revisiting a well-known collection

Over the years I have been very fortunate to have access to lots of original examples of 17th-century furniture to study & learn from. Museums & collectors have been very gracious with their time & collections so I could get an education.

Last week I revisited for the umpteenth time the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT. Among other things, this museum is home to the furniture collection assembled in the early 20th century by Wallace Nutting. Nutting worked a lot of his furniture over; and had a mentality and approach that is easy to criticize from 90 years’ perspective. Regardless of where one stands on the Wallace Nutting situation, the collection has some great stuff in it.

One piece is this long joined table – it’s the piece I went to see. Here is a lousy overall of it.

Salisbury table, Wadsworth Atheneum

The top is by some thought to be new; Nutting’s book says it’s the old top, removed, replaned and now screwed onto the frame…I couldn’t decide one way or the other – but didn’t spend too much time worrying about it either.  All the framing is riven; and the top  is two flatsawn oak boards joined together. It might be that we expect the top boards to also be riven, quartered stock; but at 7 feet long, it’s just beyond the limits of practical working lengths for riving boards.  Some square tables from the period have riven boards making up the tops, but these are less than 4′ long usually. One’s at Wadsworth. 

Here is the carving that runs along one long apron.

carved guilloche Salisbury table, Wadsworth Atheneum

and some of the details of the turned work –

turning Salisbury table, Wadsworth Atheneum

I noted the scribed line struck across the squared section – at first I thought it marked the location for the mortise the brackets fit into – 

scribed line, Salisbury table, Wadsworth Atheneum

but then I found similar marks on the lower end of the stiles. I think this scribe line marks the spot where the craftsman started turning the square-to-round transition. So this becomes one of those tiny details that always help with my work in the shop. I won’t scribe every turning this way now, but sometimes I will, knowing that it’s “period-correct” in at least one case.

I have a mental & somewhat photographic collection of these small technique/habit tidbits from period joiners. This is the kind of detail that’s hard to get without access to the original artifacts. That’s why I always try to include these sort of shots on the blog – because I know it’s not really feasible for the curators to let all of the woodworkers traipse around these collections, wreaking havoc wherever we go…

Most of the American furniture collection is in storage these days, as the museum works on a huge expansion project. I got to stroll the aisles and saw some old favorites while I was there.

This Thomas Dennis chest is Nutting’s books, but it was not part of the Nutting collection. It belonged to one of the Hartford collectors – Goodwin, I think. The lid is new, early 20th-c.

Dennis chest, Wadsworth Atheneum

First thing I noticed this time with this chest is the very slight set-back for the panel grooves – the panels are only recessed a minimal amount; it seems the stock is riven quite thin, so Dennis adjusted how much he set the groove back from the face of the framing.

carved panel, Dennis chest, Wadsworth Atheneum


We opened the chest up & the inside face of the chest’s rear section has moldings decorating it, a nice touch. Doesn’t take much time to add this sort of stuff, and it makes things look snappy…

interior moldings, Wadsworth Atheneum


The rear outside is barely worked at all with a plane. Many riven surfaces; virtually nothing flat back there at all.

And then the Thurston/Houghton stuff from Dedham & Medfield, Massachusetts. To me, these chests are always charming in their simplicity.

Dedham chest detail, Wadsworth Atheneum

A little bit of carving, basic framing & some scratch moldings. This one has been painted in the last few decades to mimic an old painted surface – a related one in a private collection had backgrounds painted w lampblack pigment, and the surfaces worked with either logwood or brazil wood dyes. bright red with black behind. Another thing to try at some point.

As in most of the Dedham chests, this one has scribed lines to mark out the joinery right across the framing…

A great many thanks to Alyce Englund for her time & attention.

14 thoughts on “revisiting a well-known collection

  1. It’s great that you have access to these beautiful pieces so that we may benefit from it.
    Thank you very much for sharing.

  2. Insights and observations of accomplished craftsman on craft/crafted objects generally are more poignant and insightful than traditional curatorial speak. …lets one get a glimpse where the treasure ‘s buried.

    Would love to read more on your take of Mr. Nutting. As always, thanks for letting us in on it.

  3. “It might be that we expect the top boards to also be riven, quartered stock; but at 7 feet long, it’s just beyond the limits of practical working lengths for riving boards.”

