Saturday, May 17, 2003

Carving a history

Cincinnati furniture makers - many of them women - built a name for the city, starting in the 1800s

By Michele Day
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Fireplace mantel and overmantel (1893) by Emma Bepler.
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Anita Ellis studies the intricately carved mahogany bed with an appreciative eye. The delicate leaves, flowers and tendrils that embellish almost every inch of its frame display stunning detail and craftsmanship, says the curator of decorative arts for the Cincinnati Art Museum.

The sculpture-like flock of birds, created in high relief and raised more than 4 inches, seems to soar above the hydrangea blossoms carved into the headboard.

"In a word," she says, "it's magnificent. It's probably the finest bed ever made in America."

And it was made in Cincinnati.

[IMAGE] Secretary-bookcase, 1860s from the Mitchell & Rammelsberg Furniture Co. (1847-1881).
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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cincinnati was considered home to the nation's most accomplished woodcarvers. More than 1,000 Cincinnati-trained carvers - primarily women - produced more than 10,000 pieces of home furnishings and decorations.

The movement's greatest acclaim came during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, which featured more than 200 pieces by Cincinnati woodcarvers. Since then, few have heralded the city's art-carved furniture contributions - but that's about to change.

The Cincinnati Art Museum's Cincinnati Wing, which opens to the public today, includes a gallery that will showcase about 40 art-carved cabinets, tables, easels, mantels and other architectural elements.

Ellis and her predecessors have been collecting the pieces for decades, and some have been part of temporary exhibits. But the Cincinnati Wing provides the museum's first opportunity for a permanent display.

Art-carved furniture is "everywhere in Cincinnati," says Ellis, who recently discovered a coat rack from the period at Arnold's restaurant, downtown. "Anybody who's been here in Cincinnati for two to three generations probably had a female relative who carved furniture."

[IMAGE] The museum's Antje Neuman cleans a 19th-century music cabinet.
(Enquirer photo)
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The furniture's distinctive heavy, dark and Victorian style doesn't fit the tastes of most homeowners today, she concedes; and some people who own pieces passed down through generations don't know what they have.

"I've heard people say, 'Oh, that dark thing; it's been in the attic for years,' " Ellis says.

She suspects that's about to change, too.

"By having them out at the museum all the time, I look for - no pun intended - these pieces to come out of the woodwork," she says.

Art-carved furniture will garner more attention in October, when the Ohio University Press plans to release Cincinnati: Art-Carved Furniture and Interiors. It will include more than 140 photographs depicting the original craftsmen at work and the interiors of Greater Cincinnati homes and churches where woodcarvers left their marks.

The Cincinnati Wing
Fifteen new galleries, 400 objects, 18,000 square feet of space, the Cincinnati Wing, which opens this week, presents the proud history of art in the Queen City.
Take the 10-minute tour
"It's a great furniture movement and it needs national recognition at this point," says Jennifer Howe, a former associate curator of decorative arts at the art museum and editor of the pending book. "We know woodcarving was taught in other parts of the country, but it never took off and never was the sort of movement that it was here in Cincinnati."

The reason art-carved furniture took off in Cincinnati is that the three founders - all English expatriates who were advocates of Aesthetic Movement principles - happened to settle here in the 1850s, Howe says. The expatriates were Henry Fry; his son, William; and Benn Pitman, the designer of that "magnificent" bed. The Aesthetic Movement, born in England during the upheaval of industrialization, emphasized the importance of surrounding people with beauty to raise the quality of life.

Pieces in the museum collection tell chapters in the story of the furniture movement.

An oak mantel with a grapevine motif came from the residence of prominent arts patron Joseph Longworth. The Frys' commission from Longworth in the 1850s established the carvers in the community.

But it was Henry Fry's corner cupboard - featuring carvings of two Norse mythological figures on the door panels - that symbolizes the launch of the art-carved furniture movement, Ellis says. Longworth was so impressed with the Frys' work on his home that he commissioned them to carve the interior of the home of his daughter, Maria Longworth and her husband, George Ward Nichols. When Maria's friends saw the finished handiwork, they wanted to learn to carve, too.

The Frys then found an eager market for private woodcarving lessons, and shortly after, Pitman found many more enthusiastic students for woodcarving classes at the School of Design at the University of Cincinnati, now known as the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

The mahogany bedstead that caught Ellis' eye and a matching dresser are two pieces that Pitman designed for his home in 1882-83, after his marriage to Adelaide Nourse Pitman. Adelaide did the carving and her twin sister, Elizabeth Nourse (who later became a renowned painter and illustrator in France), painted the pictures on the panels.

Other pieces in the museum collection are by students of the Frys and Pitman. There's Emma Marqua's hanging cabinet, Catherine Peachey's writing desk and Emma Bepler's fireplace mantel and over-mantel, which she modeled after one in Pitman's home.

Howe's book catalogues the museum collection. But it also examines remnants of the art-carved furniture movement throughout Greater Cincinnati. There are many, ranging from Pitman's original home on Columbia Parkway to the Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington, which still holds many architectural elements carved by the Frys.

Howe also talked to two of the Frys' descendants, brothers Roger and Alan Fry, who collect works by their great- and great-great-grandfathers for use in their homes in Indian Hill.

"We use it in all of the rooms of our home," Roger Fry says. "We have tables, chairs, china cabinets, corner cabinets, mantels, clocks . . . hanging cabinets. It fits in our old farmhouse home and we like the dark, heavy, oiled look."

Many Cincinnatians today - with no familial ties to the Frys and Pitman - like the look, Howe says.

"There are so many wonderful collectors who cherish Cincinnati art-carved furniture and who actively collect it because they recognize its beauty and its value," she says.

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