Some people have the good fortune to find a unique path that leads to discovery and is enriched by sharing. For them life can be an endless adventure, laced with exploration and learning, younger people to mentor, and a broadening circle of those who share their interests and become close friends. Brock Jobe, this year’s recipient of the ADA Award of Merit, is one of those people
A love of New England furniture and an endless appetite for learning have been central to Brock Jobe’s career. His work has ranged from regional furniture studies, building collections, organizing exhibitions, and writing and editing to masterminding the recent eleven-museum collaboration titled Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture. He has been heard to say “I live and breathe furniture,” and he is never happier than when crawling under a piece to study the details of its construction and feel its history.
When Brock was a first year student at Winterthur, the legendary Charles Montgomery returned from his new professorial role at Yale to teach a class, sparking Brock’s passion for early American furniture. While at Winterthur he also worked with Benno Forman, and he cites these two men as the major influences on his thinking and methods of working.
Brock Jobe (far right) with, from the left, Albert Sack, Gib Vincent, Richard Nylander, and Jayne Stokes, in the parlor of the Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston, mid-1980s.
Although Brock grew up in Winchester, Virginia, did his undergraduate work at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and spent four years at Colonial Williamsburg, he early on found his interests focused on New England. On completion of his graduate work at Winterthur, he was called to Boston by Jonathan Fairbanks, the newly arrived curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, to assist in planning the first major conference and related publication on Boston furniture. After a four-year stint at Colonial Williamsburg, he moved back to Boston in 1979 to serve as chief curator for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA, now Historic New England). Within that fabled collection of nearly one hundred thousand objects, he managed to focus on the furniture, and he still regards New England Furniture: The Colonial Era of 1984, done in collaboration with Myrna Kaye, as his most satisfying accomplishment. After thirteen productive years in Boston, Brock’s last major project at SPNEA was the landmark exhibition Portsmouth Furniture, with its accompanying catalogue.
Called back to Winterthur as deputy director for collections and interpretation in 1993, Brock assumed added responsibilities for conservation two years later and then moved to the important role of professor of American decorative arts in the Winterthur Program in 2000. Through all of this, he managed to continue to pursue his own scholarship. His work with Gary Sullivan on southeastern Massachusetts resulted in the publication and exhibition Harbor and Home in 2009. The current Four Centuries collaboration is still rolling out exhibitions, symposiums, lecture programs, digital resources, and website entries, even while a major publication is in preparation.
Brock’s books, exhibitions, and numerous published articles incorporate new scholarship of the highest quality. They also testify to his ongoing interest in New England furniture, with increasing attention to fine details including upholstery, a broadening geographical interest, and a time frame extending well beyond the colonial period.
From left, Steve Fletcher, Gary Sullivan, and Jobe examine a table at a workshop at Skinner Auctioneers.
But what we should be most grateful for is his work as a teacher. Brock has always been generous in his informal tutoring of collectors, but I feel certain his greatest and most lasting contribution has been made during his fourteen years as professor of American decorative arts at Winterthur.
Brock is almost always the person who arrives at 6:30 in the morning to turn on the lights at Winterthur. His students call him “amazing”-a teacher who challenges them to pursue the finest detail, respects their interests, and never makes the most elementary question seem silly. They come away eager to carry with them the spark that Brock kindled in them.
The world of American decorative arts will long be enriched by the accomplishments and influence of this charismatic man.