Joshua A. Klein. Hands Employed Aright: The Furniture Making of Jonathan Fisher (1768–1847). Fort Mitchell, Ky.: Lost Art Press, 2018. xii + 270 pp.; numerous color illus., bibliography. $57.00.
Now is a remarkable time to be studying American furniture. Technology plays an important role. The internet has provided collectors, researchers, and dealers with greater access to research materials. Advancements in photographic equipment have facilitated new ways of seeing objects. The ease with which images are taken and shared has led to their wide dissemination to researchers and the general public. A new generation of scholars and enthusiasts has also brought new perspectives to the field. After first working with early American furniture in my previous position at the Museum of the City of New York at the start of this decade, I was drawn to its complexity, the interdisciplinary nature of researching it, and the opportunities for original research. To paraphrase Patricia E. Kane of the Yale University Art Gallery, the field is young.
The past decade has produced several important studies of cabinetmaking, some based on the new discovery of primary source materials, others on known material due for re-evaluation. It is in the latter category that Joshua Klein’s Hands Employed Aright: The Furniture Making of Jonathan Fisher (1768–1847) falls. Fisher was many things: preacher, educator, painter, engraver, newspaper reporter, author, and cabinetmaker; but he was also a disciplined documentarian of his own thoughts, surroundings, and daily activities. Fisher, born in New Braintree, Massachusetts, was a Harvard-educated minister who settled in Blue Hill, Maine, in 1796. The remarkable survival of his home, journals, drawings, furniture, and woodworking tools has left a rich trove of materials from which to study his life, his woodworking shop and tools, and the furniture he produced.
An inherent challenge in the study of early American furniture is one shared among most art historians and scholars of material culture. Most of us simply do not practice the craft(s) we study. How many Michelangelo scholars can pounce a fresco design, or Bernini students can chisel marble? In his introduction, Klein describes his advantage in studying furniture: he is a proficient cabinetmaker. His woodworking experience allows him insights into Fisher’s work as a cabinetmaker and carpenter that those without such skills could only hope to enjoy. A reader with or without cabinetmaking experience will benefit from the object descriptions in the catalogue section of the book, where Klein provides clear, detailed descriptions of each object’s construction, including evidence of tool marks, documentation of inscriptions, orientation of wood grain, and notes on condition. The technical detail provided in these entries is excellent.
From my perspective—that of a museum curator without artistic training, let alone skill—this is a reminder of the necessity to study objects, particularly early American furniture, through interdisciplinary collaboration. Without conservators, materials scientists, dealers, auction house experts, collectors, and a host of other professionals, the study of objects suffers.
This experience deficit cuts both ways, and those trained in historic trades do not necessarily learn the skills of the art historian or historian. Unsexy as they might be, proper use and formatting of footnotes and bibliographies, and documentation of primary and secondary sources, are features of publications that can make them essential reference materials. Without making these sources of published information understandable to the reader, the resultant publication in many ways becomes unusable. This is the fundamental flaw of Hands Employed Aright. Examining similar studies of individual cabinetmakers whose records survive, such as Kemble Widmer and Joyce King’s excellent In Plain Sight, would have provided Klein with inspiration on how to document and organize references to primary source materials. The partnerships that Widmer and King, and the authors of other recent publications, had with institutions is noteworthy. Klein too would have benefitted from partnering with an institution, historian, or curator. Working alongside a furniture scholar or museum professional could have obviated obvious errors in the text. Two, for example, appear on page 21. Klein states that the journal entries are significant because they document routine quotidian activities (which is common in day books and journals from this period), and he asserts that Fisher’s body of objects and writings has been “unstudied.” In fact, Klein’s own footnotes and bibliography include ten publications that have Fisher’s name in their titles. Many of these articles and books are not devoted to Fisher’s cabinetmaking and woodworking, but he has most certainly been the subject of several focused studies over many decades.
The readership of Klein’s semi-annual Mortise & Tenon Magazine, which debuted in 2016, seems to be the intended audience for Hands Employed Aright. The magazine’s target readership constitutes makers of period furniture who use pre-industrial hand tools. This group will find much to appreciate in and learn from Hands Employed Aright. In a chapter preceding the catalogue section of the book, Klein documents, in detail, Fisher’s workshop and tools, organized by category.
Numerous detailed images, as well as period and contemporary photographs, beautifully animate and illustrate Klein’s text. Fisher’s extant furniture is sumptuously documented, and the descriptions of Fisher’s furniture are one of the book’s strengths. They include precise measurements, insightful commentary on construction characteristics, references to and sometimes excerpts from Fisher’s writings on individual pieces, and documentation of inscriptions. Klein also copied a card table attributed to Fisher and a box he is known to have made, and he describes the manufacturing processes involved in each. All readers will find the wonderful photographs and illustrations throughout the book both helpful and handsome. Maps, interiors, paintings, photographs, details of tools, drawings, writings, and furniture made by Fisher richly complement both the text and the catalogue of tools and furniture.
