How Do You Define a Masterpiece?

Well, I was planning on doing another podcast this week but Mother Nature has different ideas. My wife and I went away for our anniversary over the weekend and ever since returning I’ve been sick. Needless to say, my shop time has been nil and I certainly don’t feel up to filming a podcast. So instead, I thought I’d share a few interesting photos from the trip.

We visited Winterthur over the weekend and toured the house and galleries. For anyone with an interest in period furniture, Winterthur is a must see. H.F. Dupont was a collector of all things early Americana and Winterthur was his 1000 acre estate where he displayed them for all of his guests. Everything from silver to fine china, fabric, paintings, and of course, furniture. One could easily spend days just looking at all the pieces in the house (we only got to see the 5th floor). Then of course there is the gallery and a free library open to the public.

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In this post I want to focus on one piece in particular. Pictured above is a description of a highboy built by the Dominy shop between 1791 and 1806. Take note that the description quotes this particular piece as being one of the most expensive pieces produced by the shop. I’ll come back to this point in a minute.

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As I look at this piece, the first thing that strikes me is that a piece with such early features was built so late in the period. The piece is unmistakably Queen Anne Baroque in style. My untrained eye would never have placed a piece of this style so late in the 18th century (and in fact it is likely documentation from the Dominy shop that places it so late in the period, not its features).

“Modern” tastes during this part of the period, which was after the revolution, were for furniture in more of what we would today consider the Chippendale or Federal styles. This piece, being very symmetrical and devoid of any excessive ornamentation, clearly doesn’t fit the Chippendale ideals and certainly is not suggestive of the Roccoco in any way. It’s also certainly not suggestive of the Federal style at all.

This piece is a clear example of how the styles were much slower to evolve in the more rural areas (which is where the Dominy shop was located, in rural Long Island, NY). It really gives you a sense of how slow communication was during the time. Today, news travels at the speed of our email or cell phones. However, during the 18th century, being any signifncant distance from a major city could mean being weeks, months, or even years behind the times.

But I digress. Whether or not the piece “fits” with others that were built during the same part of the period is rather irrelevant. It is still a beautiful piece, and in my opinion, it’s restraint from being overly ornate is its strong point. For what it’s worth, this happens to be my favorite style of early American furniture.

As I look closer at the piece, I start to notice some of the construction methods used by the original builder and I begin mentally disassembling the piece. Pegs in the leg block to hold the tenon into it’s mortise suggest that clamps weren’t likely needed, at least not for assembly of the cases. This is a very different way of thinking than we are accustomed to today. However, looking over the piece, it becomes clear that the maker probably didn’t use clamps for any part of the assembly. The joinery used made clamping unnecessary.

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I find the next two pictures particularly interesting. Note the sliding dovetail used to fix the drawer blade to the case. This is the same drawer blade, just opposite sides of the front of the case. Note how the dovetail on the left has a single angled cheek while the dovetail on the right has two angled cheeks, as we would expect in a dovetail joint.

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What happened to that left dovetail? Did the builder botch the cut on the dovetail cheek and just cut the socket to fit the botched dovetail? I truly doubt that the two were intentionally cut differently. Would you have done the same or would you have made a new drawer blade so both dovetails matched? I know what my modern sensibilities would have told me to do.

This drawer blade was not unique to this piece. None of the blades had matching dovetails. In my eyes, this is glaring evidence that the masters who made these pieces were much less concerned with perfect joinery than we are today. Go back and look at the picture of the entire piece again. Do you seen the different dovetails now that I have pointed them out? Did you notice them the first time you looked at the piece?

Here’s another picture that I think is thought provoking. First, note the nails holding the knee block to the leg. It was common practice with cabriole legs during the period to use nails to hold the transition block on while the glue was drying. However, also note the fix that was made to the bottom of the side panel where it meets the knee block. Is this an original repair done by a cabinetmaker who accidentally made a bad cut or a restorer not very good at their job?

