Spring has sprung at the Nichols House Museum, and our blossoming courtyard isn’t the only thing to look forward to this season. The museum is excited to announce three new acquisitions, one of which is the subject of this month’s Object Spotlight and relates to Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement in the early twentieth century.
The museum has recently come into the possession of an oak chest carved by Rose Standish Nichols. This chest is not only an extraordinary example of Rose Nichols’ skills as a woodcarver but also a clear indicator of the important role women played in the Arts and Crafts Movement. In addition, it provides us with unique insights into Rose Nichols’ interest in early American decorative arts.
Like various other reform movements of the early twentieth century, the Arts and Crafts Movement aimed to improve society. Proponents of design reform, such as British theorists John Ruskin and William Morris, advocated for well-designed, handmade objects in the interest of bettering people’s existence. “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe beautiful,” stated Morris.
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution of the previous century, the Arts and Crafts Movement inveighed against dehumanizing factory work and mass production and instead called for a return to beauty, morality, and joy in everyday life. A stark departure from the Gilded Age aesthetic that sought ornamentation and admired technological advancements in production, the Arts and Crafts Movement valued singular, handcrafted objects made from “honest” materials that empowered makers and fostered individual creativity. Thus, proponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement looked to medieval craftsman and guilds for inspiration which, in turn, ushered in a Colonial Revival.
Boston played a leading role in popularizing the Arts and Crafts Movement in America, as well as Colonial Revival fashions. Education was a cornerstone of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Boston’s longstanding emphasis on education, dating back to the first English settlers, dovetailed the precepts of design-reform, as did its restrained, puritan tastes. In the publication for her 1997 exhibition at the Davis Museum, Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement, curator Marilee Boyd Meyer writes:
Boston patrons were particularly responsive to the colonial revival, a style that embodied rationality, balance, and moderation, and also celebrated their historic past. One North End settlement house workshop, providing vocational training for young and Italian and Jewish immigrant women, explicitly made the historical connection by naming itself Paul Revere Pottery .
Paul Revere Pottery was established in Boston’s North End in 1908 by Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown. The group of immigrant women under the two Ediths’ tutelage were known as the Saturday Evening Girls (SEG). The SEG club provided its members with an opportunity to earn a living wage in a positive work environment, and their Paul Revere Pottery is recognized as one of the most emblematic and important contributions to the Arts and Crafts Movement. Rose Nichols and her younger sister Margaret are likewise representative of the prominent role women played in design-reform, especially here in Boston.
Last spring’s exhibition, Makers’ Marks: Art, Craft, and the Fiber of Change, discussed Margaret Nichols Shurcliff’s activities as a carpenter and cabinetmaker, as well as her involvement with the immigrant community in Boston . A bookcase made by Margaret Nichols Shurcliff to fit a corner of Rose Nichols’ bedroom, see below, is among the Nichols House Museum’s examples of reform-minded, Arts and Crafts style furniture.
Like her younger sister, Rose Nichols was also a talented craftsman. Rose, however, was a woodcarver rather than a furniture-maker. In her memoir, Lively Days, Margaret Nichols humorously wrote: “Rose was the artistic one in our family and Marian the scholar…I was content to remain the brawny hard worker” .
Rose Nichols’ artistry is apparent in the florid carvings adorning the newly acquired chest, as well as the four reproduction mannerist style chairs which are prominently displayed in the Nichols House Museum library. Rose purchased these chairs from the Boston furniture company Isaac & Casson, asking that they be left uncarved (she is also responsible for the chair’s caning). The carvings on these chairs were modeled after a seventeenth-century oak chair, which was given to the Nichols family by Rose Standish Whiting of Plymouth–Rose Standish Nichols’ namesake and godmother, who claimed an elite Puritan lineage (yes, those Standishes). There is also evidence of Rose’s interest in seventeenth-century furnishings in her postcard collection, see image below. This precedent of Rose acquiring and subsequently reproducing seventeenth-century carvings in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement is bolstered by the research conducted around this new acquisition, the chest.
The fact that the chest’s carvings are the work of Rose Nichols is supported by both oral history and its provenance. In addition, the hardware on the chest helped us to date this piece to the early twentieth century. In-and-of-itself, the hardware is an interesting study in Arts and Crafts period metalwork. As with the library chairs, Rose likely purchased the chest, uncarved, from a furniture company; it’s sharp lines and clean joints suggest the frame was machine-made.
Rose Nichols’ carvings recognizably imitate a chest in Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection by the celebrated seventeenth-century Ipswich joiner, Thomas Dennis. In the 1660s, Dennis, along with his partner, William Searle, brought to Essex County, Massachusetts the florid style of carving they had learned in Devonshire, England–an example of regional styles crossing the Atlantic to the New World .
The guilloche pattern, seen on the upper rail of the Metropolitan Museum’s chest and on the upper and lower rails of Rose Nichols’ copy, was very much a part of the Exeter decorative vocabulary brought to New England by Searle and Dennis . The left and right panels on the front of the chest show a tree-of-life (an arrangement of flowers and leaves issuing from a vase), which was a popular seventeenth-century motif seen in many artistic mediums.
That Rose Nichols was aware of Thomas Dennis is confirmed by an entry in her unpublished manuscript on American decorative arts, which is housed by Historic New England (see image below). Rose Nichols likely saw the chest in the catalog for the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of American Industrial Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition was the first of its kind and the second of two Metropolitan Museum exhibitions tied to the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York and New Jersey, which commemorated the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River and the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s commercial application of the paddle steamer. The Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of American Industrial Arts was the first exhibition dedicated to American decorative arts and the catalyst for the 1924 opening of the museum’s American Wing.
The Dennis chest arrived at the Metropolitan Museum in 1909 as part of the collection of American furniture amassed by Boston’s H. Eugene Bolles, which was purchased and donated to the museum by Mrs. Russell Sage, a New York philanthropist and the widow of a wealthy financier.
The Dennis chest and others like it may have motivated Rose to acquire a seventeenth-century example for her growing collection of art and antiques. In 1910, Rose Nichols purchased a seventeenth-century oak dower chest from an antique shop in Wiltshire, England. Now, the dower chest sits at the base of Rose Nichols’ bed in her third-floor bedroom at the Nichols House Museum. Inspiration for this placement can likewise be observed in Rose Nichols’ collection of postcards, see below. To learn more about this chest visit the December 2016 Object Spotlight entry.
After receiving conservation treatment, the newly acquired oak chest will be on view in the Nichols House Museum lobby. Stay tuned for further details on its unveiling!
By Laura Cunningham, Programs and Collections Coordinator
 Marilee Boyd Meyer, Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement (Wellesley, MA: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, 1997), 15.
 Margaret Nichols Shurcliff taught carpentry skills to immigrant boys so that they could find work. In 1920, she hosted the first meeting of what would become the ACLU of Massachusetts in her home at 66 Mount Vernon Street.
 Margaret Nichols Shurcliff, Lively Days (Boston, MA: Nichols House Museum Board of Governers, reprinted in 2001), 47.
 Frances Gruber Safford, American Furniture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: I. Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007), 198.