March 28, 2011
Post-Revolutionary Furniture Crafted by a British Loyalist Featured in Traveling Exhibition at DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum
A special traveling exhibition from the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum opens at Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum on Saturday, April 2.
“‘A True North Britain’: The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820” showcases the exquisitely detailed furniture of a post-American Revolution craftsman who practiced his craftsmanship in northern Virginia and western Maryland during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Noted not only for its form but also for the politically charged symbols inlaid in many pieces, the furniture helps to explore early America’s cultural ties to Great Britain during the most contentious period in the two nations’ shared history.
A Scot by birth, Shearer, like many of his fellow Scots, identified with the kingdom of Great Britain, formed by a 1707 treaty unifying Scotland and England. While other early American craftsmen inlaid their work with eagles symbolizing a new American government, Shearer glorified Great Britain and its Royal Navy by inscribing his biography and his politics directly on his furniture. Shearer leaves no doubt where his loyalties lie by signing one of the desks in the exhibition with the slogan, “A True North Britain.”
On another desk, he cheers Napoleon’s downfall and Britain’s victory in the Peninsular War by depicting a crowned lion rampant — rearing on hind legs, paws raised —from the Scottish and English royal coats of arms along with the inscription, “Victory Be Thine.”
Shearer documented the Royal Navy’s exploits almost like a political cartoonist. Although fine furniture was an unusual medium for these messages, 52 of his pieces survive, showing that his pro-British sentiments did not deter demand for the simple but unconventionally embellished furniture. As America formed a national identity, its cultural and political diversity included many who retained a strong sense of loyalty to Great Britain.
Not all Shearer’s messages were meant to be seen, however. Shearer, following the age-old tradition of artist retaliating against a problematic patron, hid a note inside one desk accusing his customer, a slave holder and trader, of being “the Greatest Scoundrel in Loudoun County.”
This unique piece is among the 20 pieces on display in the exhibition.
Independent scholar Elizabeth Davison is the curator of this exhibition exploring the work of one eccentric artist to show how a diversity of cultures and loyalty was built into the foundations of the United States.
“‘A True North Britain’: The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820” will be on view through March 2012. Admission is by Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, Museums ticket or Good Neighbor Card
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, with more than 5,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum exhibits the best in British and American decorative arts from 1670–1830.
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets in Williamsburg, Va., and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For museum program information, telephone (757) 220-7724.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational and cultural organization that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s website at www.history.org.