Almost 30 years ago, John M. Rivers Jr. — a member of a Charleston, S.C., family that goes back to 1670 — began collecting significant examples of his city’s decorative and fine arts.
“I noticed that the earliest known signed piece of Charleston’s furniture was sold to an outfit in North Carolina, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s our history, not theirs, and it ought to be here in Charleston.’
“Some of the finest silver and furniture in the 18th and 19th century were made right here in Charleston — 100 cabinetmakers were active from early 1700-1820, and silver was made from 1700 to the 1920s. I thought it was important to keep them here or bring them back,” he said.
Rivers’ biggest find, however, was an embroidery that had been stored away in an attic of an apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It is being shown at the Society of Four Arts as part of “An Eye for Opulence: Charleston through the Lens of the Rivers Collection,” which opened Sunday. The exhibit includes more than 200 art and artifacts from Charleston’s Colonial through Antebellum periods.
“My focus was on furniture and silver,” Rivers said. “Why did I want embroidery? And yet after I bought it and it was taken out of the frame, we found it was one of the most valuable things we could have purchased. Objects like this tell stories about people.”
Brandy Culp, curator of Historic Charleston Foundation, describes the embroidery as “extremely rare.”
“ Most embroidery is allegorical or religious, but this is a painted- and silk-embroidered portrait of a young Charleston lady, Emma Louisa Lanneau, before her marriage to Benjamin Gildersleve in 1828,” said Culp, guest curator for the Four Arts exhibition.
“She’s wearing a pelisse, a particular type of overcoat. It’s a cosmopolitan setting, a lovely neoclassical interior and she’s sitting at a table with a map and globe, and she’s holding a cartographer’s compass and it’s pointed to Charleston.”
Upon removing the frame, they found that Lanneau had signed the linen stripping she had used to stretch the fabric. “It was an amazing discovery, a moment I’ll never forget,” Culp said.
Accompanying furniture and silver from the Rivers Collection, significant art and artifacts from the Gibbes Museum, Historic Charleston Foundation, Drayton Hall and Charleston Museum also are on exhibit.
“This is the largest showing of Charleston’s fine and decorative art, and for some of the objects, it’s the first time they’ve been out of the city,” Culp said. “For this exhibition, I chose objects that would give viewers a sense of Charleston’s past and tell its story, which is one of opulence and diversity.”
‘Object of excess’
A Federal Period secretary with linen press, attributed to cabinetmaker Jacob Sass from the Rivers Collection exemplifies the high skill level of artisans from Charleston’s workshops.
Made of mahogany and mahogany veneer with cedrela, red cedar, white pine and cypress, the upper case has small storage drawers, pigeonholes for letters and secret drawers. The pullout drawers beneath were for textiles and clothing.
Twenty years ago, Rivers found its sibling — a linen press also made by Sass.
“I bought it out of a Ford dealership in Kingston, North Carolina, and now it’s with its companion piece. … To have them together as they were at Sass’s shop 230 years ago, that’s neat.”
Another piece of note from the Rivers Collection is a Rococo-style mahogany kettle stand with piecrust top, the only known example of that form made in Charleston.
“The kettle stand is an object of excess. Most objects had multifunctional uses, but the kettle stand, the mate to the tea table, had only one use,” Culp said. “It was meant to hold an expensive water kettle. This was part of Charleston’s tea ceremony, an important mode of entertaining here.”
Dark times to enlightenment
Charleston artisans produced many fine artifacts, but few survived. Some were lost due to fires, hurricanes and tornadoes. Some were lost through looting when the city was invaded by the British as well as federal occupation during the Civil War. And then poverty set in after the Civil War and heirlooms were sold.
“While Charleston was the wealthiest colony in the Colonial Period, the Antebellum Period was the end of opulence,” Culp said. “After the Civil War, the city was forever changed.”
After the 1876 Centennial, Charleston became a site for budding antique dealers and objects left private collections. Case in point, a neoclassical-style painting from the Historic Charleston Foundation, the portrait of Mary Rutledge Smith and her son, Edward, which was painted by George Romney in England.
Mary Rutledge Smith (1747-1837) sat 15 times for Romney between January and May of 1786. She was the wife of Colonel Roger Smith (1745-1805), and their son, Edward, was born in England in 1785. The portrait was painted during their stay in England while traveling abroad. When they returned to Charleston, they brought the painting back with them and it was passed down through their family.
This portrait was exhibited throughout the 19th century in Charleston and was well known in the city.
“Because of the family’s financial difficulties in 1888, to paraphrase from a letter a family member wrote to a New York antique dealer: ‘my family is sick; we have no money and we are starving,’ and she had to sell the portrait,” Culp said. “It was shipped to New York, then to England and was sold. For the next 87 years, it remained in the Swinton Collection at Masham, England. A hundred years later, it was purchased for Historic Charleston Foundation.”
A silver water pitcher, circa 1860, engraved with a gothic initial “B,” and marked by Hayden & Whilden pours out its tale, too.
The actual makers, Augustus Hayden and William Whilden, have a great story, Culp said.
“The two individuals operating Hayden & Whilden, both enlisted in the army in Civil War, and after the war, they established separate businesses across the street from each other and both businesses thrived from 18th century into the early 20th century.”
Today, Charleston thrives again, with a good economy and first-class cultural venues, Rivers said.
“So often people say that Charleston is like Paris, Prague, a city of light, but it’s a city of enlightenment,” he said.