Luxury and Innovation: Furniture Masterworks by John and Thomas Seymour - November 17,2003-February 16,2004

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John and Thomas Seymour
A brief history
John in Axminster
John Seymour was born in Dorset, England in 1738. Early in his career, he worked in nearby Axminster, Devon as an independent artisan after completing a craft apprenticeship with a joiner. Records suggest that for much of John’s early career he did joinery, carpentry, and repair work for the Axminster parish church and its overseers of the poor. He also made furniture for a wealthy and important landowner near Axminster – an association that contributed to his knowledge of neoclassical style and fashion later expressed in Boston.

To the United States

Although John’s training was modest, he proved capable of high-quality work and grew frustrated with the limited opportunities available to him in Axminster, where the economic was grim and he was in direct competition with high-style London cabinetmakers. In search of broader horizons, John, his wife, and children immigrated to the United States in 1784 when son Thomas, the fourth of six children, was 13 years old.

Early years in Boston

After first settling in Portland, Maine along with at least five families from Devon and Dorset, the Seymour family relocated to Boston in 1793, arriving in the thriving city at an opportune moment in history. By the time of the Seymours’ move to Boston, Thomas was 22 years old and had acquired cabinet-making experience as his father’s apprentice. In Boston, the changing social landscape, new leisure activities, and growing wealth led to the construction of larger houses and created demand for higher quality furniture and new forms, such as sewing tables, ladies’ desks, sideboards, and lap desks. Increased prosperity and foreign trade also secured a consistent supply of the exotic and rare woods and veneers, such as mahogany and rosewood, prevalent in the Seymours’ designs.

Economic hardship

For all its opportunities, Federal Boston did not receive new English immigrants very warmly in the 1790s, and the Seymours’ early years in Boston were marked by economic hardship. Their 1800 tax valuation referred to them as “poor – one room.” While Boston cabinetmakers were still turning out simplified, provincial versions of neoclassical designs, the Seymours’ ambitious interpretations and fastidious craftsmanship stood out, but with a price that few were willing to pay. Much of John and Thomas’s work was simply too expensive for the market, and as relative newcomers to Boston, the Seymours lacked access to a wide circle of patrons who could afford the luxury of their furniture. Further, except for using their label at auction to build brand recognition, the Seymours did not advertise. A reluctant marketer with a retiring personality, John let the excellence of his furniture speak for itself, and building a well-deserved reputation took time. Despite their lack of early financial success, the John and Thomas’s first decade in Boston laid the foundation for greater prosperity.

Boston Furniture Warehouse

Between 1800 and 1804, Thomas’s own style began to emerge, derived from his father’s, but with added elegance and complexity. He employed other skilled immigrant craftsmen, who contributed embellishments that elite Bostonians could afford. In 1804, the tax valuation of John and Thomas’s personal property rose to 800 dollars. That year, at the age of 33, Thomas founded the Boston Furniture Warehouse, a separate venture from his collaboration with John. In fact, by this time, his 66-year-old father probably worked for him. During this period, Thomas’s interpretations used distinctive applied moldings to substitute for inlays, and spectacular crotch mahogany veneers. He also introduced new forms such as lyre-based tables and scrolled arm supports. Thomas’s ability to create designs in varying styles demonstrates his talent for incorporating his own formidable skill with the diverse talents of other specialist artisans.

Business suffers

For Thomas, economic pressures stemming in part from Jefferson’s 1807 embargo on American shipping to and from England meant a sudden and dramatic downturn in his business. By 1808, John Seymour was 70 years old and had retired from his physically demanding craft. Six months after his wife’s death in 1815, John entered the Boston almshouse, where he died in August of 1818.

Thomas retires

The outbreak of war with Great Britain in 1812 led to anti-British sentiment in the U.S., and further impeded Thomas’s ability to maintain a successful enterprise. With a growing family to support – he and his wife eventually had seven children – Thomas faced tremendous financial pressures. In mid-1817 he gave up his own business in favor of working as the foreman for an ambitious younger cabinet maker. In 1824, Thomas reached the end of his career as a cabinetmaker, and spent the next 23 years in relative obscurity, dying at the age of 77 in Lunenburg, Massachusetts.

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