald family until it was given to the Old Colony Historical Society in Taunton, Massachusetts, by a descendant who died in 1951. It returned to Portsmouth when the society presented it to Strawbery Banke Museum in 1992. Ralph Morang photo.


“Molly’s table,” a maple table made circa 1750 with later oak legs, bears the inscription “This table came from Sir William Pepperell. He gave it to his slave Molly Miles.” A less legible note reveals that “Uncle Tom…cut it down 6".” Molly Miles died in 1827 at the age of 107 and had walked 12 miles to Kittery Point months before her death. The table had belonged to the Foye family, had been used as a television stand, and was given to the Portsmouth Historical Society by Alan and Anne Cutter. Ralph Morang photo.

Early settlers came to Portsmouth, founded in 1623, to fish. What furniture they had was English or a derivation thereof and joined; little has survived. As fishing stocks declined, settlers turned their attention to the rich timber along the Piscataqua River—even as early as the 17th century. By 1660, 15 sawmills operated along the river; by 1700, more than 60 existed. Timber and timber products and exports fostered the early rise of the merchant class. New Hampshire was part of Massachusetts until 1679, when King Charles II separated them; he rejoined them in 1686 and New Hampshire was again a royal province, but until 1741 its governor was merely a lieutenant under the supervision of the governor of Massachusetts.

Banister-back chairs were, according to Hollis Brodrick, a staple of New England chair making. Portsmouth chair makers made these and slat-back examples in quantity for export and local use. Even in the 18th century much Portsmouth furniture found its way into collections up and down the Eastern Seaboard. A banister-back chair, a maple example, made between 1740 and 1790, is carved with a fishtail crest, indicative of its Portsmouth origins, along with the distinctive turnings and molding seen in area chairs. In the exhibition, a maple and ash slat-back armchair, dating from between 1730 and 1780, was made with sausage-turned posts and serpentine arms with the drooping handholds observed on area chairs.


Hollis Brodrick is shown demonstrating the fine points of a Queen Anne Portsmouth maple and ash side chair, made between 1735 and 1745. The front stretcher boasts two caved balls with a reel between them. The side stretchers and the stay rail were made with ogee molding, and the chair rests on sweeping Spanish feet.

A high chest of drawers, made in 1733 for Portsmouth merchant and mariner Joseph Sherburne and inscribed on a veneered heart in the pediment “I + S 1733,” is the earliest dated example of American Queen Anne furniture. It is simply a masterpiece with a splendid array of woods and patterns and three finials. It served as the cover image of the 1993 catalog. At the time of publication, the chest was part of a private collection, but it was given in 1993 by Ruth and Thaxter Brown to the circa 1716 MacPheadris-Warner House, where it had first lived.

A high chest of drawers of black walnut, walnut veneer, birch, and eastern white pine retains the signature of Joseph Davis on a drawer bottom. Made between 1735 and 1745, it is one of only two with a Davis signature. The chest lost its legs at some point; the two front ones were later replaced with cabriole legs, while the rear legs were straight posts. After the chest appeared in Portsmouth Furniture, an anonymous donor to Strawbery Banke helped replace the legs with appropriate ones.


Another recent discovery is a walnut, walnut veneer, and eastern white pine high chest of drawers attributed to Joseph Davis. It is an imposing piece, carved with a large central shell, predominant pilasters, and a molded pediment. While the pediment is a recent replacement, it retains the original cabriole legs.

A walnut slab table from the collections of the Portsmouth Athenaeum may have been made in Portsmouth by Timothy Davis III or his uncle Joseph Buss Jr. sometime between 1730 and 1760. It was owned originally by Kittery Point, Maine, merchant and soldier Sir William Pepperell, turned up in the 19th century at the Wentworth Coolidge mansion, and is now at home at the athenaeum. Its original marble top has been replaced by a grained wood substitute.

A dressing table or server, made in Portsmouth between 1800 and 1810 of mahogany, mahogany veneer, light wood inlay, and pine, is from the collections of the Moffatt-Ladd House & Garden. Made probably by either Judkins and Senter or by Langley Boardman, it was in Boardman’s house in 1900 when William Edward Marvin purchased it from Boardman’s grandchildren. Marvin’s daughter Isabel Marvin King donated it to the Moffatt-Ladd House in 1993. Also from the Moffatt-Ladd House & Garden is a circa 1815 mahogany, mahogany veneer, flame birch veneer, and pine sideboard, attributed to Judkins and Senter.

A 75½" mahogany bathtub was on view in 1920 at the John Paul Jones House when it opened as a museum. It was lent by Woodbury Langdon of Portsmouth, who provided the funds that enabled the Portsmouth Historical Society to acquire it. Its early history is not known.

A card table from a private collection was branded “W. Rice,” indicating that it was probably owned by merchant and privateer William Rice. Branding was almost exclusive to Portsmouth. In the event of a fire, furniture would be removed from a house. Branding allowed the object to be reclaimed by its owner after the fire company had left. Some 16 pieces of furniture branded by Lewis Barnes, a merchant ship captain and a member of the Federal Fire Society in Portsmouth, have survived.

