One might be forgiven for thinking that the opening in 2014 of the stunning Tadao Ando–designed Clark Center at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute capped the long-term expansion and renovation of the institution’s bucolic campus in Williamstown, Massachusetts. But the plan actually culminates this spring with the installation of the Clark’s American decorative arts collections on the top floor of the renovated Manton Research Center. Along with their renowned collection of European painting and works on paper, Sterling and Francine Clark themselves concentrated on European silver and porcelain, and the best of their holdings in these realms are displayed in the original museum building, renovated and reinstalled in 2014 under the leadership of Selldorf Architects. The Clarks also collected a few important American pieces, but for the most part the American collection came later. Kathleen Morris, the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Director of Collections and Exhibitions and curator of decorative arts at the Clark, tells us about it.
RECOGNIZING THE NEED TO ENHANCE the Clark’s American holdings, around the time of the nation’s bicentennial, then director George Heard Hamilton began working with collectors to create displays of objects on loan. Over the years, the staff developed close relationships with four important collectors, whose donations now form the nucleus of our American decorative arts: Henry Morris and Elizabeth H. Burrows; Florence Cluett Chambers; and June K. Lauzon.
The Burrowses, avid collectors of American silver ranging from the colonial period to the early nineteenth century, first loaned some of their silver to the Clark in the late 1970s and ultimately left it all— more than three hundred pieces—to the museum. As the Burrowses collected multiple examples of the same form—tankards, canns, porringers, and teawares, for example—we now have the wonderful opportunity to show how styles developed, not only over time but in America’s different cities.
Although much smaller in number, the American furniture donated by Florence Chambers, a daughter of the esteemed collector George Alfred Cluett, forms another important sector of our American decorative arts. A graduate of Williams College, Cluett collected late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American furniture, much of which is now at Historic Deerfield. But he had four children, and ended up collecting multiple examples of the types of furniture he liked, so each child would inherit a collection. It was from her portion that Florence donated such great pieces as an elegant desk-and-bookcase of about 1800–1810 attributed to Nehemiah Adams of Salem, Massachusetts.
The recently opened Henry Morris and Elizabeth H. Burrows Gallery showcases the Burrows and Chambers collections in 3,275 square feet of space that was formerly used for temporary exhibitions. It is divided into four areas organized roughly chronologically and around various themes, with paintings and furniture complementing the handsome cases of silver and porcelain arrayed throughout. Overall, the installation is enhanced by areas of natural light and walls painted in shades of gray and blue that bring out the warmth of the furniture woods and set off the brightness of the silver.
The first space is dedicated to the earliest works in the collection and helps tell the story of the transition from colony to independent nation. The next is devoted to the regional styles that developed in early America: here two high chests on loan from private collections show high-style eighteenth-century Philadelphia decoration alongside an example from East Windsor, Connecticut, that is equally elegant but made from stained cherry rather than expensive, imported mahogany. The final spaces are devoted to the social uses of silver and decorative arts, such as tea and coffee drinking, customs involving alcoholic beverages, dining practices, personal adornment, and presentation pieces.
A smaller study room completes the installation, and includes a shelf dedicated to silver that has been altered over time—such as a sugar bowl that was converted to a teapot. The meticulous process of cleaning every piece in the collection revealed old repairs and anomalies that compromised the original form or decoration of objects. These types of damages and alterations are common in the world of antiques, and even the most seasoned collector can be fooled from time to time.
The Alfred and Lauzon Collection gallery, to open in May, will feature some 225 pieces of early American glass, as well as examples imported from Europe—notably Bohemia and England—that provided inspiration (and competition) for the early glass industry in America. The Lauzons were particularly interested in the development of mold-blown glass in American glass factories, with most of the examples to be displayed dating from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This is probably the portion of the Clark’s collection that is least well known to our public, and we think visitors will find it mesmerizing.
The new installations will, of course, include other notable objects given to the Clark over the years, as well as important current loans. One relatively recent gift comprises some twenty-eight pieces from an important Chinese export porcelain service made for Joseph Sims, a Philadelphia sea merchant, and his wife, Rebecca, shortly after George Washington’s death, and decorated with a memorial to the deceased president and the owners’ cipher. Donated by Phoebe Prime Swain, who inherited much of it from her family, the Clark’s collection constitutes the largest holding of pieces from this important service in an American museum. Included are many different forms—a monteith, two chestnut bowls, a lidded tureen, sauceboats, custard cups, platters in different sizes, and more.