The largest section of the book is the catalogue of furniture and tools. It helpfully includes accession numbers where applicable (the Jonathan Fisher Memorial presumably does not use them, as they are not included for objects from its collection). This section includes a wonderful selection of images of individual objects. A chest of drawers, for example, is depicted from the front, from the side with the drawers slightly open (revealing the drawer front construction), from the back, and from the underside, and includes skirt, foot, and interior drawer details. Catalogues of furniture rarely include such extensive photography. Fisher’s furniture is practical, handsome, and, on occasion, even whimsical. The child’s desk (cat. no. 10, pp. 150–51) features an apron and hinged crest at the top of the writing surface with tightly scalloped edges. With its concealed drawer under the ample desk compartment, the overall effect is an appealing, functional example of a normally unremarkable utilitarian form. Some of Fisher’s furniture suggest inspiration from coastal points south of his home in Maine, in Massachusetts and Connecticut. A chest of drawers (cat. no. 4, pp. 138–39), a card table (cat. no. 12, pp. 154–55), a ribbon-back side chair (cat. no. 17, pp. 163–64), and a square tilt-top stand (cat. no. 25, pp. 176–77) are sophisticated and stylish. But most of the objects in the catalogue section of the book—numerous boxes, a dough tray, cabinets, and cupboards—are plain, straightforward objects built for daily use.
The furniture section could have benefitted from the author’s collaborating with a wood anatomist in identifying woods microscopically or by eye. Precise wood identification is a challenge to anyone interested in early American furniture, and perhaps the use of general terms such as “pine” and “maple” are a way to address this challenge. But there are at least four species of pine and three species of maple native to Maine, assuming that Fisher exclusively used local woods for his furniture.
Many questions remain about Fisher, his writings, and his belongings. When did he start keeping his journals? Klein alludes to this question, describing the period from 1790 to 1835 as when Fisher documented his daily activities (p. 20), and making other references to a forty-year range in his writings. What materials exist, and what time periods do they cover? How are the journals organized: in many volumes, or as loose sheets of paper? Are they day books, account books, diaries? Where in these materials do the numerous quotations that Klein has scattered throughout the text appear? Did Klein master the shorthand used in Fisher’s original writings? Did he make any attempt to translate sections of the text himself, or did he rely solely on an existing transcription (by an uncredited person or persons, referenced in the introduction)? Even the most careful and skilled translations contain errors, some of which can impact the interpretation of the text.
One element that would merit publication is a finding aid or index to precisely what is in the collection of the Jonathan Fisher Homestead. Future studies that include these kinds of references and more careful documentation would make for a more complete study. What could have been a robust appendix is lacking. A glossary would have helped readers unfamiliar with cabinetmaking terminology, and the bibliography and index are thin. Klein’s book can be seen as a critical step in the study of Fisher, but the significant volume of material he left out is ripe for further study. Being that the field is young, cataloguing is dynamic, and the kind of close study of a single cabinetmaker is laborious work, Klein has provided a critical chapter in revisiting a noteworthy maker of early American furniture.
Peter Kenny, Michael Brown, et al., Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011); Kemble Widmer, Joyce King, et al., In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum in association with D Giles Ltd., London, 2014); Christie Jackson, Brock Jobe, and Clark Pearce, Crafting Excellence: The Furniture of Nathan Lumbard and His Circle (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018); and Jay Robert Stiefel, The Cabinetmaker’s Account: John Head’s Record of Craft & Commerce in Colonial Philadelphia, 1718–1753 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society Press, 2019).
Jane Bianco, A Wondrous Journey: Jonathan Fisher & the Making of Scripture Animals (Rockland, Me.: Farnsworth Art Museum, 2013); Rufus George Frederick Candage, Memoir of Rev. Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine (Bangor, Me.: Benjamin A. Burr, 1889); Mary Ellen Chase, Jonathan Fisher, Maine Parson 1768–1847 (New York: MacMillan Co., 1948); William Hinckley, “The Fisher House,” American Patriot, August 28, 1975; Kevin D. Murphy, Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine: Commerce, Culture, and Community on the Eastern Frontier (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010); Albert L. Partridge, “Jonathan Fisher’s Clock,” Antiques 64, no. 2 (August 1953): 122–23; Raoul N. Smith, The Language of Jonathan Fisher (1768–1847) (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985); Raoul N. Smith, The Life of Jonathan Fisher (1768–1847), vol. 1: From His Birth Through the Year 1798 (Acton, Mass.: R.N. Smith, 2006); John R. Wiggins, “‘Parson Fisher’s Funny Pronunciations’ Show Up Alive and Kicking in Blue Hill,” Ellsworth American, August 25, 1984; and Alice Winchester, Versatile Yankee: The Art of Jonathan Fisher, 1768–1847 (Princeton, N.J.: Pyne Press, 1973).
Jack pine (Pinus banksiana), red pine (Pinus resinosa), pitch pine (Pinus rigida), Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), and silver maple (Acer saccharinum). See Elbert L. Little Jr. Atlas of United States Trees, vol. 1: Conifers and Important Hardwoods (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1971).