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What Not to Miss in New Exhibition, “A Gift to the Nation”

4 themes to observe in The Joseph H. and June S. Hennage Collection

Joseph and June Hennage’s approach to collecting antiques began with “buying with your heart,” as June Hennage described it. They studied objects for their authenticity, history, and condition and often purchased items as gifts to one another.

Now, a portion of their gift of 400 objects to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation — the most significant single American decorative arts bequest in its 90-year history — is on view in the Miodrag and Elizabeth Ridgely Blagojevich Gallery at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the newly expanded Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

The exhibition features 50 highlighted objects of the assemblage of superlative examples of furniture and silver from important colonial centers as well as an array of other materials, primarily Chinese export porcelain.

An afternoon exploring this exhibition is bound to be one of your new most favorite things to do in Williamsburg. So what should you look out for? Here are four important themes to observe during your visit to A Gift to the Nation: The Joseph and June Hennage Collection at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

1. Exceptional Woodwork

The Hennages often acquired objects that illustrated the variety of options available to local consumers of the period, especially furniture from Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Charleston and the Connecticut River Valley, representing the regional diversity in American furniture.

This Philadelphia tea table from ca. 1770, which descended in the family of William Dunn, who founded Dunnstown, Pennsylvania, has the most expensive shaped and carved top, known in the period as “scalloped,” and an extraordinary amount of rococo carving on its legs ending in ball and claw feet. This rare columnar-shaped pillar is carved with flutes and is a must-see in-person. 1991-82
Regionally specific furniture forms particularly appealed to Joe and June Hennage. Known today as bombé furniture, American versions of the curvaceous form inspired by British and French examples were almost exclusively produced in the coastal Massachusetts cities of Boston, Salem and Marblehead. This mahogany and white pine bombé chest of drawers made in Boston ca. 1770 exemplified a specific geographic aesthetic that differs from Philadelphia and New York examples in its focus on form rather than applied ornament. While the drawer sides of this example follow the shape of the cases sides, other makers of bombé chests chose to have vertical drawer sides, leaving the inner case sides vertical instead of following the curved exterior. 1990-293
One exceptional piece of furniture in the exhibition is a high chest of drawers possibly made between 1760 and 1790, by Isaac Tryon in either Middletown or Glastonbury, Connecticut, located in the fertile Connecticut River Valley Joe Hennage gave this piece to June as a gift, and many times over the years, the dealer who sold it to Joe offered to buy it back at a greater price. June declined to sell each time as she felt she would not be able to acquire another Connecticut high chest as nice as this example. Cabinetmakers, such as Isaac Tryon, crafted furniture for the wealthy inhabitants of the Connecticut River Valley, and the vertical, sleek lines and carved fans of this cherry high chest typify the work of makers in this region. 1991-62

2. Game-Changing Silver

June and Joe’s collection also included approximately 100 pieces of American silver. The tea and coffee sets, jugs, tankards, canns, goblets, porringers, sauceboats, casters, salvers, punch strainers and ladles, many with known histories of ownership, represent their interest in the period between 1730 and 1815 with emphasis in objects from Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

“The Hennage silver bequest is game-changing, effectively doubling the number of American-made hollowware pieces owned by Colonial Williamsburg.” said Janine E. Skerry, Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator of metals. “It offers exciting new opportunities to interpret the diverse range of wares produced by silversmiths from New England to the South and includes important examples with distinguished pedigrees.”

Among the highlights of the Hennage’s silver collection you can see on view in A Gift to the Nation is a tea and coffee set by Littleton Holland made in Baltimore, Maryland, ca. 1800. Large en suite tea and coffee sets such as this example became popular by the earliest years of the 19th century. This set was made for the Krebs family of Baltimore and features two teapots — one for black tea and one for green — as well as a coffeepot, sugar urn, cream pot and waste bowl. Fashioned in the late neo-classical style with broad fluted panels and bands of bright-cut engraving, this set exemplifies the end of the timeline for the silver that the Hennages collected; very few of their acquisitions date past 1810. 2020-249,1-6
With its ample proportions, shell and scroll feet with prominent junctures, and free-standing handle, this sauce boat, fashioned by Samuel Burt ca. 1750, embodies the full-blown rococo style in silver from Boston, Massachusetts. Although a masterful craftsman, few pieces made by Burt survive due to his untimely death at the age of 31. Approximately three dozen objects are known today by him, including large and complex forms such as flagons, tankards, and teapots. Silver bearing the mark of Samuel Burt is noted for its balance, scale,and substantial weight. Like his two younger brothers, William and Benjamin, Samuel followed his father John into the silversmithing trade; together, they created one of the best-known dynasties of the craft in New England. 2020-252

3. Charming Miniatures

Collectors have long been interested in miniatures, or small-scale pieces replicating the same styles, proportions, and construction techniques seen in their larger cousins. Miniature furniture was a specific love of June Hennage’s. It is unknown whether these pieces were intended for display by makers or adult owners or for play by children. The tradition of large-scale furnished dollhouses or cabinet houses for wealthy adults in 17- and 18th-century Europe may have influenced the production of these slightly larger American examples suggesting that some level of both display and play were intended.

This miniature blockfront chest of drawers made in Boston, Massachusetts, between 1750 and 1775 of mahogany and white pine, is typical of Boston blockfronts and has the same large dovetail-shaped joint between the base molding and bottom board. This construction detail helps to distinguish pieces made in Boston from those of Newport, Rhode Island, even in a miniature example. 1990-276

4. Vibrant Color

Joe and June’s collection of Chinese export porcelain complemented their antique furniture and silver. The pieces in the exhibition include objects with rare American histories of ownership and those that reflect the couple’s love of vibrant color.

“The Chinese porcelain featured in the exhibition not only relays stories of the young United States, but also tells very personal stories of Joe’s and June’s love of collecting and their love of brilliant colors,” said Angelika R. Kuettner, associate curator of ceramics and glass at Colonial Williamsburg.

One such example of the Hennages’ love of vibrant color can be seen in A Gift to the Nation through their collection of a hot water dish and plates made in Jingdezhen, China, ca. 1800. These pieces made of hard-paste porcelain represent the variety of colors in which the so-called Fitzhugh pattern was available to 18th and early 19-century consumers. The pattern often included a central medallion surrounding a floral sprig or a cypher. Instead of the central medallion, some pieces made specifically for export to the American market feature a splayed eagle holding within its beak a banner bearing the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” all representative of the Great Seal. Vibrant green, orange, yellow, and brown as well as the more common underglaze blue version were available and pieces decorated in yellow, such as the Hennages’, are among the rarest examples. 2020-197,1, 2020-202,1, 2020-203,1, 2020-224

A Gift to the Nation: The Joseph and June Hennage Collection is generously funded by Cynthia Hardin and Robert S. Milligan and Mary Virginia E. and Charles F. Crone in honor of Ronald and Mary Jean Hurst.

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