Sunday, April 28, 2013
Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color
When: through July 28, 2013
I enjoy going over to the Renwick Gallery; it's in the neighborhood where my office used to be located, so it gives me an opportunity to see my old stomping ground. It's in a lovely location, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House and next to Lafayette Park. Add to that the cherry blossoms and warmer weather, and what's not to like?
The only fly in this ointment is that the Renwick will be closing in 2014 for renovations, so go see this very pleasant, quiet museum while you can! The plan is to re-open in 2016, so after I go over to see the upcoming exhibit on their collection of contemporary baskets, it will be a while before I am able to return. I may have to take a day off and see the permanent collection as well, since it will be closed for two years...
The current exhibit is on Thomas Day, an African-American craftsman, living as a free man in North Carolina in the 1800s, before the Civil War. He came from a family of cabinet makers, and set himself up as a furniture maker and maker of architectural elements - the only known American to do so. He lived in Milton, NC, and was able to duplicate the very expensive designs for sale in the large cities at a fraction of their cost. He became very popular with the elites of the area, who hired him to help them restore the houses they had purchased in a neo-Classical style, as well as design and build furniture for them that would fit in with their decor.
He became so admired that when he married a free woman of color from Virginia, the people of Milton petitioned the North Carolina State Assembly to let her come to live in Milton. They were welcomed into the Milton Presbyterian Church, and allowed to sit with the white congregants. The slaves that Day owned (African-Americans also owned slaves, although certainly not in the numbers that white people did) were encouraged to join the church as well, sitting in the segregated section. States passed laws placing severe restrictions on free persons of color (which made me think they may have been free, but they didn't have much in the way of freedom), but local communities often ignored them. The town of Milton gave great support to Day and his business.
Day's style incorporates a scroll motif, visible in the picture above. This was not uncommon among designers of the period, but his work became so distinctive that it was called "Day's Exuberant Style." Frankly, it's a bit too exuberant for my taste, which runs strongly towards the Arts and Crafts style of the early 1900s, but the furniture is very well-made and, if you like that kind of thing, beautiful. Two pieces which I did like (note they are not typical of his work) were a mirror he made for North Carolina Governor David S. Reid and a blanket chest in the "Neat and Plain" style. Neither has much in the way of ornament, so there's nothing to distract from the craftsmanship. In 1853, Day said, "It is not pleasant to have any thing in the way of furniture like an eyesore." Hard to disagree with that!
A room at the end of the exhibit contains contemporary photographs of the houses in which he designed architectural elements - lots of scrollwork there too.
Verdict: Well worth a trip over to the Farragut Square area of town, an interesting show and an opportunity to see the Renwick before it closes.