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Wednesday, 27 February 2013 02:01

Touching History


Mark designed the paneled wall, pilasters, and rosette-carved capitals, which are loosely based on the corner cupboard in the same room and a wall Mark built for their home in New York. The Hudson River School painting above the mantel shows Pine Plains, New York, near the area where the couple lived before relocating to New Hampshire. Period baskets are visible on a kitchen counter and on top of the cabinets in the distance. Marjorie is very fond of hand-made baskets because, she says, “they speak of women’s and children’s hands, in the making and using, and things that represent people are most important to me.”

Among the key elements for turning a passion for antiques into a business is the ability to be a good teacher; one who knows how to engage and encourage others. Such is the case with Mark and Marjorie Allen, specialists in period antiques.

Mark’s career path has included teaching neurochemistry and psychology. Marjorie, his wife of forty-five years, came from a family of teachers and taught gifted children in public schools. Both were able to transfer their teaching instincts to the antiques community, where sharing knowledge, creating interest, and building passion is at the heart of the trade.
Mark and Marjorie began collecting soon into their marriage, drawn mainly to early material and American art pottery. Mark decided to dabble in the antiques business, and in 1968 opened a by-appointment shop. In the early 1970s, his academic schedule allowed him to devote his summers to operating an antiques business. By 1975 he was making more money in the summer months than by teaching, so he quit his day job and became a full-time antiques dealer, with the proviso, as Mark tells it, “that if it didn’t go well enough I would go back to academics.”


One of the prerequisites when they planned the house was to “live outside as much as possible, and bring the outside in.” Their dining room opens on to the porch with its striking view (glass doors are not shown), and the greenery in the room provides a further connection with the landscape. The room has a combination of custom and period antiques, a practical furnishing scheme given the amount of entertaining. Because they did not want to damage the top of the 1730s–1750s Pennsylvania farm table, the Allens commissioned furniture maker Alan Andersen to construct a new top (the original is stored safely away). With the height raised as well, the table can accommodate the arms of the custom Windsors—and the legs of those who are dining. An eighteenth-century painted cupboard in the corner displays rare early delft.

Mark and Marjorie Allen have spent six years working on the design, planning, and building phases of their mountainside retreat on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. The overhang of the roof line and doorways show the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark’s favorite architect. Finishing touches are still being added to the landscape. This vantage is taken overlooking a ledge from the hillside above the house. The lake and Sandwich Mountain Range are visible in the distance.

When the couple acquired this eighteenth- century New Hampshire corner cupboard, it was covered with forty layers of paint that had to be hand scraped to reveal the original marbling. A rare survival, the cupboard holds a selection of exquisite and rare early Dutch delft majolica dating mainly from 1610 to the 1630s. The rarest is the charger in the bottom center, circa 1600, which combines raised bosses, a crimped edge, sgraffito, a paneled border, and bright polychrome. It was Marjorie’s love of color that helped steer the couple’s interest in delft. “More than anything [in decorative arts], color is very important to me, particularly the muted colors in delft ware.” As dealers, they have long specialized in delft, but so as to avoid a conflict of interest with customers, Mark notes that they do not sell delft of this early type.

