When Homewood was completed around 1808, the house was one of the most stylish examples of Federal domestic architecture in America. No wonder Charles Carroll Jr., its owner, wanted the most fashionable furniture to fill it. And Baltimore was just the place for producing some of the most elegant and sophisticated furniture in the fledgling United States. The resulting union was a perfect marriage of architecture and furnishings.
That marriage is regularly on view at Homewood Museum, located on the Johns Hopkins University campus. But now Catherine Rogers Arthur, Homewood's director and curator, has assembled a small exhibition — "Finery & Finish, Embellishments on Baltimore Federal Furniture" — that affords an intimate view of early-1800s furniture. You get a chance to see up the intricate inlays, expert carvings and "fancy" painted surfaces.
"Regardless the number of new acquisitions, seasonal room changes or interpretive strategies, historic house museums have a reputation for being static — or should I say even boring. Exhibitions like this one, give the museum — and the public — a way to see things differently," says Arthur, who wants viewers "to be able to make observations and comparisons in ways that would be otherwise impossible in the view across the room."
Working closely with Stiles T. Colwill of Stiles T. Colwill Interiors, a member of the museum's advisory board since its 1980s restoration, she was able to borrow several pieces from individuals as well as local institutions like Hampton National Historical Site in Towson. Colwill, she says, "is a great collector and scholar."
"Catherine had the idea for the show, and it happens to be an area that I love, and I just jumped on to be supportive right from the first," Colwill says. The idea was to "borrow objects that were typical or could be the type of thing that would have been at Homewood."
The show provides a rare chance to see privately owned objects. Even objects borrowed from public collections usually can be seen only from across the room. Arthur wanted to provide visitors with "a much more connoisseur-like study."
Most of the items on display were not bought off the showroom floor.
"Unless something was purely made on speculation by the craftsman," says Arthur, "most of them are probably custom-designed and -crafted objects. Each of these objects started with a conversation and a relationship between the patron and the craftsman and a vision for what they wanted. Consider that patrons thought of their home as their stage, the furnishing the props, and that they were trying to create impressions, just as we try to furnish our homes today."
Federal style refers to "the early national period," Arthur says: from the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 through 1815 or 1820. But furniture historians think of the period from 1780 to 1835 as a continuum called Neoclassical.
"One can call it 'early Neoclassical' and 'late Neoclassical,' " says Arthur. "They are both looking back to classical antecedents for their designs and ornament. To differentiate it in my mind, in the earlier period, or Federal period, the classical inspirations mostly relate to shapes of decorations on it, like eagles or flags or shields and urns.
"For the late Neoclassical, one would says it begins about 1815 here in America. It's also referred to as Empire style. At that point, things like chair forms are looking back to the chair forms of antiquity — not just in its ornaments, but in its form as well."
One type of Baltimore furniture that spanned the Neoclassical spectrum was called "fancy." Its ornament was chiefly painted, and Baltimore was famous for its fancy furniture. Gregory R. Weidman, curator of Hampton National Historic Site and Fort McHenry National Monument, lent a fancy chair from Hampton to the Homewood exhibition.
"It's a beautiful painted chair from a suite of painted furniture that was originally owned by John Eager Howard," the prominent Baltimore soldier and politician, Weidman says. "The set first came to Hampton in 1827 after John Eager Howard's death.
"The basic design of the chair is typical of Baltimore painted furniture. But what is so unusual about the whole suite is that it is decorated in polychrome colors, a soft yellowish-gray ground with bouquets of flowers as part of the ornamentation. … It is a very large suite of two settees, two window seats and 13 armchairs. Yet no two of the bouquets are exactly the same."
Another fancy piece in the show had a starring role on the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow" in 2004. Arthur says little is known about the pier table (meant to be placed in the space — the pier — between two windows) "other than its paint style and ornament really make it pretty clear that it's an example of Baltimore painted furniture with these romantic landscape views on it."
The appraiser on the show that day was Baltimore furniture dealer J. Michael Flanigan. As Arthur tells it — and Flanigan confirms — three or four years after the appraisal, the owner "contacted him to see if he would know of a likely buyer. At which point, he contacted me."
The table's legs had been cut down about 5 inches, but Arthur says she was able to find a very similar table in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society and used it as a prototype for restoring the legs.
Nowadays, early Neoclassical or Federal pieces are scarcer and likely more costly than later examples, if only because there were far fewer pieces of Baltimore furniture made in 1790 than in 1820. This reflects the fact that Baltimore was a boom city during the Neoclassical period. In 1790, census figures puts Baltimore's population at 13,503. Thirty years later, the city had grown to 62,738.
Or, as Weidman says, Baltimore was "the fastest-growing city in the United States."
Therefore, "certainly the earlier Federal pieces, from the late 1780s to about 1805 are much scarcer than the later Neoclassical or Empire pieces from, say, 1815 to about 1830 or '35. There were many more people living in town and more cabinetmakers producing the furniture," Weidman says. "There is really a much larger supply still existing from that just slightly later time than from the preceding period."
If you go
What: "Finery & Finish, Embellishments on Baltimore Federal Furniture"
When: Until Jan. 4. Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; noon-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Where: Homewood Museum, 3400 N. Charles St., the Johns Hopkins University
Contact: museums.jhu.edu/homewood or 410-516-5589.
Cost: $8 adults.