The Burrows Collection of American Silver, which opened on Feb. 19, is currently on display in the Clark Art Institute’s Manton Center for Decorative Arts. The collection, made up of more than 270 objects that span over 40 years from the late 17th to early 18th century, “teems with tea and coffee wares, tankards and porringers, objects for personal adornment, church silver and presentation pieces.” Henry Morris and Elizabeth H. Burrows, whose personal collection constitutes the majority of items on view, made this showing possible. The couple began to share objects from its collection to the Clark in 1976 and has since worked more closely with the Clark for several other shows. The Burrows Collection has been mostly off-view since 2012, and many objects have never appeared in gallery shows until now.
In the newly-constructed Manton Research Center, the Clark turns its curatorial eye towards decorative arts, a genre that has not garnered much attention due to its popular perception as a more “trivial” and “low” form of art. Displaying pieces that belong to both the colonial and Federal artistic periods in American art, the show also features several of the Clark’s collection of early American paintings and furniture, such as furniture pieces from the Florence Cluett Chambers collection, a partial porcelain dining service meant to memorialize George Washington and several paintings by Gilbert Stuart and Ammi Phillips, among others. The Cluett Chambers collection of furniture and decorative arts includes some beautiful examples of American-made pieces, including case furniture, looking glasses, claw-foot dressers and clocks.
The main focus of the Burrows Collection of American Silver is, among other things, the silver industry in the early United States and how its development took place in cities along the East Coast, including New York, Boston and Philadelphia, as well as in small towns. Through the examination of these objects, we can begin to see how those with access to wealth in the nascent nation began to create their own ideas around the meaning of affluence and luxury, blending old world sensibilities with understandings of wealth unique to the country which they now claimed as home. Early American silverware demonstrates an acute awareness of the type of ornamental flourish fashionable and popular in England, suggesting a possible nostalgia for the old country, but also sets itself apart through a distinctive American style.
The pieces currently on display in the Burrows gallery reflect the shifting artistic sensibilities that enabled early American craftsmen to differentiate themselves from the cultures and artistic traditions that preceded them. They present a blend of European luxury and greater emphasis on functionality and simplicity. The new gallery space examines the geographic and political dynamics that played into regional styles of decoration, as well as the social phenomena that caused tea and coffee consumption to become so central to the early U.S. culture of leisure.
In a period where redefinition of what it means to have an “American” identity is at the center of significant political turmoil, it is particularly meaningful to reflect upon how that identity was established in the first place. The various objects of the Burrows Collection of American Silver often carry the emblems or crests of the families they belonged to, revealing their function as status symbols and articles of pride that touted the wealth of their owners. Walking into the gallery, the viewer is faced with a stern and solemn portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, who also painted the portraits of Washington that would one day appear in the National Portrait Gallery and on the one-dollar bill. With a level gaze that seems to look barely past us, we can see how this man would become mythologized. After his death in 1799, commercial goods intended to memorialize Washington spread far and wide, his image finding its way onto jewelry, handkerchiefs, paintings, clocks and porcelain. Opposite the portrait in the gallery is a glass case of porcelain dishes and bowls that memorialize his image, intended for patriotic and commemorative purposes. The use of artistic symbols to mark significant political or historical events is alive and well to this day. For example, my younger brother still treasures his “Obama ’08” t-shirt that he wore as a child, because it represents a larger understanding of his own place in history. In the same way, artistic representations of some of the first political leaders of a young United States speak to the way that earlier generations of Americans contextualized their own relationship to history.
The Burrows Collection of American Silver features almost 300 objects from the 17th and 18th centuries. Photo courtesy of The Berkshire Eagle.