Antiques Roadshow 

Cheekwood shows off little-seen furniture from the colonial and pre-Civil War South

Cheekwood shows off little-seen furniture from the colonial and pre-Civil War South

Furniture of the American South 1680-1830

The Colonial Williamsburg Collection

Through Jan. 4

Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art

1200 Forrest Park Drive

While those in the decorating industry have been heading to the autumn furniture shows in High Point, N.C., local aficionados can get their fix right here. Thanks to an extraordinary confluence of events, it’s Furniture Fall in Nashville. Not to be missed is Cheekwood’s “Furniture of the American South 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection.” Featuring 52 pieces, the exhibit presents an overlooked area of the decorative arts, that of Southern-made objects.

Lisa Porter, Cheekwood’s associate curator of decorative arts, says various factors—war, climate and a transitory population—wiped out a lot of older pieces from the South, leading to the assumption that little was made here, or that pieces of real value only came from the North or from England. “Over the last 20 or 30 years, places like the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts [in Winston-Salem, N.C.] and Williamsburg have been revising that history,” Porter explains. “They found that the South had amazing objects, great craftsmen and a very, very diverse population.”

“Furniture of the American South” includes chairs, chests, tables, clocks and two green sofas. One of those sofas opens the exhibition and is what Porter describes as “the showstopper.” Designed in the Grecian style, it has curvilinear legs, arms that swirl up on the sides and a carved grapevine motif along the crest rail at the back. It doesn’t exude the kind of elegance it might, had it not been re-covered in tone-on-tone green stripes, yet it is definitely lovely. (None of the upholstery in the show is original.) Dating from the early 19th century, it represents a return to classical styles favored during the Napoleonic era.

The sofa is actually an anomaly in this show—most of the pieces are from much earlier, which is one of the reasons Cheekwood booked “Furniture of the American South.” In compiling this exhibition, Williamsburg curators chose pieces based on significance and soundness for travel. Cheekwood displays them according to region—Chesapeake area, Low Country and Backcountry. Viewers are encouraged to look for themes and variations in patterns and styles over time and across regions.

Chair lovers will be delighted to find several intriguing pieces in the show. Among them is a fanciful circa 1800 Masonic chair from Great Britain, a “fancy” side chair from Baltimore with gold stenciling over blue paint, a chair from Thomas Jefferson’s plantation workshop, and a number of refined Chippendale designs meticulously stained and inlaid with a variety of woods. Near the gallery entrance is a squat, black chair that seems a primitive sketch of the piece to its right. Porter explains that it was designed to sit low near the fire and that it was probably made by a Welshman. “He tried to make it stylish,” she says, pointing out the rounded arms and the shaped splat and curved crest rail.

In contrast to this unusual black chair is the ubiquitous wing chair. “One of the major themes throughout the show is this idea of where do we get styles from, where do we get this idea of what is fashionable,” Porter says. Many of the items in the show, tables and chests of drawers as well as seating, are familiar because the styles have endured. Tracing early American furniture from the austere and practical to the decorative and delightful, “Furniture of the American South” has something to offer both design buffs and students of history.

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