Classical Excellence in Boston: the Work of Isaac Vose

Clark Pearce, Essex, MA

Tuesday, July 9, 2013Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Grecian pier table attributed to Thomas Seymour for Isaac Vose & Son, Boston, ca. 1823-1825

Grecian pier table attributed to Thomas Seymour for Isaac Vose & Son, Boston, ca. 1823-1825. Mahogany and mahogany veneer, replaced slate top. Private collection. Photograph by David Bohl.

Sofa table in the Grecian style attributed to Thomas Seymour, probably for Isaac Vose & Son, Boston, ca. 1819-1820.

Sofa table in the Grecian style attributed to Thomas Seymour, probably for Isaac Vose & Son, Boston, ca. 1819-1820. Mahogany and mahogany veneer. Private collection. Photograph by David Bohl.

Clark Pearce and Robert Mussey exhaustively researched the work of Isaac Vose, in his various furniture partnerships from the beginning of the 19th century until 1823, in order to reestablish his important role in American decorative arts. The partnership of Vose & Coates, as well as Thomas Seymour, were among the first proponents of the Grecian style in Boston. They drew on literal adaptations of designs that had been unearthed in the 18th century from Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy (which nevertheless was called the “Grecian” style).

Isaac Vose, when he was in business with Joshua Coates, competed directly with Thomas Seymour as early as 1808 when both men produced furniture for Oak Hill, Elizabeth Derby West’s home in Danvers, Massachusetts. The luxuriousness of some of the heiress’ Oak Hill rooms, and some of her furnishings, are on display at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (which also owns Vose & Coates’ 1808 receipt to Mrs. West for a cellaret).

After Joshua Coates died in 1819, Isaac Vose combined forces with Thomas Seymour by recruiting him to be his shop foreman. Thomas Seymour also brought with him some of the British-trained immigrant craftsmen whom he had employed in his own shop before it closed in 1817 and/or whom he had supervised when he worked in James Barker’s shop from 1817 to 1819.

The few years from 1819 to 1823 were the golden age of classical furniture in Boston, when Isaac Vose & Son unquestionably made the finest furniture that town had ever seen. With Thomas Seymour’s help, the firm excelled at using the best woods available, all-mahogany construction and unrivalled craftsmanship. Isaac Vose had the connections, partly through his membership at the Hollis Street Church, and social skills to establish Vose & Coates as the “go to” furniture firm for Boston’s mercantile and academic elites.

Although Isaac Vose developed a loyal following among Boston’s wealthiest families, he died too young to develop a legacy, as Duncan Phyfe did during his long career in New York. If Isaac Vose had lived longer, the quality and stylishness of his work certainly would have established him as a household name today.

The love of historic furniture for both Clark Pearce and Robert Mussey began as visceral, hands-on learning experiences making custom reproductions of period antiques. Robert Mussey became a conservator after an internship in furniture conservation with the Henry Ford Museum. Clark Pearce went on to earn a master’s degree in American studies and museum studies from the University of Michigan, catalogue glass and ceramics for the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn and, later catalogue 19th century American furniture trade catalogues as a Winterthur intern.

Mr. Pearce then restored the interiors of the 1906 McFaddin-Ward House Museum in Beaumont, Texas; mounted an exhibition about Addison LeBoutillier, a significant figure in Boston’s Arts and Crafts movement; and wrote about Pewabic Pottery and the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. Since 1987, Clark Pearce has evaluated American decorative arts for private, corporate and museum collections; consulted on historic interiors; and overseen object conservation.

Mr. Pearce also wrote “Living With Antiques: A Federal Collection” for The Magazine Antiques (May, 2005). He spoke to the Forum in April, 2008 on “Sophistication in Central Massachusetts: the Inlaid Furniture of Nathan Lombard,” the subject of a 1998 Chipstone publication he coauthored with Brock Jobe. Clark Pearce also spoke to the Forum in July, 2009 about “George G. Wright and Philadelphia’s Federal Cabinetmakers, 1795-1815,” the subject of a 2007 Chipstone publication with Cathy Ebert and Alexandra Kirtley.

Robert Mussey founded and became head conservator of the furniture conservation laboratory for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). He started his own furniture conservation service, Robert Mussey Associates, and, after 20 years, retired four years ago.

Robert Mussey’s contributions to the Chipstone journal include “John Penniman and the Ornamental Painting Tradition in Federal-Era Boston“ (2010) with Chris Shelton and “John Cogswell and Boston Bombe Furniture: Thirty-Five Years of Revolution in Politics and Design” (1994) with Anne Rogers Haley. He also reprinted and introduced The First American Furniture Finisher’s Manual of 1827 (1987). Robert Mussey has also spoken to the Forum before, in January, 2004, about “Finishing Touches: Techniques and Materials of Furniture Conservation.”

Robert Mussey’s The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour (2003), the subject of his January, 2004 presentation to the Forum, closed with Thomas Seymour’s bankruptcy and going to work for other establishments. His research with Clark Pearce continues the story of Thomas Seymour’s career with Vose & Son.

Clark Pearce’s and Robert Mussey’s joint research on cabinetmaker Isaac Vose will be published as a chapter in Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture, to be edited by Brock Jobe. Mr. Mussey is also researching a biography of Richard Cranch of Boston (1726-1811), brother-in-law of John and Abigail Adams.

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Speak the classical vocabulary with any object sporting columns, urns, anthemia, paterae, bucrania or neoclassical fret. The design may be three-dimensional or appear in painting or print, ceramic, glass or metal.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.