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Another thing I picked up on while at the museum was the the back of the leg block. It’s tough to tell in the picture, but it’s full rough width if you can’t tell. The rear of the leg blocks of the back legs weren’t cut flush to the case but left straight. Would you have done something like this? Again, I know what my contemporary sensibilities would tell me to do. But I’m also not under any pressure to complete my pieces in a certain amount of time.

I always find looking at these old pieces to be very thought provoking. How would the original maker have done that? Why did they do what they did there. Why didn’t they do what I would expect them to do there? What were they thinking as they built the piece.

It’s interesting, to me at least, to try to put myself in their shoes for a short while and try to understand what circumstances made them make the decisions they did. If there was money on the line and I needed to meet a delivery date, would I have done anything differently? But even more gratifying to me is seeing the work and reassuring myself that my dovetails don’t have to be perfect and my surfaces don’t have to be 100% tearout free. There’s more important things in a piece than perfect joinery or flawless surfaces (especially when the room is lit only by candles).

Today, a new reproduction of a piece like this from a custom cabinetmaker would probably cost you about $7,000-$10,000. Chances are, the reproduction piece won’t have the “flaws” that we see in the Dominy piece. Considering that this was the most expensive piece to come out of the Dominy shop, would you be willing to accept these “flaws”?

As I look at the Dominy piece, it becomes very obvious that what was acceptable and expected in a high end piece of furniture in 1790, isn’t quite what our standards are in the present day. But I also think there are important lessons to be learned in pieces like this. While there are certainly more impressive and flawless pieces in museums all over the world, and while this piece may even be an exception to what was expected during the period, the “flaws” in pieces like these can teach us things about how they worked, what they thought was important, and maybe more importantly, what they didn’t.

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10 thoughts on “How Do You Define a Masterpiece?

  1. I was looking forward to you next podcast.. hope you feel better.

    These are certainly some interesting pictures. I have a theory to throw out there… We live in a time where “handmade” and the imperfections are nostalgic. Machine made furniture has been around for pretty much as long as the oldest person on the planet now. We are used to perfect surfaces, plastic, cnc machined, mircon level technology construction on everything. Do you think that the customers / owners of the furniture were as critical as we are now? If I pay $700 (much less $7000) for a piece of furniture and it has a scratch, my wife will tell me to take it back right then and there. Just a thought. I never really even considered this before your post. WOW.

    • Dustin,
      I do think that the customers were as critical as we are now, however, I think there was a different sense of what was important. Keep in mind that the household was a lot different than it is today. Light came from windows during the day and candles and fireplaces at night. Minor differences like the dovetail angles or the repair by the back leg would likely never be seen due to the very dimly lit rooms. Put the side with the apron repair away from the window and it would be shadowed all the time, hiding the fix. In addition, I would imaging the pieces would get covered in grunge and soot fairly quickly under their conditions, and this would further hide most imperfections. I don’t think the finish we are accustomed to on furniture today is what they would have been accustomed to. So priorities were different.

  2. Bob,
    Congratulations on the anniversary. My wife and I went to Williamsburg this weekend for our 10th. Winterthur is one of my favorite places and I recommend getting back and seeing more of the period rooms.

    Regarding the high boy, while I agree that this piece is very Queen Anne in it’s plainess, keep in mind that really only Philadelphia went off the deep end into the heavily ornamented British Chippendale style. While Boston played with the ideas in their Bombe designs even there the carving and such was kept to a minimum. For the Dominys working on Long Island, I think you would find even less leaning to the Chippendale aesthetic put forth in The Director. However, this being said I do agree with you sentiment that this piece in particular is still very Queen Anne. If nothing else the dimensions don’t give you that imposing weight that was so common for Chippendale.

    Great eye on the eccentricities and “errors” made on this piece. I think the message it that no one would even notice and maybe we should relax our standards a little.

    • Shannon,
      Excellent points. However, I wouldn’t necessarily say that Philadelphia was the only place to embrace the more highly ornamented designs, but perhaps the most bold. There were plenty of high style pieces from Boston, New York, and let’s not forget two very well known families from Newport. I think this piece is more a representation of what one might expect from a more rural shop. The Dominy shop, located in East Hampton Long Island, wasn’t what would be considered close to a major city at the time. Several days travel at least. It was definitely more rural and therefore the high style of the cities was likely slower to get to these areas.

