Friday, November 7, 2014

Baltimore’s Frame Maker: Samson Cariss and Washington Resigning

This time last year, we watched Edwin White’s Washington Resigning His Commission leave the State House to undergo conservation as part of the restoration, and marked the occasion with a feature on the nineteenth-century artist. So, what better way to welcome Washington Resigning home in the coming weeks, than with a feature on the frame’s craftsman, Samson Cariss!

The frame's latest conservation has revealed superb, detailed craftsmanship and generous gilding. Maryland State Archives, 9 June 2014.

At first glance, Cariss may not seem of interest. Compared to White’s popularity in the American artistic expat inner-circle, Cariss appears only in passing in state correspondence, and it was even questioned for a time whether he could have made the elaborate, carefully crafted frame that has miraculously stayed with the painting over the course of nearly a century and a half. Compared to White’s $3,000 payment, Cariss secured only $300 for the generously gilded work. Because of this, it had been previously suggested that he may have been only the procurer of the frame.[1]

However, biographical research into Cariss’ life reveals an entirely different man. Born in Staffordshire, England, Cariss immigrated to Baltimore in 1829, at the age of 25.[2] By 1840, Cariss was in the business of trade and manufacture, and, in 1848, Cariss had begun to advertise himself as a “carver and gilder” who specialized in elaborate, Rococo designed looking-glasses and “has always on hand, Portrait, Picture and Looking-Glass frames; Bracket, and other tables; window cornices; room moulding; looking-glasses and Plate Glass for Windows, of all sizes; Hammered Glass for floors; engravings; paintings.”[3]

Cariss’ business was a great success. Apart from designing the frame for Washington Resigning, he worked to outfit the interiors of the ship, the North Carolina, furnished plate glass for Baltimore’s post office and jail, and perhaps most recognizably, designed much of the gilt work for the drawing and music rooms of the Ridgelys’ Hampton House. By 1860, when his second daughter was married, Cariss' personal estate was valued at $20,000 and was referred to as Samson Cariss Esq.[4] Even today, Cariss mirrors and frames can be found at the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, Maryland, at Blair House, and at Winterthur.

His business expanded even further from mercantilism into a gallery and auction house. In the nineteenth-century, many popular paintings would tour several states in galleries like Cariss’, where visitors could pay an admittance fee to view the latest work.

Outside of his successful business, Cariss was a popular figure in his Baltimore community. A dedicated member of the Freemasons, Cariss served as Grand Treasurer for the Grand Lodge between 1848 and 1858, even serving as Master and Treasurer to his local lodge, Concordia, No. 13, prior to that.[5] Cariss also had an interest in the performing arts, appearing on a list of men who wished to personally thank nineteenth-century star, Edwin Booth, for performing at the Holliday Street Theatre, and served on several committee boards to preserve the interests of his Baltimore neighborhood.[6]

Washington Resigning and frame in its latest home in the New Annex of the Maryland State House before it was removed for conservation in November 2013. Image courtesy of Jay Baker, Maryland State Archives.

By 1859, when Cariss supplied the frame for Washington Resigning, he was at the height of his success. Though paid only a fraction of Edwin White’s commission, Cariss’ frame was clearly seen as part of the work.[7] The frame was sent to New York while White was finishing the piece, and arrived with the canvas in the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House, where it stayed until 1904 when it was moved to the New Annex.

Last November, Washington Resigning and its frame left the State House for the first time in generations in order to undergo conservation as part of the Old Senate Chamber restoration. The frame was carefully disassembled and assessed by top frame conservators in the area. Due to its massive size, the frame was coated in a heavy layer of dust and required intensive cleaning. It was found to be carved wood with a layer of late nineteenth-century gilding, which was discovered to be relatively intact and expertly applied. The ornaments decorating the frame are made of compo, meaning each one was crafted by hand. If you look closely at the pattern on the frame, you may notice that each ornament is slightly different from the other because of this! Today, this frame is considered a masterpiece among nineteenth-century American frame craftsmanship.

Edwin White’s painting and Samson Cariss’ frame will be returning to the State House in the coming weeks. The return of Washington Resigning His Commission marks the first part of the Old Senate Chamber restoration that will open to the public. With less than two months to go until the room reopens, we are very excited to see many of our paintings and historic artifacts returning in great shape!

[1] Comptroller of the Treasury (Paying Warrants), 1859-1860, MSA S 703-15.
[2] Oszakiewski, Robert Andrew, Maryland Naturalization Abstracts, Volume 1: Baltimore County and Baltimore City, 1784-1851. Westminister, MD: Willow Bend Books, 2000, p.58.
[3] Baltimore Sun, 18 February 1848, p.2.
[4] 1860 U.S. Federal Census, 10th Ward Baltimore, National Archives, M653 p.93.
[5] Edward Schultz’s History of Free Masonry in Maryland, MSA SC 6103-3, p.807.
[6] Baltimore Sun, 18 March 1858.
[7] “Exhibition of a Maryland Painting,” Baltimore Sun, August 11, 1859.

1 comment:

  1. M: This job is an education in itself. And I can see that you enjoy it. No surprise there.