Circa-1770 cupboard from Orange County, New York, with original polychrome surface. Inside are examples of eighteenth-century blue and white delft, with some pieces dated 1702, 1728, and 1756; the earliest is a pair of circa-1690 vases in the Chinese manner. A Dutch delft tobacco jar on top is part of a numbered series.
This oil-on-panel painting is of Mount Chocorua, the easternmost peak of the Sandwich Range, which overlooks Squam Lake. This is one of a number of paintings in the collection of the White Mountain Range, of which the Sandwich mountains are a part.
Although Mark’s business thrived, there was family pressure not to be a dealer of “second-hand” goods. But, as he notes, “I got addicted to it and had the great fortune to have some extraordinary mentors.” The couple was living in upstate New York, which at the time was a hotbed of early dealers. There was Timothy Trace of Peekskill (“the Pied Piper of young antiques dealers”), Jonathan Trace (who lived down the road at the time and taught at the same school as Marjorie), Michael Dunn, Frank Cowan, Roger Gonzales, and Elliott Snyder, among others. Bill Samaha and Lindsey Grigsby would stop by when in the area. “A number of us would gather at Tim’s in the evenings and bring things we had found during the week and discuss them. He would invite people from various disciplines to talk with us.” Furniture scholar Ben Ginsburg and his wife Cora, an expert in textiles, would come, as would English domestic brass dealer Rupert Gentle. “Any number of people could show up unexpectedly. All were welcome—it was an antiques ‘think tank.’” The combination of people and their interests helped hone Mark’s focus on the material of colonial homes—brass, delft, furniture, metalwork, glass, textiles, paintings, etc.—in which he and Marjorie continue to specialize.

Incorporating an open floor plan was important to the Allens when planning the layout of their home. The double-sided fireplace heats the living room, seen here, and the dining room on the opposite side. Two reproduction Queen Anne easy chairs, made by cabinetmaker Alan Andersen of Andersen & Stauffer, Lititz, Pennsylvania, are placed before the fireplace. The blue-resist slip covers were created by Stauffer’s wife, textile expert Susan Pope Andersen. Friends of the Allens, the Andersens have combined their talents on a number of pieces throughout the house, and Susan and Marjorie have worked together on styling the interior.

The kitchen is visible beyond the living area and is a center of activity within the household. A gourmet chef, Mark makes frequent use of the center island, and Marjorie utilizes the antique utensils and cookware for baking; during the holidays, she and a friend who visits from New York bake one hundred fifty dozen cookies that they give as gifts.

The scene in this oil painting is identified on the back as “Goodrich Falls / Jackson, N.H. / from nature by / T. Defrees 1877.” Artist Thadeus Defrees (1847–1892), moved to Jackson, New Hampshire, in the late 1870s to paint with Frank Shapleigh (1842–1906).
In the 1990s, the Allens moved to Amherst, New Hampshire, and by then, Marjorie, who had been teaching for twenty-four years, had begun to work part-time so that she could travel with Mark during his buying trips. Realizing the likelihood of finding a job in her specialized field in or around their new community was slim, she decided to work with her husband on a full-time basis. (Although retired from the classroom, Marjorie continues to be involved with education and is the New Hampshire State Training Director for Destination Imagination, Inc., working also with their international program.)

For more than twenty years prior to moving to the region, the Allens had rented a summer house on Squam Lake, the second largest body of water in the state, and ringed by the Sandwich Mountain Range, spending time in the nearby town of Sandwich, where, as Marjorie says, they were drawn to “the enormous sense of community, tremendous recreational and cultural outlets, and the conservation-mindset.” She adds, “The town has had a strong conservation bent since the eighteenth century, and the entire mountain range facing the lake is protected, with most houses hidden from view to preserve the natural beauty.” In keeping with that tradition, when the Allens decided to build their own house, they situated it in such a way that although concealed from the lake, when standing on their deck, they have a vista of the blue water and mountains beyond.

The expanse of windows and doors in the living room gives the sense of the room melding with the distance. A spectacular circa-1730 Spanish-foot walnut drop-leaf dining table is of rare large size and features bold turnings and carved feet. Beside the table is a circa-1770 side chair, in old finish, made and signed by David Coutong of New Rochelle, New York. Mark feels that the best chairs of this “Hudson River Valley” type were made by either Coutong or Jacob Smith. The couple found the mid-nineteenth-century walnut and oak coffee table (in the foreground) years ago when they lived in Putnam Valley, New York. A seventeenth-century Nuremberg, Germany, brass candlestick is on the table; a Tudor period, circa-1550, English candlestick is placed on the drop-leaf table against the windows. The blue-resist slip covers are by Susan Pope Andersen who designed the fabrics throughout the house; her husband Alan Andersen made the Queen Anne style chairs.

