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Nathaniel Barrell's Stylish London Purchase


ABOVE  Detail of the crest of the 1763 Barrell looking glass during conservation.

BELOW RIGHT  The looking glass before treatment. Made of fir, the piece measures 55 1/2" high by 31" wide.

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ABOVE Detail shows the original stone-colored finish on the monkey; the surrounding cartouche has not yet been conserved.

BELOW Plate 2 from Twelve Girandoles by Thomas Johnson, London, 1761. Foliage similar to that seen in the upper left of Johnson's design originally sprouted from the pagoda roof of Barrell's looking glass.

In 1758 Nathaniel Barrell married Sally Sayward, the daughter of Jonathan and Sarah Sayward, who lived in what is now SPNEA's Say-ward-Wheeler House in York Harbor, Maine. Two years later, Barrell embarked on a three-year trip to England to establish himself as a merchant-at that time one of the surest means of acquiring wealth and position. In 1763, just before his return, he made a number of purchases from Samuel Walker, "Upholsterer and Cabinet Maker, at the Crown, near three Nuns Inn, without Aldgate" in London. The most extraordinary of Barrell's purchases, a carved looking glass and a pair of candle sconces, have recently been acquired by SPNEA with support from Victoria DiStefano and Robert Rosenberg, Mary Simonds, and three anonymous gifts.

The glass and sconces are the epitome of the rococo style, which was at the height of fashion in the mid eighteenth century. Known at the time as "modern" or "modern French," the style is characterized by a sense of whimsy and fantasy, combining in an asymmetrical composition C- and S-scrolls, curling leaves and intricate floral garlands, grotto ornaments such as rock and shell formations (called rocaille), and watery ornaments of cascades and icicles. Gothic and Chinese motifs were often thrown into the mix. The bizarre combinations found in the style broke the rules of reason and restraint that had governed architecture and decorative arts earlier in the eighteenth century.

The interest in the rococo style in England coincided with an explosion of pattern books, engraved trade cards, and other printed materials, so that craftsmen like the carver of this looking glass were not lacking for sources. Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director is perhaps the most well known of the mid eighteenth-century pattern books, but there were others. Mathais Lock and Thomas Johnson were carvers and drawing instructors who each published several books of designs for looking glasses and sconces.

ABOVE A section of the left-hand side of the frame.

Nathaniel Barrell's purchases were shipped to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and then transported to his house in York on a gundalow, a flat-bottomed boat that plied the busy waterways of the Piscataqua River system carrying goods and passengers. The looking glass and sconces remained in the Barrell house until they were consigned to auction last year, a period of 238 years.

Samuel Walker's original bill, still in private hands, describes the looking glass as "a Large Sconce Glass." In addition to documenting its purchase, the bill provides information about its original appearance. The carved wood frame and the sconces were not gilded, as one would expect. Barrell paid an additional six shillings to have them painted. When Frances Clary Morse had the pieces photographed for her 1902 publication, Furniture of the Olden Time, their surfaces were painted to imitate wood so successfully (or she didn't look too carefully) that she stated they were "carved in walnut, and the natural wood has never been stained or gilt." Cross sections examined microscopically by SPNEA's Director of Conservation Joe Godla, however, reveal that the grained surface is not the original finish but was probably applied at some time in the mid to late nineteenth century. A layer of grime separates it from the original finish requested by Barrell, which is a light stone color.

The taste for white painted looking glasses was as fashionable in the mid eighteenth century as the rococo style itself. Several examples made in Philadelphia for wealthy patrons survive in museum collections, and others are documented in probate inventories. The 1776 inventory of Jeremiah Lee in Marblehead lists "2 looking glasses white framed carved" and "one chimney glass white frame," among the ten that he owned.

Godla is in the process of removing the later finish on both the looking glass and the sconces. The photographs here show many of the fine details that had been obscured by the dark finish and illustrate how the sculptural forms created by the skilled carver were enhanced by the original light-colored finish.

The looking glass and sconces will travel nationally with SPNEA's upcoming exhibition Cherished Possessions. At the conclusion of the exhibition in 2006, they will be hung in the large reception room at the Langdon House in Portsmouth, where they will provide an excellent counterpoint to that room's elaborate carved rococo mantelpiece and overmantel.

-Richard C. Nylander
Chief Curator & Director of Collections

Nathaniel Barrell's Stylish London Purchase