      As for the message, I don’t think we need to relax our standards per se. I still think we should strive to make the best pieces we can make, however, I think it’s important to focus our efforts more holistically on the piece and worry less about how tight the dovetails are or how tearout free the surface is.

      One could build a 1 foot wide by 7 foot tall chest of drawers with perfect dovetails and a glass smooth hand planed surface, but would it be considered a truly great piece of furniture? Not likely. While I certainly don’t consider the piece pictured above a masterpiece of early American furniture, it is clear that the maker was more concerned with the overall aesthetics of the piece as a whole, and not worried if the dovetails didn’t match. After all, in the dimly lit rooms of 1791, minor tearout and non matching dovetails would dissapear.

      I think as furniture makers, we should apply this same type of thinking to the pieces we build today and consider more than just the joinery. Tight dovetails are nice, but if the rest of the piece suffers, the pretty joinery doesn’t make up for it.

  3. I tend to be a bit picky about trade conventions (being a tradesman) so I take ‘masterpiece’ to have the early meaning – it was a piece of work produced by a journeyman to the highest standard that man was capable, in order to prove that he merited the title of Master Craftsman. If successful, this piece of work was that man’s Masterpiece (or Masterwork) and the man was forevermore deserving of the title of Mastercraftsman. This means that a masterpiece was a very rare item – each many only made one. The current usage, of course, is much more lax.

    • Mike,
      I agree, and I don’t consider this particular piece to be a masterpiece either. I wouldn’t even consider it a legendary shop. It was actually a rural shop on Long Island, well away from most of the big cities of the time. I think it has become legendary today because of the museum and the print it has received in magazines and such.

      However, the piece does point out that there are more important aspecs to a piece than perfect dovetails. Looking at the second picture (the one of the entire chest) the flaws are not immediately obvious, until you go looking for them. I think as woodworkers, we look for them, because we know where to look. However, are these things that our non-woodworking customers (spouses, children, friends or actual paying customers) are really going to notice? Will they really pick out that shim in the dovetails of the drawer? Will they really notice that little bit of tearout on the side aporn of a table? I tend to doubt it.

      But I do think that they will notice if the legs look too heavy or the top molding too small or the drawers not being graduated. These are things that jump out at you, even from a distance. I think these are the things that deserve the attention we tend to give the drawers’ dovetails.

  4. Sorry to hear that you’ve been sick but congrats on your anniversary.

    It seems to me that “modern woodworking” has applied standards of a machinist to the actions of working wood. That’s unfortunate as it misplaces emphasis in my opinion. Maybe, just maybe, observation of the furniture we all admire might change our views.

    • Larry, I hear what you’re saying and I agree that I feel a certain level of…bemusement when woodworkers start agonizing over thousandths of an inch. To me, the big issue is not so much that things must be exactly the same, but that they must *look* the same. If two drawer fronts are 1/16″ different it doesn’t matter as long as it’s not noticeable in a way that detracts from the piece. Some of the points that Bob noticed in that tall chest, though… that’s just downright nasty when you consider that this was a signature piece from a well-regarded (perhaps even ‘legendary’) shop.

    • Larry,
      I hope so. When I build a piece, I should hope that my [wife, kids, neighbors, etc.] aren’t scrutinizing the joinery and missing the bigger picture. I think we need to step back and do the same.

  5. Bob,

    Get well soon. As for the piece the ‘money’ side is the only one that counts. I am sure most people of the period did not notice small imperfections as they were happy to have furniture. And furniture was an expensive investment back then.

    The term ‘masterpiece’ has been overused, in order to be a master, all you needed to do was own (and be master of) a shop.

    You build an apprentice piece to complete your apprenticeship. You make a journeyman’s piece when you complete your training. You build a master piece when you are at the top of your trade. I doubt they were worried about creating a masterpiece rather they were more worried about making money.

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