Matthew A Thurlow, The Decorative Arts Trust
Lady’s writing desk, Baltimore, ca. 1795–1810, Winterthur
Lady’s writing desk detail, Baltimore, ca. 1795–1810, Winterthur
Although furniture forms associated with femininity, such as the tea table and dressing table, were made in significant numbers in the colonial period, the production of furniture for the fairer sex increased tenfold with the introduction of the neoclassical style following the American Revolution. Sewing tables in particular were manufactured in great numbers for the parlors of genteel homes. These specialized forms typically feature refined construction utilizing exotic woods and materials.
Less common, but no less impressive, are the ladies’ writing desks produced in the premiere east coast cabinetmaking centers. These ladies’ desks harness the tenets of neoclassical design within a delicate, diminutive scale — and they often represent the pinnacle of furniture production in that era.
A group of early 19th century Baltimore ladies’ writing desks are recognized by the extensive use of verre églomisé, or reverse painting on glass panels, inset into their facades. églomisé panels, often pertaining to the classical mythology popular at the time, were integrated into looking glasses at the turn of the 19th century, but only in Baltimore did cabinetmakers incorporate them into tables and case furniture. Produced by largely anonymous artisans with specialized skills, the églomisé iconography of Baltimore furniture ranges from patriotism to religion to mythology.
Although the specific identities of some églomisé subjects remain elusive, they were likely intended to be read as a group delivering a prescriptive or moralizing message. Dramatic and rapid shifts in the American government, economy and society society after the Revolution included the rise of women to positions of public prominence. Women could be authors, social commentators and even figures of political consequence while also maintaining their traditional, and private, status in the home. These ladies’ desks also operated simultaneously in public and private spheres, as sculptural objects for public display to be admired by friends and neighbors, as well as private work spaces for introspection and correspondence. Their exquisite quality and ornamentation captivate our attention, but their message in églomisé was clearly intended as more than mere eye candy.
Matthew Thurlow graduated from Washington and Lee University with a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and sociology. He also earned master’s degrees from the College of William and Mary in anthropology, specializing in historical archaeology, and the Winterthur program in early American culture. While in college and graduate school, Mr. Thurlow served as an intern to the registrar at the Valentine Museum, Richmond, VA; curatorial intern at Colonial Williamsburg; curatorial intern at the Bermuda Maritime Museum, Mangrove Bay, Bermuda (where he excavated, catalogued and conserved the artifacts associated with a human burial uncovered within the foundation of an 18th century British fort); and curatorial intern at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Following his graduation from Winterthur, Matt Thurlow became a curatorial intern, then research associate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There, he researched and helped write Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York (2011) with Peter Kenny, Michael Brown and Frances Bretter. He contributed “Power, Politics, and Aesthetics in Early Nineteenth-Century Washington, DC: T. Constantine & Co.’s Furniture for the United States Capitol, 1818-1819” (2006) to Chipstone’s American Furniture. Mr. Thurlow also contributed the section on provenance research to the Appraisers Association of America’s The Appraiser’s Handbook (2nd edition) (2013).
Mr. Thurlow contributed “New York Furniture for the Stirlings of Wakefield, Saint Francisville, Louisiana” (2007) to The Magazine Antiques. Antiques and Fine Arts published his “Engraving the Meaning of Artisans: Abraham Godwin’s Certificate for the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen” (2012).
From his participation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Young Audience Development Organization, Matt Thurlow developed an interest in museum management. That career path lead him back to Winterthur in a hybrid position, combining curatorship and research with museum administration. From there, he moved north to Philadelphia to become director of the Decorative Arts Trust.
Matt Thurlow’s previous topics for the Forum are “To Carve, Inlay or Paint: New York Neoclassical Furniture” (2010) and “Competing Scrolls and Cabrioles: Stiff Competition in the New York Furniture Trade, 1825–1850” (2007).