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Style and Commerce, Hand in Hand

On meeting Charlotte Reid 30 years ago, the first selectman told me, briskly, that the “a” in Salisbury, sounds like the “a” in altar and awesome; not the “a” in, say, adipose.

   The speaker on decorative arts at Scoville Library, Sunday, did not know what “a” to apply to our town’s name. But on the furniture in Litchfield County made between 1770 and 1810, and the culture that called for it, Derin Bray spoke with authority.

   Which just shows a scholar knows a lot, but not everything.

   A slim fellow, as you might expect of a field-and-track high jumper at Yale where he studied American history, Bray has spent his time since looking at 18th-century furniture, writing about it and talking about it.

   Addressing a large crowd of mature admirers of the decorative arts, Bray told us that in Sharon and Salisbury, the last parts of Litchfield County to be incorporated, “skilled work was happening” in the 18th century. But wood was getting scarce as the iron industry savaged nearby forests, so furniture makers made do with used or less desirable lumber and joined pieces together with iron screws rather than artful carpentry and glue.    

   Screws were plentiful. Quality wood was not.

   This resulted in sometimes “bizarre construction” such as the diagonal bracing under a chest, Bray said. “You don’t see this anywhere else.”

   Litchfield, the center of legal and political authority in the county with a thriving commercial presence, attracted work and craftsmen from London, New York, Boston. And Woodbury, an agricultural center in the south of the county, and New Milford, a trading post, drew skilled furniture makers as these economies flourished.

  So, with references to cabriole legs, stubby feet, carved pilasters, quarter-fan inlays, beading, crenelated pediments, deep shells, and C-scrolls, Bray displayed images of the chests and chairs and cabinets made for Litchfield County homes and described the flourishing economies that paid for them.

   Future talks at the Scoville Library will address neo-Colonial wallpaper on Feb. 13, and garden structure, March 13.


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