Friday, August 15, 2014

Furnished with Mahogany: Shaw in the Old Senate Chamber

Several months ago, we covered the humble beginnings of John Shaw’s life in Annapolis. Upon his death at 83, the Maryland Gazette had called him one of the most respected inhabitants of Annapolis, and declared, “He was gifted by nature with strength, as well as fortitude of mind….his whole conduct remained free from reproach, and he descended into the grave, survived by a fair and unblemished reputation, and in peace with the human family. He was not afraid to die!”[1] But what was it that Shaw had done during his life that had changed his status from a Glasgow cabinetmaker to one of Annapolis’ most famous citizens?

Senate President's Desk, made in John Shaw's shop for the Old Senate Chamber, 1797. The desk is inscribed with "W 1797 T," and was made by one of Shaw's most famous apprentices, William Tuck. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-0749.

The answer to that question lies in part in the second half of Shaw's life, during some of his most active years with the Maryland State House. His resume was extensive and his impact long-lasting: in 1784, he worked with Archibald Chisholm to frame Charles Willson Peale’s Washington, Lafayette, and Tilghman; and, in 1792, he stepped in for Joseph Clark to oversee the completion of the interior State House dome. Along with serving as city councilman, city commissioner, fire engine keeper of Annapolis, and even as state armorer, Shaw oversaw many of the State House renovation and redecoration campaigns in the 1790s and early nineteenth-century.[2]

To describe all of Shaw’s contributions to just the Maryland State House would fill a book. His accounts with the State House have become some of the most significant records for understanding the history of both the Old Senate Chamber and Old House of Delegates Chamber. There are many reasons that Shaw’s contributions would motivate extensive biographical and furnishing studies for restoration efforts in Annapolis, but one of the most studied recently has been Shaw’s role in several furnishings campaigns for the Old Senate Chamber.

Shaw's accounts with the state during the 1796-1798 were extensive and varied, including this receipt to Sample & Price for "17 quarts of whiskey at different times for the use of the workmen at the Senate room" and £1 flask of oil...1.16.4 1/2. Maryland State Archives, Maryland State Papers, MSA S1004-18-18609.

In 1797, after reviewing the condition of the furniture in the Maryland State House, the Maryland General Assembly called for John Shaw to provide "24 Mahogany arm chairs, 10 Mahogany Desks for the use of the Senate & 1 neat Mahogany [desk] for the president."[3] The 1796-1798 work in the Old Senate Chamber under Shaw’s supervision was extensive. Apart from furniture, Shaw provided a carpet and blinds for the windows, and supervised the urgent project to repair the ceiling, which was sagging so dramatically that the Senate proclaimed that it was in imminent danger of falling down.[4] However, it is the mahogany chairs and desks, for which Shaw was paid £217.18.6, that intrigue decorative arts historians today.[5] The surviving furniture from the period in the collection of the Maryland State Archives remain a great example of Annapolis fashion in the late eighteenth-century.

Senate President's Armchair, attributed to John Shaw's shop, c.1797. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-0748.

Shaw’s 1790s furnishings was not his last contribution to the appearance of the Old Senate Chamber. In 1807, the Maryland State House contracted two of Shaw's students, William and Washington Tuck, in the Old House of Delegates Chamber and James Lusby and Robert Davis in the Old Senate Chamber to refit the rooms.[6] Though Shaw was mainly working to fit up the Court of Appeals that year, he also provided new carpeting and oversaw the commissions of the work in the Old Senate Chamber and Old House of Delegates Chamber.[7]

But what does this information mean for the Old Senate Chamber restoration? Why would it help to know about furnishings that Shaw supplied for the room after 1783? If the images of the Shaw furniture above look familiar, that’s because recreations of them were, until the most recent restoration, actually in the Old Senate Chamber. Our team on this restoration has been interested the Shaw furniture and its relationship to what had been in the room before it, particularly on the day that Washington resigned. Again, much like the mystery of William Paca’s chair, it is the job of the staff working on the Old Senate Chamber restoration to only place something in the room if the records provide enough plausible evidence that it had been there on the day of Washington’s resignation.

Splat-back armchair attributed to the shop of John Shaw, c.1797. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1199.

While we must leave the question of the Shaw furnishings unanswered until the room opens on December 23, 2014, we can say that John Shaw and his role in the Old Senate Chamber will be making an appearance in the exhibit! For those of you who can’t wait until December to get your John Shaw fix, the Glaswegian cabinetmaker has a thankfully large amount of surviving pieces that can be found at the Maryland Historical Society, Hammond-Harwood House, William Paca House, and the new wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art when it opens this fall.

[1] The Maryland Gazette, 5 March 1829.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Treasurer of the Western Shore (Journal of Accounts), 1797-1801, folio 48.
[4] Proceedings of the Senate, 1797 Session, Archives of Maryland Online, p.58.
[5] Treasurer of the Western Shore (Journal of Accounts), 1797-1801, folio 48.
[6] Governor and Council (Orders on the Treasury), 1807, MSA S1092-1, MdHR 1941.
[7] Auditor General (Day Book), 1806-1811, MSA S149-4, MdHR 1772, p.16 and 17.

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