Photos courtesy Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
A Philadelphia high chest made of mahogany, yellow pine, tulip poplar, and sabicu—sometimes known as horseflesh mahogany—that descended in the family of Sarah (Franklin) and Richard Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter and son-in-law, is just one of more than 400 objects that Joseph “Joe” and June Hennage bequeathed to Colonial Williamsburg.
While it is not known if Deborah Read Franklin purchased the high chest while her common-law husband, Ben, was abroad from 1765 to 1775, it is known that the younger couple lived in Franklin’s Philadelphia house from the time of their marriage in 1767 until shortly after Benjamin Franklin’s death in 1790. It is possible that Ben Franklin stored his breeches in this high chest that will be on view this spring at the recently enlarged and reopened DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg in the exhibition A Gift to the Nation: The Joseph and June Hennage Collection.
Colonial Williamsburg says the gift is the most significant bequest of American decorative arts in its 90-year history. It equals Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s gift of 400-plus pieces of folk art, from which the collection has grown to number 7000 pieces today, according to Ronald L. Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine Chief Curator and vice president for museums, preservation, and historic resources. “The Hennages’ decision to place the entire collection in a museum setting is a clear example of their public-spirited generosity,” Hurst said.
Joseph Hennage (1921-2010), a self-made businessman, made his fortune in the printing business. After he returned from the U.S. Navy in 1945 he bought out the printing company he had worked for before the war. He hired June Stedman (1927-2020) as his secretary, and they were married in 1947. Together they grew Hennage Creative Printers in Alexandria, Virginia, into a sizable company. Embracing direct mail advertising, they printed fliers as well as catalogs, and in time they printed books.
In the late 1940s Joe and June Hennage made their first trip to Colonial Williamsburg. Joe loved American history; his hero was Benjamin Franklin, who was also a printer. His first collection was Benjamin Franklin memorabilia, which he later sold. Joe and June Hennage admired the period rooms in Colonial houses and soon found themselves swept up in the world of collecting American antiques.
They filled their house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with chests and tables, silver, and Asian porcelain. In the 1960s they met Clement Conger, who was hell-bent on refurbishing the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Reception Rooms with donations of the finest antique American furniture, silver, porcelain, and paintings. The Hennages went to Conger’s fund-raising parties, and soon Joe Hennage joined Conger’s committee. The Hennages also raised funds for the National Archives and the U.S. Supreme Court building and were patrons of Monticello, the White House, and the National Portrait Gallery. They were especially generous to Colonial Williamsburg.
From the 1960s on the Hennages never missed the Antiques Forum at Colonial Williamsburg, the annual February conclave of collectors, dealers, and curators from all parts of the country. It opened new worlds to them. The forum came right after Americana Week in New York City in January, when most of the same people attended the Winter Antiques Show, previewed sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and shopped at Ginsburg & Levy (where the Hennages bought the Bache high chest) and Israel Sack, Inc. Harold Sack was Joe Hennage’s major advisor.
Coffeepot, circa 1775, by Richard Humphreys (active 1771-91), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Made for the Taggart family of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, of silver and wood, this statuesque coffeepot was Joseph Hennage’s favorite piece of silver. As Elizabeth Stillinger wrote in American Antiques: The Hennage Collection (1990), “For [Joe], acquiring an object owned by a distinguished American family establishes a link with the colonial—or particularly desirable in his eyes—the Revolutionary—period of our history. This superb rococo coffeepot...embodies the three requirements for the most desirable antiques: outstanding craftsmanship, its maker’s mark, and a solid history of descent in an American family.”
Elizabeth Stillinger’s book about the Hennage collection, American Antiques: The Hennage Collection, published in 1990, documents the Sack era, the heyday of the glorification of American decorative arts. When asked to explain it further she said, “The Sacks maintained that the pioneering American spirit was embodied in antique objects that, with their straightforwardness, simplicity, and purity of line, exemplified a uniquely American kind of beauty. It was an explicitly patriotic view that, along with an ‘only the best’ designation of the objects they sold, promoted the idea of early American interiors as having been inhabited by well-to-do citizens of impeccable taste.” New scholarship has allowed us to rethink this.
When Joe Hennage landed the job of printing the Israel Sack catalogs, the wish book for well-heeled collectors, his relationship with Harold Sack flourished.
“Joe enjoyed making a deal to buy a piece of furniture from Harold Sack as much as Harold Sack relished a deal with Joe to print the Sack catalog,” remembers Deanne Levison, who worked at Israel Sack, Inc., for a decade in the 1990s. “Harold would always find the perfect piece of child-size furniture for Joe to give June for a special occasion.”
June called these small pieces of furniture her toys. The Hennages also accessorized their American furniture with American silver and China trade porcelain made for the American market.
In 1977 Joe Hennage got great satisfaction in publishing “the second printing of Hornor’s Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture,” a book first published in 1935, a lasting contribution to the field. In the foreword Hennage said sellers of rare books had offered the 1935 book for as much as $800. Today a used copy of the 1977 or 1988 reprint can be found for under $50.
