The Maryland Historical Society has collected spectacular old furniture for generations. Now, at last, those treasures are getting the setting they deserve.
Yesterday in Baltimore, the society inaugurated the top-floor gallery of its new museum wing, the Carey Center for Maryland Life. Ten months ago, the zinc-clad building opened with historic Free State artifacts on the first floor and paintings on the second. Now the third level, with its 4,000-square-foot Dorothy Wagner Wallis Gallery, is host to a permanent exhibition of 107 objects called "Furniture in Maryland Life."
Never have so many pieces from the society's renowned collection been displayed to such magnificent effect. Banners descend from the 20-foot ceiling in waves of color. Artful spotlights showcase painted chairs, elaborate desks, curvaceous sofas, and pianos flaming with mahogany veneer. Most pieces are arrayed on risers as objects of art, but one couch has been hung from a wall.
The point should not be lost: The decorative arts are as important as fine paintings.
One of the society's most acclaimed pieces is an early 19th-century dressing table decorated with allegorical figures of commerce and industry, a true trophy of the mercantile age. It now sits under a spotlight with worthy companions: a 1792 fall-front desk, a clock with a meticulously inlaid chain of grapevines and a sleek wardrobe faced with incredibly lavish panels of golden satinwood. Baltimore's famous painted furniture gets equally elegant display.
But there is also room for modest artifacts. A favorite of curator Jeannine Disviscour is a squarish bar stool, circa 1830-1860, that belonged to the Sassafras Hotel on the Sassafras River in Kent County. The hotel burned to the ground in the 1920s, but the bar stool survives with a shabby but original deerskin seat. The piece has been in the collection since 1950, Disviscour said during a tour Wednesday. But there was never a context in which it could be shown.
Disviscour pointed to a chair with two "bumps" on the back, which identified it as a product from Frederick. A modestly painted "fancy" chair had been owned by a slave and was known to have cost $1. A domed oak storage chest dating from 1700-1710 would have held all that an immigrant family brought from the Old World.
The society is the guardian of a 2,000-piece collection of furniture and decorative arts made or used in Maryland. Until now, only 70 or so of the worthiest objects had been on view, in dim hallways at the society's cramped headquarters. The 160-year-old society oversees more than 300,000 objects of cultural heritage from its base at 201 W. Monument St., in the Mount Vernon cultural district. The campus has more than doubled in size since the mid-1990s, thanks to a $30 million campaign to improve space for collections, library, storage and a permanent history exhibition (with such artifacts as Francis Scott Key's original manuscript of "The Star-Spangled Banner," a Mason-Dixon line marker and H.L. Mencken's typewriter). Temporary shows now have the run of a neatly converted Greyhound garage. The project architect is the Baltimore firm Ziger/Snead.
The furniture gallery is the grandest space on the highest floor of the new museum building. Visually, it's a stunner. Exhibition designer Charles Mack devised a taupe backdrop for walls and platforms. The sedate hue provides a graphic contrast to polished wood and sets off perfectly the occasional blasts of color from an upholstered chair or divan. With fabric and banners in historically correct shades of magenta and orange -- coincidentally, two of today's dominant colors -- the impact is more 21st-century fashion than fusty 19th-century interior.
Planners originally envisioned the gallery as a prestige locale for 18th- and 19th-century paintings, including the world's largest collection of Peale family portraits. But Mack argued successfully that paintings would be lost in the cavernous third floor. And an 11-foot ceiling on the second was unworkable for such treasures as a 13-foot-tall Gothic-style bookcase. In the current arrangement, visitors are the winners.
Pieces on view date from 1634 to 2000. Maryland emerged as a major player in the furniture industry after the Revolutionary War, when successful merchants in the booming port of Baltimore lavished profits on domestic status symbols. Furniture makers from England and Ireland set up workshops and quickly earned acclaim for neoclassical inlays with conch shells, trailing bellflowers and lilies of the valley pieced together from slivers of satinwood and mahogany veneers. The high-tech gallery lighting makes such exquisite details wonderfully visible.
In the early 19th century, patrons developed a taste for a more fanciful style, known as Baltimore painted furniture. Brothers John and Hugh Finlay led the way, but dozens of competitors shipped painted furniture up and down the East Coast, and as far as South America. Some motifs mimicked the gilded plaster "trophy" carvings found in 18th-century French interiors. Other pieces exploded with color, such as a red painted bench currently on loan to the traveling show "American Fancy." (The exhibition comes to the society Dec. 4 to March 20, after which the bench will be installed in the permanent display.)
Baltimore's reputation was secure enough by 1809 for architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to call on the Finlay brothers to design furniture for James Madison's Executive Mansion. A set of 36 chairs, two sofas and four settees was "made to a Grecian model, painted, gilded and varnished." It did not survive the fire during the War of 1812. The exhibition includes Latrobe's sketch and a couch based on one of his designs.
Overhead, banners have been screen-printed with the elegant details -- a turned spindle, a carved cornice, a fluted urn -- that gave Maryland furniture its reputation. Eventually, the rise of mass production overwhelmed the local industry. These days, wealthy patrons are more likely to shop for an antique than commission a contemporary masterpiece.
Matching the extravagance of that 19th-century dressing table is difficult to imagine. A gilded eagle stands guard over a polished facade that hides specialized compartments for every daily necessity, from toiletries to wigs.
"It's got everything," says Disviscour. "It's like a James Bond car."