Review by Barbara McLean Ward
The Artisan of Ipswich: Craftsmanship and Continuity in Colonial New England

Robert Tarule. The Artisan of Ipswich: Craftsmanship and Continuity in Colonial New England. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004. xi + 155 pp.; 9 bw illus., 27 line drawings, index. $42.00.

The Artisan of Ipswich is the outgrowth of the author’s dissertation, for which he was allowed “to make, as the centerpiece..., a piece of furniture and to let the process of making drive the research” (p. ix). The centerpiece of the study is a seventeenth-century chest owned by the Ipswich Historical Society. Robert Tarule reproduced the chest using the same tools, techniques, and materials that he believes Thomas Dennis (1638–1706) of Ipswich, Massachusetts, employed to make the original object. In his introduction, Tarule describes the chest in detail and wonders what it can tell us about the man who made it. “When you look the chest all over, you see equally the hand of the artisan and the hand of nature,” he writes, and this insight provided the inspiration for this book. It is a journey into the mind of the chest’s maker through the experience of reproducing his every action, his selection of every piece of wood, and his every stroke with a gouge. Tarule concludes his introduction by stating, “This joined chest, because of the direct processing of local materials and the highly visible craft of the joiner, can illuminate the local landscape, the community in which it was made, and the artisan who made it in his shop” (p. 6).

The preface, “Things I Should Have Learned as a Boy,” explains how Tarule first discovered woodworking while teaching medieval comparative literature at a small college in Vermont. His first lessons came from an elderly neighbor, but for the most part Tarule learned by close observation and by trial and error. Shortly after he built his own timber-frame house, Tarule was laid off from his teaching position and was able to secure the position of Curator of Mechanick Arts at Plimoth Plantation. In this new role he was responsible for creating furniture replicas for the homes of the re-created Pilgrim village. By closely studying the objects, he found himself “figuring out some of the lost secrets of the seventeenth-century woodworker,” and he realized that the people whose work he was re-creating were “not far removed from the social world of their medieval ancestors” (p. ix). The experience of working with others who shared his passion, on such projects as raising a replica of the 1636 Fairbanks House of Dedham on the Boston Common, fueled his desire to return to graduate school to complete his doctorate.

The first chapter is a review of the history of the settlement of Ipswich and the development of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that includes a brief introduction to the life and work of Thomas Dennis. Chapter 2 is a detailed discussion of the properties of oak, the characteristics of the forests and woods of England and New England, and patterns of wood harvesting and the regulations governing them with special attention to documents that specifically reveal practices in Ipswich. This is followed by a chapter that takes Thomas Dennis into the Ipswich woods and imagines the process by which he chose and felled the trees that he made into furniture. Chapter 4 is a review of all the different types of woodworkers who resided in Ipswich, from coopers and carpenters to joiners, turners, and wheelwrights. Tarule provides short biographies of each of the known artisans in these trades. Although these biographies help us to imagine the community, I was disappointed when the chapter ended without a discussion, or perhaps just an example taken from the documents, of how these artisans interacted with one another, or a discussion of whether or not woodworkers in one branch of the trade apprenticed their sons to another woodworking trade in an effort to diversify the family’s business or create allies in allied trades. It seems particularly surprising that Tarule does not include the scholarship linking the works of Thomas Dennis to those of William Searle (1634–

1667). Dennis married Searle’s widow, Grace, and inherited the contents of Searle’s shop, and although the two men undoubtedly came out of the same Devonshire woodworking tradition, significant similarities and differences in their works have been identified.

In Chapter 5, Tarule takes us through the process by which the maker of the chest planned and built it. This chapter is written in the present tense, as if the reader is looking over Dennis’ shoulder, and Tarule is successful in creating this illusion. However, a reader without detailed knowledge of woodworking is often at a loss to follow the particulars of the discussion because Tarule uses specialized terms that are not defined in the book. A glossary and several fully labeled diagrams would have been enormously helpful, and would expand the readership for the book beyond the world of contemporary craftsmen, preservation timber-framers, and furniture curators to scholars with a more general interest in the social and cultural world of the preindustrial artisan. I had hoped, for example, that this chapter would be one I could assign to the students in my material culture course. Had Tarule explained how the irregularities that he sees in the wood used in the chest reveal to him the process that the artisan went through in choosing the pieces of wood from his stock, it would be a model of how to do close analysis of an object to determine the working methods of its maker, but this analysis is lacking. Instead, the reader is left to make the connections, or to read the narrative with faith that Tarule has evidence for each of the actions he ascribes to Dennis.

If the essential thesis of the book is that we can learn more about artisans by doing the same work that they did, then Tarule’s defense of that thesis should have described more clearly how the process informed his research. Yes, Tarule tells us about Ipswich, and about the materials and techniques used by Thomas Dennis and his fellow woodworkers. But he could have made the connection between this information and the process of making the replica more explicit by tying each step in the process, each observation of the characteristics of the wood in the chest, or of tool marks or scribe lines, to his wider questions and avenues of research.

The final section of the book is particularly disappointing. Johns Hopkins University Press failed Tarule, and failed the readers of the book, by not including detailed notes and an extensive bibliography. This I find inexplicable in a university press book. The notes, which take up exactly two pages, completely ignore secondary works and include no information about the place of this particular study in the enormous body of scholarly work on seventeenth-century New England joinery and early woodworking artisans in general, and Thomas Dennis and his predecessor William Searle in particular. There is no mention of previous historians’ work on Ipswich or other New England towns, the timber trade, the ecology of New England before settlement, or on wood harvesting and production in New England and Old England. There is also no acknowledgment of the work of other traditional woodworkers who have studied and revived the technology of green-wood joinery, nor of dozens of other scholars who have worked to rediscover the designs and carving techniques of early New England craftsmen. The “Essay on Methods and Sources” is more notable for what it omits or downplays than for what it includes. I was amazed to find no reference to the work of Benno M. Forman on seventeenth-century New England furniture and only passing references to Robert Trent, Jonathan Fairbanks, and Robert Blair St. George, all of whom have made enormous contributions to our understanding of the artisans of this period. One would think that Tarule would at least pay homage to Irving Lyon, the writer who first identified Dennis’s work in groundbreaking articles published in Antiques in the 1930s. More important, Tarule does not justify the attribution of the Ipswich Historical Society chest to Thomas Dennis, rather than to William Searle as suggested by Trent in New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982).

In the final analysis, The Artisan of Ipswich should not be read in isolation, nor should it be considered a definitive study of Thomas Dennis or his furniture. It is, however, an illuminating journey into the mind of the seventeenth-century joiner that includes interesting information about the nature of harvesting and working wood in the preindustrial world.

Barbara McLean Ward
Moffatt-Ladd House and Garden
Faculty in Museum Studies, Tufts University

American Furniture 2005