Marion S. Carson, who had been married to William Macpherson Hornor Jr., explained in the preface to the 1977 reprint that the study of decorative arts was to help answer questions about “how our founding fathers, our merchant princes, our plantation owners, and even the ordinary citizens lived.” In the 1977 reprint Hennage included color illustrations of ten pieces of Philadelphia furniture that he said were from his own collection in order to illustrate “the quality and beauty of this area of American craftsmanship and art.” Only one piece, a desk-and-bookcase, remained in the collection when it went to Colonial Williamsburg. The first illustration, a Philadelphia tilt-top tea table, its scalloped top embellished with paired rosettes, was sold in 1975 to Robert McNeil and is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (The only other table like it is in the Blackwell Parlor at Winterthur.) The illustrations must have been from the Israel Sack inventory, pieces that Hennage wished he owned. When Hennage published the third edition of the Blue Book in 1988, the 21 color illustrations were all from his collection and now are at Williamsburg. Hennage dedicated the reprints of the Blue Book to his wife, June, and to Harold Sack for awakening his desire to be a collector.
In 1988 the Hennages moved their collection to a Georgian-style house they had built adjacent to the golf course on South England Street in Williamsburg. They had promised to leave the house and its contents to Colonial Williamsburg. Williamsburg has not yet decided on its future use.
In 1994 Joe and June Hennage received the Churchill Bell award, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s most prestigious award, for their service and generosity over many years. In 1985 the Hennage Auditorium at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Art Museum had been named in their honor, and in 2019 the foundation named a new gallery in that museum the June Stedman Hennage Gallery.
Williamsburg curators are grateful for the Hennage gift. “When I was asked to form a collection of American silver, I always kept in mind that one day the Hennage collection would be coming “ said Janine Skerry, curator of metals at Colonial Williamsburg. “Now I can use some of their finest American silver to illustrate untold stories of America’s past.” For example, Richard Humphreys, the Philadelphia Quaker silversmith who made the double-bellied coffeepot for the Taggart family of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in 1775, left money when he died in 1832 to establish a school for boys of color. “That was at a time when half the population of Williamsburg was African American. Some were free black artisans and some slaves,” said Skerry.
Tara Chicirda, curator of furniture, said she is busy adding the Hennage furniture to Williamsburg’s online catalog and updating it with new information. For example, the bureau table with a blocked front and carved shells bought by the Hennages as having been made in Newport is now thought to have been made in Providence because of construction details. An inscription that appears to read “[Jo]nathan” may provide a clue to the maker.
The Hennage gift adds two Chinese export porcelain plates and a berry bowl with the seal of the Society of the Cincinnati to the Williamsburg collection. They are from a service ordered by Henry Lee for George Washington during the early days of the China trade. A teapot with the Society of the Cincinnati’s eagle badge is from one of nine tea sets ordered by Samuel Shaw for his fellow members of the Society of the Cincinnati. Each tea service bears the eagle insignia of the society and the initials of its respective owner. This example with the gilt monogram “WE” is for William Eustis. Eustis, a surgeon during the American Revolution, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and also served as secretary of war under President Madison and then was governor of Massachusetts. “These gifts extend the dates of our collection of China trade porcelain, most of which match shards found in Colonial Williamsburg and made before the United States entered the China trade,” said Angelika Kuettner, curator of ceramics and glass.
When they ran out of space, a number of collectors in the Israel Sack era bought small furniture that used to be called samples or apprentice pieces and are now thought to have been toys for children. June Hennage, known for her good taste as well as her gracious generosity, owned some special small pieces of furniture. Her Connecticut high chest made of curly maple has engaged columns on the corners instead of quarter columns found on larger high chests. A miniature tall-case clock calls to mind the Boston/Roxbury clocks popularized by the Willard family, and a miniature mahogany porringer-top tea table made in Newport, 1740-60, descended in the Brown-Ives family of Providence.
These few pieces illustrated here are just teasers that should bring crowds back to Colonial Williamsburg once it is safe to visit to see the recently expanded Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg with its abundance of English and American treasures.
Colonial Williamsburg’s collection is available to view online (http://emuseum.history.org). The number of objects available is growing daily. The site can be searched by keywords, materials, makers’ names, dates, or collection. And there is a special section on exhibitions, providing a record of past exhibits as well as present ones and incorporating special collections such as the Nicholson-Chelor Plane Collection.
Additional information about the art museums and Colonial Williamsburg as well as tickets is available online at (www.colonialwilliamsburg.org) or by calling (855) 296-6627.
Teapot, Jingdezhen, China, circa 1790. This teapot, made of hard-paste porcelain, is from one of nine tea sets ordered by Samuel Shaw for members of the Society of the Cincinnati. Each tea service bears the eagle insignia of the society and the initials of its respective owner; this example has the gilt monogram “WE” for William Eustis. Eustis was a surgeon during the American Revolution, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and also served as secretary of war under President Madison and as a governor of Massachusetts. The rest of the Eustis service is at the State Department, the gift of Richard Dietrich, except for the undertray for this teapot, which is in a private collection.
Toy-size high chest of drawers, Connecticut, 1770-1800. Americans in the 18th century favored various woods because of their color and/or their grain pattern. Tiger and curly maple, such as the highly figured woods found on this piece, were quite popular in New England. This miniature high chest, which also contains white pine, chestnut, and tulip poplar woods, echoes the larger form produced in Connecticut, southeast Massachusetts, and Rhode Island with its tall, shapely legs and boldly scalloped skirt. It differs, however, by its use of engaged columns on the corners rather than the quarter columns found on larger examples.
Originally published in the March 2021 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2021 Maine Antique Digest