Spring into Action: Observing Arts and Crafts Workmanship in Our New Acquisition

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.

Oak chest, carvings attributed to Rose Standish Nichols, early twentieth century. Photographed in the Nichols House Museum lobby, awaiting conservation treatment and photography.

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 [1]. Thus, practitioners of the Arts and Crafts Movement looked to medieval craftsman and guilds for inspiration which, in turn, ushered in a Colonial Revival. Founded in 1897, the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston (SACB) was the first arts and crafts organization established in America, placing Boston at the forefront of the national movement. 

Boston played a unique, 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 [2].

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, demonstrating that the movement was as much about the future as it was the past. 

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. Shurcliff taught carpentry skills to immigrant boys in an effort to help them 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. 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. 

Bookcase, attributed to Margaret Nichols Shurcliff, early twentieth century. Nichols House Museum Collection.

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” [3]. 

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 Irving & Casson, asking that they be left uncarved (she is also responsible for the chairs’ caning). Irving & Casson was one of many Boston furniture companies offering historic styles from Gothic to Louis XV and XVI to colonial in the first decade of the twentieth-century [4]. 

RSN chair
Oak Chair, carving and caning attributed to Rose Standish Nichols, American, early twentieth century.

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.

Oak chair, English, late seventeenth century. Nichols House Museum Collection.
Early twentieth-century postcard from the Victoria and Albert Museum, found in the Rose Standish Nichols’ Postcard Collection.

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.

IMG_1767 a
Oak chest, carvings attributed to Rose Standish Nichols, early twentieth century. Photographed in the storage unit from which it was retrieved. The chest is currently pending onsite conservation treatment and photography.

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 [5]. 

Dennis Chest
Chest attributed to Thomas Dennis, Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1663-1680. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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 [6]. 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.

The tree-of-life panel on Rose Nichols chest. Rose Nichols’ chest employs this motif on the sides of the chest rather than the frontward facing panels.

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. 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 a significant collection of American furniture amassed by Boston lawyer H. Eugene Bolles, which was then purchased and donated to the museum by Mrs. Russell Sage, a New York philanthropist and the widow of a wealthy financier. Bolles’ collection was comprised of more than 600 pieces, which he appreciated for their “associations with customs, surroundings, and life of a provincial and colonial history” [7]. 

Catalog entry from the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of American Industrial Arts. A large plate showing the chest accompanies this entry.

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.

Oak chest, English, late seventeenth century. Nichols House Museum Collection.
Rose Standish Nichols’ bedroom, 1964. Although originally kept in the foyer of her home, Rose Nichols later moved the blanket chest to the end of her bed. Nichols was perhaps inspired by colonial interiors, such as the one depicted in the following postcard.
Twentieth-century postcard from the Stockbridge Mission House in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Interiors such as this inspired Colonial Revival decorating trends through the 1940s.

By 1902, the Boston Architectural Club Yearbook was featuring illustrations of interiors furnished with “seventeenth-century joined chests; William and Mary gate-leg tables; Queen Anne chairslowboys or highboys; Chippendale chairs, tea tables…and Federal sideboards…” [9]. Visitors to the Nichols House Museum will observe these historic furnishings in our period rooms as well as colonial revival imitations from the early twentieth century.

Rose Nichols is quoted in a 1956 Boston Globe article as having said the following: “It was the spirit of the Puritans to try to broaden their interests toward wide horizons, and that same spirit I’ve tried to keep alive in everything I’ve done.” 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

[1] Erica E. Hirschler, introduction to At Home on Beacon Hill, by B. June Hutchinson (Boston, MA: Nichols House Museum Board of Governors, 2011), xviii.

[2] Marilee Boyd Meyer, introduction to Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement, ed. Marilee Boyd Meyer (Wellesley, MA: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, 1997), 15.

[3]  Margaret Nichols Shurcliff, Lively Days (Boston, MA: Nichols House Museum Board of Governers, reprinted in 2001), 47.

[4] Edward S. Cooke, Jr, “The Aesthetics of Craftsmanship & The Prestige of the Past: Boston Furniture-Making and Woodcarving,” in Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement, ed. Marilee Boyd Meyer (Wellesley, MA: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, 1997), 44.

[5] 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.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Edward S. Cooke, Jr, “The Aesthetics of Craftsmanship & The Prestige of the Past: Boston Furniture-Making and Woodcarving,” in Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement, ed. Marilee Boyd Meyer (Wellesley, MA: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, 1997), 45.