Purchase Story

Writings in Honor of Jonathan Fairbanks

A Book Review

This book is a festschrift, a collection of writings published in honor of Jonathan Fairbanks on the occasion of his retirement after a five-year stint as director of the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts. Fairbanks, whose career was spent at major institutions such as Winterthur, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Fuller Craft Museum, is a perfect candidate for a festschrift, an academic tradition brought to America by German immigrants. Thirty curators, professors, artists, craftsmen, friends, and colleagues contributed; many others were unable to participate because of the press of other duties.

The book begins with a biographical overview of Jonathan Fairbanks by his nephew Daniel Fairbanks, dean of science and professor of biology at Utah Valley University, and a fourth-generation artist in the Fairbanks family who has spent time with Jonathan painting landscapes in nature and working with him in the studio.

The history of the Fairbanks family is closely related to early New England. In 1633 Grace and Jonathan Fairbanks arrived in Boston from Yorkshire, England. Three years later they moved into the house they built in Dedham, Massachusetts, which has become known as the Fairbanks House. The oldest frame house in America, it has been operated as a museum for more than a century. Three hundred years after their arrival, Jonathan Leo Fairbanks was born, the 11th generation descendant of Grace and Jonathan. Fairbanks’s father, Avard Tennyson Fairbanks, a renowned 20th-century sculptor, was an artist in residence at the University of Michigan when Jonathan was born. He is named for his father’s oldest brother, J. Leo Fairbanks, who was a painter and sculptor. Their father, Jonathan’s grandfather, John B. Fairbanks, a plein-air landscape painter, had studied art in Paris, and he returned to Utah, where he painted murals in the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City and Tonalist landscapes, often depicting the pioneer heritage of his native Utah. His son J. Leo taught art in public schools in Utah and then accepted the chair of the department of art at Oregon State University.


American History, Art, and Culture: Writings in
Honor of Jonathan Leo Fairbanks

Edited by Pat Warner and Gerald W.R. Ward
Fuller Craft Museum, 2018, 168 pages, softbound, $41.90 plus S/H from the
Fuller Craft Museum Shop, (www.fullercraft.org) or (508) 588-6000.


Jonathan’s father continued to create major works of sculpture until his death just before his 90th birthday in 1987. He created three works for Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol building and several monuments to Abraham Lincoln, including locations in Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. Avard also designed hood ornaments for the automobile industry in Detroit before he was invited by the University of Utah to found the College of Fine Arts and become its first dean.

Jonathan Leo Fairbanks was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during his father’s most productive years. He was the sixth child in a family of all sons. Two more sons followed. His parents later adopted two daughters while in Greece for the dedication of the Lycurgus monument in Sparta. All the Fairbanks children were involved in art.

Jonathan studied art at the University of Utah, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts in 1953 with an emphasis in painting. He then served in the U.S. Navy as a ship navigator. After his discharge, he enrolled in a joint graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he received a master of fine arts. While a graduate student, he painted a mural for an exhibit about dinosaurs at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia that was on view from 1957 to 1998, when it was replaced with another exhibit. Following his studies in Philadelphia, Jonathan expanded his horizons by accepting a fellowship to study at the Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware, and he received his master’s in American cultural history from the latter in 1961. He remained on the Winterthur staff for a decade and then took a position at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he was curator for three decades and established the department of American decorative arts and sculpture. His major exhibitions included Paul Revere’s Boston, Frontier America, Witness to America’s Past, New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century, “The Art that is Life”: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, and Glass Today by American Studio Artists. He authored or coauthored catalogs for exhibitions, including American Furniture 1620 to the Present (with Elizabeth Bidwell Bates), and numerous articles. In 2012 he assumed the directorship of the Fuller Craft Museum and set it on firm footing for the future. All the while he has continued painting.