This seventeenth-century spice box is one of a selection of objects that incorporate Mark and Marjorie’s joint initials. Here, the initials “MA” carved into the back and side most likely represent those of the maker, since during the period the box was made, an owner’s initials were typically displayed on the front. Purchased by the Allens in York, Maine, the box had been in the same family for generations and was likely made for an ancestor. The figured maple drop-leaf table, from either New Hampshire or Massachusetts, dates to circa 1725; its rule-joint along the top and leaf being an indication of its early age. The circa-1870 still life is by Samuel Marsden Brookes (1816–1892), probably painted in San Francisco, California.

Visible in the den beyond is a gnarled redwood root-ball coffee table, which the Allens commissioned, along with a number of other pieces, from a craftsman they met during a trip to Mendocino, California.

There are a half dozen American fruit and one Dutch floral still life paintings in the house. They appeal to Mark’s love of food and Marjorie’s love of flowers.
Mark’s passion for iron, the best examples of which he calls “theatrically utilitarian,” has spanned more than forty years. “I am always fascinated to watch blacksmiths work,” he says. “The masterpieces they can create with a hammer and hot metal are astounding. There can be such elegance in the truly fine examples.” He parted with some of his iron collection when he and Marjorie moved to their new house and did not have the wall space to display it all, though the core works remain. Each piece is hung on the wall as sculpture, the negative space being just as important as the outline itself. A delicate English iron toasting fork [A] is Mark’s earliest piece, dating to the late 1500s. An early nineteenth-century toasting fork from New Hampshire retains its original heat shield, decorated with punched-out hearts [B]. Another fork, from Pennsylvania and dating to the early-nineteenth century [C], is inlaid with brass decoration. Three displays line the back hall. The first [D], includes two brass skimmers, one with an inlaid date of 1805 and the other 1810. These skimmers, along with three others Mark has owned from the same hand, were all found in east central Vermont. The two forks are from New England, and the elaborate toaster is from the Hudson River Valley. “I like it when pieces have personality,” says Mark, referring to the English ember tongs, the only example he has seen of this intricacy. Also shown is an herb dryer from the Hudson River Valley and a European knife sharpener; all date to the late eighteenth century [E]. The iron and brass utensils hanging on an iron rack, are from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and date from the late-eighteenth to the early- nineteenth century [F]. The Allens have a collection of French, Dutch, Belgian, and German choppers with whimsical forms that date to the early nineteenth century [G].

The couple purchased this large sideboard from a Connecticut dealer many years ago. Dating from the early eighteenth century, it retains its original knobs and “fabulous surface.” They believe it never had an upper section but would have been placed under a dish or storage rack. Stoneware crocks, chip-carved boxes, burl, pewter, and stone fruit cover the top. New Hampshire Windsors flank either side. Above the ensemble hangs a carved stern board eagle by the Artistic Carving Company of Boston. “I love it because of the motto: ‘Live and Let Live,’” says Marjorie, “which, to me, reflects life in New Hampshire.”

The painted chest is from a group made in Taunton, Massachusetts, dating to circa 1710–1720. Complementing the color scheme of the chest is a rare, circa-1775, Dutch polychrome counter-top wooden figure of a blackamoor tobacco merchant in a pose between bales of tobacco. Beside the figure are some of the Allens’ Inuit materials acquired from trips to Alaska. To learn as much as they could about local Alaskan cultures and their arts, the Allens visited local museums; their favorite in Sitka is the Historical Museum. They own period as well as contemporary pieces, one of which, dating to 1990, is by Richard Lavalle of Haines, Alaska. Two Ansel Adams photographs hang above the chest. Both are signed at the lower right and on the back. Adams himself printed the images within ten years of having taken them, which categorizes them as vintage prints. On the left is Moon Over Half Dome, and on the right is Jeffrey Pine, which is located on the road up to Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park, from which Adams photographed Half Dome. To inspire one of their daughters, a photographer, Mark has acquired the work of a number of photographers, including that of Sally Mann and Henri Cartier Bresson.