    What’s the limit determined by? Considering the very long riving demonstrated in the “viking ship replica” video you linked to sometime ago, I would have thought that “skill at riving” and “length of log” were the only limitations.

    This is a most enjoyable blog. Hope to see you at PP this year.

    • I thought about that too, and think maybe that when you start splitting out longer than 7′, that you tend to lose enough wood in the process of hewing and truing up that it becomes more economical to saw? In the viking boats they needed the long planks but didn’t get too many of them out of a log.

      • To me, it’s just about practicality. That’s a tremendous amount of labor to rive, hew & plane stuff flat enough to be a 7′ long table top…These can’t taper in thickness like framing parts – they need to be “full measure.” so to get the 1″+ thickness at the far end, and thin edge, you have to rive it out a good deal thicker than that…then you have to handle it to work w a hatchet, etc…

        It can be done, but it sure doesn’t make much sense. I wouldn’t want to do it; especially when there are sawmills all around that could saw that stuff easily. Since reading Trent’s note below, I am convinced that he is probably right that this top is new. Nutting was notorious for delivering as gospel half-truths, semi-truths & out & out falsehoods. Lies, we call ’em.

  4. Agreed, sharing these photographs is very appreciated. I particularly enjoy those of guilloche and the asymetric carvings on panels as on the stiles of the Dennis chest. That asymetry (about the centers of each repeated element) is a whole ‘nother avenue to experiment with.

  5. Great photo of the guilloche detail. Looks like it might have been carved by stabbing in with gouges rather than a v-tool…at least in some areas. There seems to be evidence of this along the edges of the ribbon where the gouge sweep didn’t match up exactly. I love the simple design in the middle of the circles.

  6. Oh boy the Salisbury (MA) table. You’d think if this was really made in Salisbury, a teensy place even now, at least a dopey stool or something else by this guy would survive. I’m on the fence regarding “too long to rive.” After examining this I’m convinced the top is new. If you recall, the top of the Andover square table was so savagely planed down, the pins that hold the clamps on are exposed. The Sudbury table is puzzling too. I think the Salisbury table is one of the most reproduced pieces of 17C NE furniture. Douglas Campbell used to make them when I first knew him 45 years ago. Recently one of his 12-foot Metropolitan trestle tables sold, two long plain-sawn top boards, the joinery was dry/dry and so badly sawn on the mortise shoulders, they didn’t abut the posts. Guess he was in a hurry. He was a rough character but nice. You recall the story about when Alexander, Campbell, and I met at Pilgrim Hall about 1981. Campbell thought wet/wet joinery was an insane idea, but he gradually came around. I once watched Campbell bench-scraping a table top smooth, he had forearms like Popeye and he was raising shavings!!!

    • Yes, Salisbury is a rather tiny blip, isn’t it. This table is so generic that there might be living relatives of it that we don’t recognize…it’s construction is fine; everything about it is actually quite nice.

      But knucklehead me, Trent of course you’re right on track. I didn’t see evidence for original pins that would have been driven down into the stiles’ tops. I saw modern screws fastening the top to the long rails’ upper edges, and this was expected given Nutting’s comments. But there should be peg holes at least. Maybe next time we’re there together they’ll let us take the top off & examine the table frame sans top. maybe if we sweet-talk them…

  7. My god, how does one get to the point when you are allowed behind the scenes? Was at the MET in NYC today, oogling medieval wordoorking…. *sigh*

  8. A great place to visit if you are serious to learn and understand the makings of early furniture. I have been a collector of 16th & 17th century English & Dutch furniture for fifty years and I taught myself how to recognize the genuine article by visiting the Pilgrim rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I learned about the Wadsworth years later and was astonished to see the quality and the amount of wonderful period pieces to study and admire. I would love to do a 17th century seating exhibit at this institution which would entail the evolution of early seating from the joint stool up to the William & Mary period from my personal collection. This way we can see similarities in English and American examples as well as construction techniques. I have high quality piece most if not all in mint condition. Sharing knowledge with others is the right thing to do, and to pass on your knowledge to those who thurst for learning is a go.
    George Way

  9. I have a beautifully carved coffer with a top possibly a replacement. Originally acquired from legendary dealer J.J. Wolfe and recently inspected by local collector who has assured me nails are original and provided an assessment (George Way) who is establishing a museum of Dutch and English furniture at Snug Harbor. Will post some shots of this piece at a future date.

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