Around Tennessee, 1820 – 1920, a new exhibition of rare works from the Midsouth, is opening on Saturday at the Brooks. I got a chance to go behind the scenes to see the installation of it yesterday. There are some really beautiful pieces in there, including fine furniture, paintings, quilts, and early silver.
The Brooks’ Associate Curator Stanton Thomas was telling me that the antebellum silver is especially considered rare because during the Civil War it was often melted down for currency. One of my favorite items in the exhibition is a silver Mint Julep cup that was owned by the founder of Memphis, Marcus Brutus Winchester!
Other rare objects include the five Sugar Chests on display. Now, I had never heard of a sugar chest before this exhibition, but apparantly they are among the most unique form of Southern furniture. As sugar was such a commodity in the 19th c., these sideboards were built so that the sugar could be kept under lock and key. (Read a short history of the sugar chest here.)
Another thing I noticed about these chests is that the area around the lock (the escutcheon) is often a different color of wood from the body of the chest. The curator told me that in one example it’s because the owners probably lost the key at some point and had to saw the lock out (look for an inverted triangle of different colored wood on one of the pieces in the gallery)!
In this picture of a lock on a sugar chest, however, the design is purposeful. A lighter colored wood was used to make it easier to find the lock when searching for it in the candlelight.
Another interesting thing that the curator pointed out was in this quilt here. The woman who made this piece traced her young child’s hand in the embroidery design. Can you see the outline of a hand in the center of the picture? Though it wouldn’t be noticeble to the casual observer, the woman would think of it everytime she saw the quilt. I thought that was so poingnant.
In addition to the decorative arts, there are also really beautiful paintings, including some by the extrememly popular artist Carl Gutherz. But this one here immediately caught my eye. Little is known about the artist (Blanche Elder), but as the painting has remained in the family over the years, we do know that this painting is of her mother (Belle Elder). She is most likely in mourning, which explains the dress and sorrowful expression, the curator explained. It’s hard to believe it’s from over a hundred years ago (dated 1889) — you still feel so much empathy for the woman when you see it.
There are so many wonderful items in this exhibition, I could go on and on. Many of the works have never been exhibited in public before, as they are part of private, family collections. So this is a rare chance to see them all in one place. I hope that everyone gets a chance to see it!
Around Tennessee, 1820-1920 is on view from July 5 to September 7 at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.