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Thursday, December 14, 2017

One Family's Treasure: Newly Discovered Collection of Seymour Furniture

Fig. 1: Isaac Davenport House, Milton, Mass, c. 1939. Photo: Arthur Haskell. Wakefield Trust archives.
One Family's Treasure: Newly Discovered Collection of Seymour Furniture by Rebecca J. Bertrand and Robert D. Mussey, Jr.
Fig. 1: Isaac Davenport House, Milton, Mass, c. 1939. Photo: Arthur Haskell. Wakefield Trust archives.

INSET ABOVE, Fig. 2: Miniature portrait of Isaac Davenport (1753–1828) unsigned, possibly by Joseph Dunkerly (d. 1847), ca. 1765–1774. Watercolor on ivory, in original gold frame, 2 x 1 inches. Courtesy, Harvard Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, long term loan from the Mary M. B. Wakefield Charitable Trust (7.2009). Photography by Katya Kallsen © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

At the base of the Blue Hills in Milton, Massachusetts, lies the Davenport-Wakefield house, its stately Federal form providing a fitting setting for its treasure trove of decorative arts collections (Fig. 1). Prosperous Boston merchant Isaac Davenport (Fig. 2) constructed the high-style “country seat” in 1794. Built on his family’s ancestral lands just south of today’s Boston city limits, the property remained in the family’s hands for more than 210 years. Successive generations contributed to the collections of heirloom furnishings and possessions, preserving them as testaments to a proud family heritage. The broad scope of collections from the house (now an educational nonprofit organization operated as the Mary M. B. Wakefield Charitable Trust) includes fine furniture, paintings, needlework, ceramics, and silver from the 1770s through the twentieth century. These were unknown to decorative arts scholars until their discovery by consultants who evaluated them after the death of the last descendant-property owner, Mary M. B. Wakefield, in 2004.

Fig. 3: Tall-post bed, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass. ca. 1812–1817, carvings by Thomas Wightman (d. 1819). Mahogany, birch, ash, eastern white pine, with blistered maple veneer, and gilt brass mounts. H. 92-1/2, W. 66, D. 81-1/2 in. Photography by David Bohl.
Fig. 3: Tall-post bed, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass. ca. 1812–1817, carvings by Thomas Wightman (d. 1819). Mahogany, birch, ash, eastern white pine, with blistered maple veneer, and gilt brass mounts. H. 92-1/2, W. 66, D. 81-1/2 in. Photography by David Bohl.
Perhaps most impressive among house collections is a grouping of fourteen pieces of furniture made by Boston’s leading Federal-era cabinetmakers John (1738–1818) and Thomas Seymour (1771–1848). With pieces constructed between about 1800 and 1817, the collection is representative of some of the broad range of forms and styles the Seymours produced later in their careers, and is the only suite of Seymour furniture remaining in its original family context. No receipts from Seymour to the family have been found, though the extensive family archive has not yet been fully searched.

The Furniture
Although the furniture apparently was purchased from the Seymours by several family members at different times, three pieces—a bed (Fig. 3), dressing table with mirror (Fig. 4), and basin stand (Fig. 5)—comprise a clearly recognizable bedchamber suite listed as such in family inventories. Made about 1812–1817, all three feature Thomas Seymour’s meticulous construction details, his adaptations of English Regency style, and blister-figured maple veneer, which has the figure locally dramatized by scorching with a hot iron. The tall-post bed is perhaps the only Seymour-made bed that demonstrably retains its original cornice with out-set turret corners.1 Seymour’s favorite carver, the English immigrant Thomas Wightman (d. 1819), contributed leafage-carving to lyre supports for the dressing glass, blossom-and-seed carvings to dressing chest legs, and acanthus-leaved bedpost vases (Fig. 6) and turret corners on the bed cornice (Fig. 7). Central tablets on the cornice rails feature French-style ormolu mounts, a decorative preference that entered Seymour’s vocabulary about 1815 (Fig. 8). This is an early hint of the influence of French Classical design that would become wildly popular in Boston in coming years.

