Point to Point: Hunter House and the Constellations of Communities
The Colonial Revival
Hunter House was the first property acquired by the newly formed Preservation Society in 1945, in the context of the mid-century Colonial Revival Movement. The Movement began as early as the late 1800s and continued until the 1950s. In the early twentieth-century, curators, collectors, and popular decorators looked back to the styles and objects of the 1700s and early 1800s in America. They created vignettes focusing on aesthetics rather than historical accuracy and infused mythic and patriotic associations into the new use of antique and reproduction objects.
Wallace Nutting, a photographer, businessman and collector of early American furniture, was one of the most important figures in the popularization of the Colonial Revival. Nutting’s first business venture was producing hand-colored photographs of pastoral outdoor scenes and colonialized interiors using objects in his collection as props, a few examples of which you see here. He eventually started a business reproducing early American furniture based on observations he made of his own original pieces. High-profile collectors and average Americans alike could then furnish rooms with antique or reproduction furniture, ceramics, glassware, metalwork and other items that connected them back to their ancestors, whom they viewed as hard-working, virtuous and, most importantly, patriotically American. Nutting once wrote “Copy and avoid bad taste. Not all the old is good but all the new is bad,” summing up his opinion.
The Colonial Revival involved complex, overlapping motivations, but for Nutting, the early Preservation Society, and others, the goal was to use historic objects to create connections to the noble associations of the past and simultaneously develop aesthetically pleasing assemblages and interiors.The Keeping Room installation is very similar to its early appearance and to rooms in other historic houses and museums. Belowis a Wallace Nutting photo on the left and an image of the Keeping Room on the right. The Nutting photo includes a dresser or cabinet artfully displaying pewter in a similar way to the dresser in Hunter House.
The pewter porringer on the left was made by Thomas Melville, a Newport pewterer, in the 1790s. Below and on the left is a close up view of the mark on the handle, which identifies "D Melville," who was Thomas's father David Melville. When he died, Thomas inherited his father's pewter molds and marks and reused them, which was a very common practice. Below on the right you see the mark "T M" below the handle, which Thomas added to distinguish his own work from his father's. (See the Craftsmanship section for more information about pewter.)
This porringer is one of the many examples of Newport pewter currently on display in the Keeping Room. Beginning as early as the 1400s, pewter was the common standard for tableware in Europe and later in the American colonies. Nearly all levels of society used pewter; even wealthy families used pewter as everyday tableware, with more high style materials like silver or Chinese porcelain brought out when desired. Because of the widespread use of pewter, it was treated as a more democratic material in the Colonial Revival period. It became associated with simplicity, thriftiness, and other values that were assigned to colonial ancestors and with the colonial period in general.
Below is another comparison of a Wallace Nutting photograph on the left and the Keeping Room on the right. Many of Nutting's interior photographs included a hearth filled with cooking and serving implements. Nutting set the focus on the hearth with a fire burning and pots over the fire, as if someone has just stepped out of frame. In the mid- and late-1800s, the hearth became associated with the wholesome, domestic, virtuous home. Nutting romanticizes the home even more by adding an actual fire and cooking scene. Since kitchen hearths were work spaces, it is unlikely that they would had has as many objects around as in the photograph and as in the Hunter House Keeping Room because they would have gotten in the way of cooking. Nutting's inclusion of the settle (the bench on the left in the background) and the armchair reinforces the idea of the hearth as a family gathering place and the figurative center of the house. Just like Nutting used pewter, the democratic metal, in the first photograph to create a rosy view of a home interior, he uses a glowing hearth with furniture encouraging togetherness in this photograph to idealize the colonial family and their values. The interior of the Keeping Room at Hunter House follows this same tradition and allows a chance to see that objects and interiors can be interpreted in multiple ways.
After the changes made to Hunter House in the 1800s and first half of the 20th century were reversed and the house was furnished and open to the public, the young Preservation Society used the house to showcase and celebrate the art and decorative arts of Newport. The Preservation Society laid itself a strong foundation in restoring Hunter House and furnishing it with some of the best examples of Newport decorative arts. Since then, historical viewpoints have changed and broadened, allowing opportunities to tell more stories about different kinds of people and communities and the objects that surrounded them. Their goal was to provide physical links to the past. Far from being irrelevant, the past is vital to understanding our present and future and we are always learning more about it. Our knowledge about Hunter House and its objects and people is constantly evolving, revealing that the world of Newport in the 1700s and at every other time was full of complex communities and relationships that continue to draw us in.