The book contains nearly 30 scholarly monographs on a wide range of subjects, among them historical furniture and houses. Robert F. Trent writes about the Endicott armchair, the Hart cabinet, and Helen Jaques, an early collector-dealer; Philip Zea explains why what some might call a tavern table from circa 1670-1700 is actually a minister’s desk. Brock Jobe writes about ledgers kept by a Boston upholsterer during the years 1729-59 that became the subject of his Winterthur thesis. Barbara McLean Ward shows how the parlor of the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, can interpret the multifaceted and multiracial past by accurately portraying the power of place.

Another topic is Gore Place in Waltham, Massachusetts, the country estate of Christopher Gore (1758-1827). It was completed by the autumn of 1805, but Gore, a Continental Army veteran, lawyer, investor, diplomat, Massachusetts governor, U.S. senator, and Federalist leader, did not live there full time until 1816. Robert F. Brown, one of Fairbanks’s Winterthur classmates, writes that Gore lived in rural seclusion, occupying himself with his books and his farm until his death in 1827. At his wife’s demise in 1834, the house and its contents were auctioned off, and its fate as an outstanding example of American Federal architecture remained uncertain until it was purchased in 1935 by the Gore Place Society, founded to preserve and restore it.

Other contributors describe their curatorial passions. David Wood, director of the Concord Historical Society, discusses rare diamond-head timepieces. Fewer than a dozen are known, and only four are owned by public institutions. Robert McCracken Peck, curator and senior fellow at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, discusses the unorthodox ideas of John Cleves Symmes (1780-1829), who declared that the earth is hollow and habitable inside. A photograph of the wooden globe Symmes had made to demonstrate his theory, now in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, is reproduced in that chapter. Peck suggests that Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others were influenced by Symmes’s theory.

William Hosley’s “Reflections on Decorative Arts and the American Idea” chronicles the changes in our ideas about decorative arts, historical preservation, and historical house museums during Fairbanks’s long tenure as a museum leader. Hosley charts the rising tide of the movement as reflected in The Magazine Antiques, from the end of World War II through the 1980s, when there was an explosion of interest and scholarship in American decorative arts. Hosley’s solution to end the culture wars is to focus on local history, to tell stories that remind us that “the world didn’t begin the day we set foot in it,” and to “inspire gratitude for the toil and accomplishments of generations past and hopefully inspire us to leave the world as well off or better than it was left to us.”

“To know a person or a place is to know their story—their history. And what better way to know than by experiencing and appreciating the art, architecture, and cultural material we too often trip over without looking, seeing, or understanding. It could be a pathway to a more perfect union,” Hosley writes. He quotes Louis C. Jones writing in Antiques in 1954, “If we would know where we are and where we are going, we must keep a few points on the chart to indicate where we have been.”

The festschrift has other high points. Beth C. McLaughlin, the chief curator of exhibitions at the Fuller Craft Museum, writes about social activism in “The Pussyhat Project: The Role of Needlework in Supporting Wellness During Uncertain Political Times.” She claims that the pussyhats knitted, crocheted, sewn, and worn by thousands of people who marched on January 21, 2017, in 650 U.S. cities were the largest example of activism through craft in modern American history. She cleverly explores the role of needlework in forming healthy communities during this uncertain sociological climate. Using public health data, she points out how needlework has a positive impact on mental health. “As we clamor for ways to cope, the intersection of two proven health interventions—activism and craft—will prove highly effective,” she predicts.

These are just a few of the thought-provoking contributions that include discourse on Native American art and mid-century modern design and the work of such craftsmen as Frank L. Koralewsky, a late 19th- and early 20th-century artisanal blacksmith in Boston. Jane L. Port, an independent scholar who worked at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, discusses the Society of Arts and Crafts of Boston and its influence on the Detroit Arts and Crafts Society. Contemporary artists in wood, glass, and clay, such as Wayne Higby, Toots Zynsky, and John Cederquist, also have something to say.

This festschrift was good reading for a rainy summer day, and it is perfect for the snowy days of winter. 


Originally published in the December 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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