Fig. 4: Dressing table with mirror, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass., ca. 1812–1817; carvings by Thomas Wightman (d. 1819). Mahogany, eastern white pine, ash, with blistered maple, and curly mahogany veneers. H. 40-1/4, W. 38-1/4, D. 20 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr.
Fig. 4: Dressing table with mirror, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass., ca. 1812–1817; carvings by Thomas Wightman (d. 1819). Mahogany, eastern white pine, ash, with blistered maple, and curly mahogany veneers. H. 40-1/4, W. 38-1/4, D. 20 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr.

The Davenport house must have undergone a major refurnishing about 1812–1815, as three other pieces appear to have been purchased from Thomas Seymour in this period. A large “elliptic front” chest of drawers may have been used as part of the same bedroom suite but is in a slightly different style (Fig. 9). Seymour drew again on the English Regency vocabulary for the large scale segmented reeding on the legs and convex exotic wood inlays applied cross-grain on edges of the top. A large two-part dining table (not pictured) is comprised of two separate ends, each one with a broad semi-elliptical end, tapered turned legs with large-scale reeding and a large hinged drop leaf. Seymour also provided the family with a lady’s worktable, also in his “Boston Regency” style (Fig. 10). The cabinetmaker employed again his favorite large scale reeding, fastidious detailing of the mahogany drawer interiors and “blossom”-pattern stamped brass hardware, which he used frequently in this period. A third group comprises three pieces of major historical importance, having all been bought by a Davenport forebear Jabez Bullard at an 1830 estate auction of Hancock House furniture from John Hancock’s widow. Most recognizable of these are a bird’s-eye and curly maple armchair (Fig. 12) and two matching side chairs that were once part of a set of thirteen owned by Dorothy Quincy Hancock Scott.2 Since the chairs were probably made in the period 1803–1810, and Hancock died in 1793, they must have been purchased after Dorothy Hancock married her second husband, Capt. James Scott. Four of the original set of thirteen are now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and four are in the collection of Mrs. George Kaufman.3 Both groups of four were acquired with histories of descent from the same Jabez Bullard.4 An old paper label affixed to one of the Davenport-Hancock side chairs gives the history of acquisition by Bullard and the descent from him to his grandson, a collateral Davenport descendant.5

Fig. 5: Basin stand, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass., ca. 1812–1817. Mahogany, eastern white pine, cherry, with blistered maple veneer. Original hardware is missing; the cutout in the top for a basin has been filled in. H. 35, D. 21-1/2, W. 21-1/2 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr..
Fig. 5: Basin stand, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass., ca. 1812–1817. Mahogany, eastern white pine, cherry, with blistered maple veneer. Original hardware is missing; the cutout in the top for a basin has been filled in. H. 35, D. 21-1/2, W. 21-1/2 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr..

The remaining five pieces (not shown), identifiably from the Seymour shop, range in dates and style of manufacture. These include a bowfront chest of about 1800, with the earlier Federal-era preference for liberal use of decorative veneer crossbanding and stringing. Two basin stands of differing designs accompany this, one of a three-legged “corner” design, the other with four legs. A pair of dining side chairs, made about 1808–1812 and of sophisticated London-derived design relate closely to a large group of chairs of varying patterns long recognized as products of the Seymour shop.6 The Davenport dining chairs retain all of their original underupholstery including lead-filled brass moldings which serve as trim along lower fabric edges on the rails.

Family and Estate History
John Davenport (1664–1725) originated the family line in Milton in 1707 on farm property totaling over 150 acres. The property passed to his son Samuel (1697–1773), and to his grandson Samuel Davenport Jr. (1720–1793).7 Over three successive generations, the Davenports improved their status, rising from husbandmen to yeomen to gentlemen. Isaac Davenport, who inherited the property upon the death of his father, Samuel Davenport Jr., was a Boston merchant with offices on Long Wharf, where he partnered with other prominent merchants, most notably John McLean (1759–1823), Rufus Davenport (1770–ca. 1838), and Richard Dalton Tucker (1771–1842). One year after his father’s death, Isaac Davenport (1753–1828) built the mansion house, bringing his new wife, Mary (May) Davenport (1769–1853), daughter of a successful Boston merchant, to the Milton estate. Mary and Isaac Davenport raised two children at the estate, Mary May (1795–1843) and Louisa Davenport (1807–1859).