While renting their summer residence, the Allens spent sixteen years looking for the right piece of waterfront property on which to build a year-round home, and for the past six years they have been completing their dream house. When initially thinking about their future residence, they each conceived their own drawings. Both had taken courses in architecture in college and had a very strong sense of what they did and didn’t want. Though their sketches were very different, they both sought “open space, a fabulous kitchen (Mark is a gourmet cook, stemming from his days as a food chemist, and Marjorie is a baker), to be able to live on one floor, live outside as much as possible, and to be able to bring the outside in.” They interviewed three architects and clicked with one, David Driscoll of David Driscoll Designs in nearby Holderness. “He took our designs,” says Mark, “and synthesized them into something we each liked better than what we had come up with independently.”

In their New York home, Mark had used hand tools and period techniques to recreate the dining room of Van Cortland Manor. Though he did not have the same intentions for their new home, he worked closely with David to select the right materials such as local woods for floors and beams, and stones on the property for the walks and the double-sided open fireplace. Marjorie selected the paint colors throughout the house, the soapstone for the kitchen and dining area, Chinese jet stone in the main pantry, and French limestone for the small pantry and washrooms. “So much of the quality of the house,” says Mark, “is because of the craftsmanship and skill of the builder, Cormack Construction Management.” He adds, “They would take our ideas and give us exactly what we wanted. It was an amazing cooperative effort.”
Furniture in the master bedroom includes a circa-1770 Newport, Rhode Island, chest-on-chest, a circa-1810 carved bed, probably from Salem, Massachusetts, and an eighteenth- century tavern table from the same area. The second floor guest room is awash is salmon and red. The scalloping along the skirt of the armoire is a distinctive design element on examples from Quebec, Canada. The painted oval box is European and the handled bowl and Shaker boxes are from contemporary makers. The early-nineteenth-century arrow-back fancy chair at the foot of the bed was a gift from the Squam Lake family from whom the Allens rented a summer home for twenty-one years. The other seating form shown is a custom reproduction New Hampshire William & Mary easy chair made by Alan Andersen. His wife, Susan, upholstered the chair, covering the seams with hand-tied woven tape. Mark says of the pencil post bedstead, “I made that in the 1970s before we could afford the real thing.” He adds, “I find that using eighteenth-century hand tools helps me appreciate period craftsmanship all the more.”

A view of Squam Lake and the Sandwich Range from the Allens’ campsite, located down the hill from their house. They spend many an evening here with friends, hosting cookouts prepared in their seasonal gazebo.

While the couple worked together on many of the interior details, Marjorie was the dominant designer of the gardens. “I love flowers, flower arranging, and staging beautiful things,” she says. This interest is evident in the plants and cut flowers that adorn their outdoor and indoor living spaces. Their home and booths at shows are venues for Marjorie’s award-winning arrangements. Through these talents she is able to play off the colors and compositions of delft plates, still life paintings, and the shades reflected in brass.

“One of the things I love about the antiques business is the aesthetics,” she says. “The other is the history. I love teaching, so knowing the history is important to me.” When living in Amherst, she worked with teachers to bring collections of antiques to the children. When they were studying European history, Marjorie would bring in seventeenth-century Dutch objects to show the richness of Holland’s golden age. When the students read Girl with the Pearl Earring, she would bring in, for example, a circa 1660 mother-of-pearl-inlaid mirror, and would share Roman material when they studied the classics. “You can tell children all day long how sophisticated the ancient world was and it doesn’t sink in,” says Marjorie. “But,” she adds, “if you show them an object from antiquity, it makes a solid connection. There is a magic when you touch something from history.” It is this statement that resonates with so many dealers and collectors—the interest in education and sharing the passion for antiques.