Monday, October 24, 2011

Furniture with Political Statements at Colonial Williamsburg



Before we attended the Napoleon program last Friday, we took a furniture tour at the museum at Colonial Williamsburg. I confess I couldn't imagine an interesting furniture tour, since some I've taken have ranged from ho-hum to zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Although I'm honestly up to the challenge of enduring a furniture tour, I wasn't so sure about taking the kids with me. After all, I'm trying to inspire them into the idea that history is actually interesting...not bore them. I finally decided that the kids and I would attend the tour because this exhibit was the purpose of the Napoleon program. Napoleon and furniture?

I am pleased to announce that this was a 5 star tour, ranking right at the top with a few other favorite tours I've been on. We learned a lot! It was interesting and utterly fascinating! In fact, the Napoleon connection was not at all what I had expected. The surprise to the connection added to the element of the uniqueness of this tour and this exhibit. Huzzah to guest curator, Elizabeth Davison, who not only cleverly put the display together around a unique element but led the tour in a most interesting manner! Even my kids enjoyed it!

"Huzzah for Admiral Nelson" was the aptly named tour with guest curator, Elizabeth Davison, who has intensely studied these fascinating pieces of furniture. Have you ever purchased an intriguing antique? If I were to buy an antique, I would want it to look great on the outside. But what if I found secret compartments, hidden papers, or something intriguing and off the beaten path. How incredible would that be? That is precisely the nature of "A True North Britain": The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820, which the curator organized first for the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington DC, and now is on display at the Colonial Williamsburg DeWitt Wallace Museum.

Now for the fun part! The mysterious John Shearer left little evidence to his past. He was a joiner (did finishing work in recently built houses) in the late 18th and early 19th century. On the side he made furniture. At first sight this furniture is beautiful! My favorite details were the cutwork, like filigree, in the wood. Ah, but what about the hidden details?

The curator said that for all we knew, "he was never born, he never died, he never married..." because John Shearer did not leave a paper trail of correspondence, diaries, or ledgers. She could tell us that he was a joiner in Northern Virginia in postwar America, during the presidencies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. What else was going on during that time? The Napoleonic Wars in Europe.

The furniture was arranged in chronological order of his workmanship, so that the surprise element could be developed for the tour. Are you ready for the big surprise? John Shearer had inscribed political statements on every piece of furniture he made! Can you imagine finding political statements in modern furniture you purchase today? From them we learned that Shearer was a loyalist!

In the first few pieces of furniture the political statements were hidden, so it is possible that the owners of the furniture never knew about them. The display showcases each of these political statements and we learned how the curator knew what these symbols meant and how to read them ourselves. Some inscriptions were of a lion, the symbol of Great Britain. Another inscription says, "God save the king." Eventually he daringly putting his symbols on the front of his work for all to see. In fact, the symbols became more bold and not all were political. One statement was a personal statement of love for his lady fair. The funniest statement was "I work for the meanest scoundrel in Loudon County!"

Some of the political symbols were statements against Napoleon. During this time the Napoleonic Wars were raging across Europe. The Battle of Trafalgar had been on October 21, 1805 when Admiral Nelson destroyed Napoleon's navy, ensuring British dominance on the seas for another hundred years. The political symbol we were looking at was cheering the victory of Admiral Nelson!

The day of the tour was Trafalgar Day, October 21, 2011. Later we were to meet with Napoleon himself. Oooo, Napoleon on Trafalgar Day, anniversary of his naval defeat. Stay tuned for that post!

John Shearer's furniture will be on display at Colonial Williamsburg's DeWitt Wallace Musum until March 2012. The display itself is well laid out with great information displayed on the walls that tell fascinating stories and showing the symbols. The curator even has a book about the display on sale in the museum bookstore.

Hmmm, I have a couple of antiques at home. I think it's time to pull out drawers and investigate for hidden symbols.

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