Fig. 6: Detail of carved post of bed in figure 3.
Photography by David Bohl.
Fig. 7: Detail of carved cornice of bed
in figure 3. Photography by David Bohl.
Fig. 8: Detail of gilt hardware
on cornice of bed in figure 3.
Photography by David Bohl.
The town of Milton provided prosperous Bostonians an escape from the city, with plentiful opportunities for pursuits in their “country seats,” such as experimental horticulture.8 Correspondence in 1828 between Isaac Davenport’s son-in-law Joseph Hayward and Hayward’s cousin Benjamin Goddard, a well-known gardener, refers to the “new seeds for the Milton garden.”9 The Goddard and Hayward families would maintain close contact and correspondence on many subjects, and may have influenced each other’s buying habits.

Between the close of the Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War, gentlemen farmers such as the Davenports, equipped their homes with the finest and most cosmopolitan of furnishings. Over the course of the Davenport estate’s history, the house and its contents evolved in trend with the latest fashion.

Fig. 9: Chest of drawers, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass., ca. 1810–1815. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, unidentified tropical wood, possibly Dalbergia spp., eastern white pine; hardware is not original. H. 39-1/2, W. 46, D. 21-1/4 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr.
Fig. 9: Chest of drawers, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass., ca. 1810–1815. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, unidentified tropical wood, possibly Dalbergia spp., eastern white pine; hardware is not original. H. 39-1/2, W. 46, D. 21-1/4 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr.

The Davenport-Wakefield house collection reveals an important transitional period in the Seymours’ work—to that of the “Boston Regency” style. Forward-looking Thomas Seymour introduced the style to Boston after about 1808, an early date for the style in America. The collection represents this style well, with its large-scale leg-reed moldings, elimination of decorative stringing, and predominant use of mahogany veneers. Ownership of the Seymour pieces indicated that the Davenport descendants were au courant with the changing fashions; they renovated the interior of the Milton home by adding Federal-style trim to the formal parlor, and changed the style of best furniture in the house by selecting Boston Regency furniture.

Fig. 10: Lady’s work table, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass. ca. 1812–1815. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, eastern white pine; original brass hardware. H. 29, W. 22, D. 15-3/4 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr.
Fig. 10: Lady’s work table, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass. ca. 1812–1815. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, eastern white pine; original brass hardware. H. 29, W. 22, D. 15-3/4 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr.

Family Influences
While providing an exact provenance for each piece of Seymour furniture at the estate has not yet been possible, it is clear that members of the May and Davenport extended family were Seymour furniture owners, and that the Milton family members had close contact with their relatives. Two siblings of Mary May Davenport owned furniture attributed to the Seymours. Mary’s sister Louisa May Goddard (1773–1832) and her husband Benjamin Goddard (1766–1861) purchased a bedstead with painted cornice, dated 1795–1805, that predates the Davenport family bedroom suite.10 In place of painted elements, the Davenport suite, dated 1812 to 1817, has imported brass escutcheons, bird’s eye maple veneers, and carved cornice details by Seymour’s favored carver, the English immigrant Thomas Wightman.

It is also possible that Abigail May (1754–1824), an elder sister of Mary and Louisa May, might have inspired their interest in Seymour’s work. Abigail and her husband John May (1748–1812) purchased a lady’s writing screen attributed to John and Thomas Seymour, possibly for their daughter Lucretia May Dana’s (1773–1866) 1797 marriage to Nathaniel Goddard (1767–1883). Lucretia and Nathaniel Goddard passed the writing screen, or “screen table,” dated 1798–1808, to their son George Augustus Goddard (1802–1845),11 in whose family it descended. George Augustus Goddard had a summer home in the Blue Hills near the Davenport estate. His wife, Cornelia Amory (1810–1875) frequently corresponded with her cousins and regularly visited the homes of the married May sisters.

