VIDEO: Hidden Attributes of Nathaniel Gould, a Master Craftsman of Salem

Not often can so many magnificent pieces travel through time unattributed, but such was the case of many Nathaniel Gould’s masterpieces. It all started several years ago when furniture scholar, Kemble Widmer and Joyce King were contacted by fine antique dealers, C.L. Prickett who recently purchased an outstanding mahogany Chippendale bombe secretary/bookcase. Prickett contracted Widmer & King to try to track down the maker of his acquisition, knowing it was most likely a Boston, Massachusetts furniture maker.

Detectives at Work

ANTIQUES2-master315Now let’s shift gears and talk about three vellum covered account books sitting unregarded on the shelves at the Massachusetts Historical Society for 174 years. These books were assumed to be nothing more than account ledgers. During their investigation Kemble had a strong hunch that the piece they were researching was by Nathaniel Gould. One evening, it occurred to Joyce King that when all else fails in their research, Google it. Surprisingly in her Google search, Nathaniel Gould account books popped up under the Massachusetts Historical Society. Ironically, this information had only been on the internet for one or two weeks. Joyce immediately called Kem, (as he likes to be called) and told him what she found, and suggested that they might be important. The next day they made their initial trip to the historical society in Boston and after the pieces were brought out for them to inspect, to their surprise, they could tell right away that these written accounts were geared toward Gould’s furniture making. They discovered that the ledgers were a treasure trove of information including Gould’s prolific unknown work. It also became obvious that the fine wood he used was only possible because he controlled the mahogany coming to the shores of Salem.

After the discovery of the ledgers, Kemble, his wife Betsy and Joyce had years of work laid out before them to research the 3,000 entrees in these journals to see where they led. Coming to the conclusion that only about 7% of these masterworks have made it here through time, there were a lot of dead ends. However, pieces ended up being discovered through their research that had been unattributed or misattributed in collections and in museums including the prestigious Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

On a Personal Note

When I first decided to be involved in the accompanying video above, I looked through images of the Gould pieces on exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum until March 29, 2015. I thought they were impressive. However, there is nothing like viewing something in person, and I was totally taken aback by the extraordinary craftsmanship and mahogany of the highest grade. To think such fine attention to detail, master workmanship including bombe sides and all this so finely crafted before the advent of power tools and electric lighting. I sat and spoke with both Kem and Joyce, and really enjoyed exchanging stories, as I am a fine furniture lover.

After the guests left, I sat speaking to Dinah Cardin, the museums press officer while Gemr’s camera crew continued filming b-rolls of the pieces. Before us was a desk of Gould’s with a bracket base, which is much simpler than a ball and claw foot. It came to me, what an extraordinary bracket base it was, balanced and offset by the center drop, the finest I have seen. Perhaps only a period furniture enthusiast would notice this, but to me, it was just one more affirmation of what a master cabinet maker Gould truly was.

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Tribute to the Detectives

Without the enduring careful work of furniture scholar Kemble, his wife Betsy and Joyce King, these extraordinary pieces would have continued their journey through time, orphaned from their connection to the preeminent cabinet maker of Salem, known as Nathaniel Gould. ♦ 

Epilogue: A few days after filming, Kem and I ironically crossed paths again in his chain of research of an extraordinary hairy paw Chippendale side chair that I had sold at auction about 20 years ago. A fine chair, but not a Gould.

For information on the book, click the image.

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by Martin Willis

Gemr Community Curator

martin@gemr.com