Nineteenth-century furniture reflected the prevailing styles of the day. A sturdy mahogany, mahogany veneer, and pine washstand has been in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society for many years. It was given by Lawrence B. Craig. A large chest of drawers of mahogany, mahogany veneer, and pine, made in Portsmouth between 1835 and 1850 by Samuel Dockum, was the height of fashion. It was given to the Portsmouth Historical Society by Serena Jones, who also gave the society a mahogany marble-top table by Dockum from about 1860-70. It may have been one of his last works from his shop, as he died in 1872.


This pretty kettle stand is attributed to Robert Harrold, who emigrated from England to Portsmouth, where he worked between 1765 and 1792. The stand is dated from between 1765 and 1775. It is one of two examples documented to date of high-style Portsmouth rococo furniture. It is from the Moffatt-Ladd House & Garden, having been given by descendant Robert. J. Mead in 2009. Ralph Morang photo.


This maple, pine, and ash slat-back armchair with a drinking arm, made between 1735 and 1770, would be a one-off were it not for the existence of another in a private collection. The pine drinking arm, attached to its left arm support, tilts and swivels and provides space for a mug, cann, or tankard, spectacles, and reading material. The chair was owned by Israel Sack when it was published in Wallace Nutting’s 1921 Furniture of the Pilgrim Century, 1620-1720. The drinking arm could be considered by some a writing arm. Ralph Morang photo.

Diplomacy came to Portsmouth at the beginning of the 20th century when the Russian-Japanese Peace Conference took place over the course of August in 1905 at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The Treaty of Portsmouth, signed September 5, 1905, ended the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. Mahogany furniture used during negotiations, patterned on that of the Cabinet Room of the White House, was ordered from retailer W.B. Moses & Sons, Washington, D.C., through the Derby Desk Company of Boston. A mahogany and metal swiveling office chair is in the Portsmouth Athenaeum collection; an armchair and a table are from the collection of Charles B. Doleac. The two chairs and the table were sold at the end of the conference by the Portsmouth Furniture Company.

Four Centuries of Furniture in Portsmouth expands the outer boundaries of Portsmouth furniture with the addition of objects from the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association, a group of roughly two dozen artists who work in traditional and innovative designs. A maple side chair made in 2017 by Portsmouth native Thomas P. Hand Sr. (b. 1949), now of Rye, is his homage to John Gaines III (1704-1743). Jeffrey Cooper (b. 1951) is represented by a cherry armchair with floral carving. Cooper also created animal-carved benches for the Portsmouth Public Library and prepared coffins for the 2015 reinterment ceremony at the African Burying Ground in Portsmouth.


Gerald W.R. Ward, curatorial director at the society and the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture Emeritus at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is shown discussing the history of furniture making as it began in Portsmouth.


This looking glass from England or the New Hampshire or Maine seacoast area was made between 1705 and 1725, probably of beech or white pine, with red and black grain painting. The glass was acquired by Katharine B. Howe, later Palmer, who collected all things New Hampshire. In 1932, she gave it to the Currier Museum of Art, which deaccessioned it; it is now in a private collection. Another looking glass bore a label stating that it had been brought from Portsmouth by John Martin under his arm when he married Mary in 1826. No further information is available on Mr. and Mrs. Martin so far.

A series of lectures in tandem with the exhibition began with “From Joiner to Cabinetmaker: Early Furniture from the Seacoast” by Ward and Brodrick, who led gallery tours for the study of a number of objects in the exhibition. Ward reported that Brodrick retains handling privileges for the objects.

Ronald P. Bourgeault, whose Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth has brought much Portsmouth furniture and accessories to market, first visited the city at the ripe old age of six. His lecture, “Sixty Years of Antiquing in the Piscataqua Area,” included such gems as the confession that as a young dealer he was advised by no less a light than dealer Hymie Grossman of Boston to describe Portsmouth furniture as “from Newburyport.” Times have changed, however. Bourgeault explained that people were not so willing to spend a lot of money on formal New Hampshire furniture back then. He continues to handle Portsmouth furniture, and many prized objects have come to light through his auction house, although he observed that many Portsmouth pieces came to light at country sales. Bourgeault noted the highlights of Portsmouth furniture that he found—before and after the 1992 exhibition.

Brock Jobe, professor of American decorative arts at Winterthur, discussed the trajectory of the market for Portsmouth furniture. Before the exhibition and publication of Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast in 1992 and 1993, little value was placed on Portsmouth furniture. Afterward, Portsmouth furniture became highly coveted and pricey. Jobe cited a Portsmouth flame birch and mahogany serpentine chest of drawers, “a masterpiece,” he said, that sold at Skinner in 2011 for $314,000. He pointed to a Portsmouth reverse serpentine chest of drawers attributed to Langley Boardman that had sold in the same sale for $2726. He noted that today as collectors look to downsize, the younger generation often has no space for antiques. Nonetheless, keep your eyes peeled; several auction houses have some fine examples this summer.

Johanna McBrien, a Portsmouth furniture scholar, discussed Langley Boardman (1774-1833), who arrived from Salem in 1798, his training, and his place and influences on and from Portsmouth furniture. She noted that Boardman’s workbench is still in use.

For more information, call (603) 436-8433 or visit the website (www.portsmouthhistory.org).


This dovetailed pine tool chest with iron hardware, circa 1800, is a rare survivor, because of its daily use. It was likely owned by Portsmouth silversmith William Cadogan Simes, who worked between 1795 and his death in 1824.


This maple and ash slat-back chair, 1705-20, is one of a group made in abundance in the seacoast area. Ralph Morang photo.


Originally published in the July 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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