Fig. 11: Lyre-base card table, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass., ca. 1812–1815. Mahogany, mahogany and unidentified tropical veneer, ash; original brass foot and frieze corner hardware. H. 39-1/2, W. 46, D. 21-1/4 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr.
Fig. 11: Lyre-base card table, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass., ca. 1812–1815. Mahogany, mahogany and unidentified tropical veneer, ash; original brass foot and frieze corner hardware. H. 39-1/2, W. 46, D. 21-1/4 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr.

Mary May and Isaac Davenport’s eldest daughter Mary (1795–1843) married Joseph Henshaw Hayward (1789–1853) on October 24, 1816. The son of Lemuel Hayward, a physician of Revolutionary War-era fame, Joseph descended from an upper echelon of Boston society and was accustomed to luxurious possessions. After their marriage, they resided for a time at the family home in Milton before moving to Boston. The dates of the Hayward marriage align with those of the construction of the Davenport-Wakefield house bedroom suite. Was the bedroom suite a wedding gift from Mary’s parents or from her wealthy Brookline aunt and uncle, Louisa (May) and Benjamin Goddard, already owners of one Seymour bedstead?12 Or the newlyweds might have purchased items individually at Seymour’s Boston Furniture Manufactory.

Fig. 12: Armchair, part of a partial set with two side chairs, John and Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass, ca. 1795–1805. Curly- and bird’s-eye maple, birch (upholstery replaced). The pattern of the back is derived from a design for glass door bars in the London Cabinetmakers Price Book for 1803, a copy of which the Seymours may have owned. H. 35, W. 21-3/4, D. 21-1/8 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr.
Fig. 12: Armchair, part of a partial set with two side chairs, John and Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), Boston, Mass, ca. 1795–1805. Curly- and bird’s-eye maple, birch (upholstery replaced). The pattern of the back is derived from a design for glass door bars in the London Cabinetmakers Price Book for 1803, a copy of which the Seymours may have owned. H. 35, W. 21-3/4, D. 21-1/8 in. Photography by Robert D. Mussey Jr.

Other items in the Davenport-Wakefield house Seymour collection have a clear provenance. Three chairs contain relic labels dictating their history. The two side and one arm chair were among the last furnishings of the Hancock house, which stood on Beacon Street in Boston between 1747 and 1863. Although John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress and first and third governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, never used the chairs himself, as they were made after his death in 1793, the pieces represent the importance of a storied provenance to a family’s heritage. Sold at a dispersal sale of the goods owned by Dorothy Quincy Hancock Scott, Hancock’s widow, later remarried to Captain James Scott, the chairs were purchased by Jabez Bullard (1773–1852). Bullard was himself married into the Quincy family, and left the chairs in his will to his descendents, including his granddaughter by marriage, Josephine Davenport Hayward Binney Bullard (1836–1917). Josephine Bullard was the granddaughter of Isaac Davenport Hayward and lived for years at the Milton estate. Several chairs from the set (originally consisting of thirteen chairs) have emerged in both public and private collections. Bullard’s chairs descended to her granddaughter, Mary May Binney Wakefield (1914–2004), the last owner of the Milton estate.

The Documentation of the House
Generations of Davenport estate owners maintained a persistent interest in preserving their family heritage, making attempts to reconnect family members to their colonial past. While architectural alterations in the late nineteenth century aligned the house more to Victorian tastes, a 1903 remodeling attempted to recreate the original appearance of the house.13 These renovations were done while the house served as a summer escape for Boston residents Mary Hayward Cunningham (1863–1929), great-granddaughter of Isaac Davenport, and Henry Winchester Cunningham (1860–1930). Henry Cunningham, a historian who served as secretary of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and a founding member of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, compiled several genealogical record books, currently in the estate’s archives. In the late 1930s, Henry Prentice Binney (1863–1940), who inherited the estate in 1929, commissioned architectural photographer Arthur Haskell (1890–1968) to document the house as it stood sometime after 1938 (Fig. 13). Several pieces of Seymour furniture are prominently placed in these photographs.

Fig. 13: Interior Sitting Room, Isaac Davenport House, Milton, Mass., ca. 1939. Photography by Arthur Haskell. Wakefield Trust archives.
Fig. 13: Interior Sitting Room, Isaac Davenport House, Milton, Mass., ca. 1939. Photography by Arthur Haskell. Wakefield Trust archives.

Binney’s daughter, Mary May Binney Wakefield (1914–2004), the final owner of the Davenport estate, understood the importance of her family’s heritage and the legacy they had created at the Milton estate. She compiled lists of family items “for posterity” and had hopes that the house might one day become an historic house museum. Interestingly, while Wakefield’s “Posterity Document” listed furniture she thought was of historic interest, no Seymour pieces were included.

The Davenport-Wakefield estate’s Seymour collection serves as a striking reminder to collectors, dealers, academics, and museum professionals that undiscovered resources teeming with treasures may be hiding behind the next corner.

The Mary M. B. Wakefield Charitable Trust promotes education through the resources and landscape of the Milton estate. It operates on twenty-three acres that include three dwelling houses, nine outbuildings, multiple gardens, an orchard, and fields. For more information, please visit www.wakefieldtrust.org.

Rebecca J. Bertrand is a 2010 graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. She is an independent decorative arts scholar and Development Associate at The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Robert D. Mussey, Jr. is an independent scholar and furniture conservator.

1. A card table by Thomas Seymour, with similar outset turret corners and leafage carving by Thomas Wightman, was illustrated in Stanley Weiss and Robert Mussey, “Discoveries from the Field,” Antiques & Fine Art, IX, no. 6 (Autumn/Winter 2009): 130–131.

2. “Administrator’s Sale,” Columbian Centinel, February 20, 1830.

3. See See Robert D. Mussey Jr., The Furniture Masterpieces of John and Thomas Seymour (Salem: Peabody Essex Museum, 2003), no. 123 and Michael Flanigan, American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1986), cat. no. 35.

4. Hancock-related collections at the Davenport House also include a fabric cutting from a rich red silk damask, said to have been part of the original upholstery of this set of chairs at the Hancock House, and a large mahogany and gilt looking glass in George II style (English or American). Both of these also have Hancock-Bullard-Davenport family histories affixed.

5. A genealogical research summary of the Bullard-Quincy-Davenport connections conducted by Rebecca Bertrand is in the curatorial files at the Wakefield Trust archives.

6. See Mussey, Masterpieces, cat. nos. 124–127.

7. Research on the Davenport-Wakefield farm, property, mansion house architecture, and much genealogical work is the product of Claire Dempsey and students in the Boston University Preservation Studies Program, including Zachary Violette, Annie Rotner, and Shelby Graham.

8. For more on country estates, see Tamara Plakins Thorton, Cultivating Gentlemen: The Meaning of Country Life among the Boston Elite, 1785–1860 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

9. Benjamin Goddard to Joseph Hayward, April 24, 1828, Davenport 1 file, Wakefield Trust archives.

10. The bedstead is currently owned by Historic New England, and is in the Otis House in Boston. Mussey, Masterpieces, cat. no. 150.

11. Writing table with screen is in a private collection. Mussey, Masterpieces, cat. no. 69.

12. Family archives record that on December 7, 1841, at the marriage of second daughter Louisa Goddard Davenport to Samuel Wigglesworth, Mary May Davenport gave her daughter a silver waiter (tray). Davenport 1 file, Wakefield Trust archives.

13. For extensive information on the architectural history of the house, see Zachary Violette, “Isaac Davenport House, Milton, Mass, Final Report for the Mary B. Wakefield Charitable Trust,” June 2008. Wakefield Trust archives.

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