New book showcases Kentucky’s antebellum decorative arts

September 15, 2013

Gigi Lacer

SIMPSONVILLE — When journalists Genevieve Lacer and Libby Howard began collecting Kentucky antiques more than a decade ago, they were surprised by how little information was readily available.

A few monographs had been written and some museum catalogs published. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., had collected some scholarship. The Magazine Antiques had featured Kentucky pieces in special issues in 1947 and 1974.

But there were no comprehensive books about Kentucky-made furniture, silver and textiles, even though they were some of the finest produced anywhere in antebellum America.


Libby Turner Howard, left, and Genevieve Baird Lacer. Photo by Tom Eblen. Photos from their book by Bill Roughen.

What the friends soon discovered was that considerable scholarship had been done on early Kentucky decorative arts, but most of that knowledge resided in the heads and notebooks of a few dozen passionate collectors.

That prompted Lacer and Howard to write and publish Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860. The 360-page book is detailed and exacting, yet readable and beautifully designed, with 600 illustrations by Lexington photographer Bill Roughen. State historian James Klotter wrote the forward.

“The book gives you a visual entryway into things you’ll never see, because they’re in private homes,” Lacer said, and only a few pieces from historic house museums are included “because we literally ran out of room.”

The book’s 270 “subscribers,” who paid $275 early in the process to get leather-bound special editions, receive their books Sunday at a private reception. A $75 “collector’s” edition goes on sale Monday at bookstores and antique shops around the state (for more information, go to

Lacer, who lives in Shelby County, wrote an award-winning 2006 biography of Swiss artist Edward Troye, who painted America’s greatest racehorses in the mid-1800s. Howard, who lives in Henry County, is a former editor of Kentucky Homes and Gardens magazine.

In approaching their book project, Lacer and Howard wanted to document Kentucky antiques and explore their histories, relationships and craftsmen. They also wanted to explain the goals and objectives of serious collectors they knew about, all of whom live in Kentucky.

“These are people who have spent 30, 40, 50 years refining a viewpoint about their collections,” Howard said. “They all have a focus. We became fascinated with how, visually, they are telling the story of antebellum Kentucky as they understand it.”

Book Jacket w-flaps_cmyk.inddTen major collections are profiled in separate chapters. Objects from 40 more private collections are gathered by object type in an 83-page “archive” at the back. Between each chapter is a small essay that tells an interesting story about an object, its maker or the time and place in which this work was created.

Only one collection is identified with its owners’ names, because it is the only major collection now in the public domain. Over three decades, Garrard County natives Bob and Norma Noe assembled one of the most impressive collections of early Kentucky antiques. They recently donated it to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.

The Speed is now closed for a major renovation and expansion. But when it reopens in 2016, the Noe Collection will be the foundation of a new Center for Kentucky Art, the first permanent museum space devoted to Kentucky works.

Bob Noe encouraged Lacer and Howard to write Collecting Kentucky as both a primer and a reference book, and he said in an interview that he is pleased with the result.

“I think the book will do wonders to add context in an area too often neglected,” Noe said. “Kentuckians need to know more about our early culture.”

The six decades covered in this book were exciting times in Kentucky. After statehood in 1792, Kentucky transitioned from America’s frontier to being a prosperous and influential region of agriculture and trade.

Prosperity created demand for decorative art and utilitarian items that were both beautiful and functional. Because Kentucky had little colonial tradition, early decorative arts often featured motifs of patriotism, and native flora and fauna.

Craftsmen in all parts of Kentucky produced remarkable work. Some, such as silversmith Asa Blanchard and cabinetmaker Porter Clay (brother of Henry), created pieces as fine as anything then being made on the East Coast.

The book features many outstanding examples of chests, cupboards, desks, case clocks, tables and chairs made of native cherry and walnut with poplar inlay, as well as imported mahogany. The authors tried to pull together available research on the craftsmen who made these items, linking pieces to regional styles.

Early Kentucky silver, often made from melted coins, has long been prized. Lacer said one of the most fun experiences in compiling the book was when several collectors brought more than $1 million worth of silver to her home to be photographed. Roughen was able to create images comparing large groups of work that had never been brought together before.

The book includes a section about one of Kentucky’s most famous products of the era: the long rifle. Kentucky rifles were not only accurate and dependable weapons; they often were highly decorated works of art.

Lacer and Howard said they hope their book will spark more public interest and scholarship in early Kentucky decorative arts.

“We just scratched the surface,” Lacer said. “We left out big collections we know about, and I can only imagine the ones we don’t know about. This is a lot bigger idea in our state than I ever dreamt.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

Preserving heritage, one chair or chest at a time

April 5, 2010

Like many of the pieces that find their way to Mason Roberts’ workshop, the English chest-on-chest was in bad shape. While stored in a flooded basement, the 230-year-old antique spent a couple of days standing in a foot of water.

After nearly 40 hours of painstaking work, Roberts will have straightened, reglued and replaced some structural wood, repaired splintered molding and a broken foot and gradually restored waterlogged mahogany to match the overall patina.

“If I do my job correctly, you won’t be able to tell I did anything — unless you look at the before and after photos,” said Roberts, who for a decade has operated Antique Services.

Working in a nondescript industrial building off South Broadway near downtown, Roberts uses period techniques and materials, and even some antique tools, to restore everything from flea market finds to centuries-old treasures damaged by fire or flood.

He uses period pigments and waxes for 18th- century furniture. Shellac — secretions of the female lac bug gathered from the jungles of India — is mixed with denatured alcohol to create finishes authentic to the 1800s and early 1900s. When he needs black shellac, Roberts grinds bits of old phonograph records. He uses glue made from animal hides to avoid breaking fragile wood.

Roberts is one of a handful of restorers in Central Kentucky who do this level of work, which can cost from a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars. Insurance covers work on many antiques that are damaged.

Roberts, 38, grew up in Owensboro, the son of an auto mechanic and an artist. He was delivering pizzas and mowing lawns when he got a job with Jayne Thompson Antiques in Harrodsburg. He learned about fine furniture and got to know Jay Richardson, a master restorer from England, with whom he apprenticed for eight years.

To do his job well, Roberts must be part artist and craftsman, part detective and historian. “If this work isn’t done correctly, it can easily do a lot of damage,” he said, noting that refinishing some antiques the wrong way can reduce their value by half.

Each job is a new challenge. “I have to match whatever craftsmanship was used by the builder,” he said.

For example, Roberts was working on a Queen Anne chair last week. Chairs like it were popular in England from 1702 to 1714, but he said this one is probably from Continental Europe because it is made of fruit wood. The chair’s joints tell Roberts it dates from the 1730s. The more he knows about a piece, the more authentically he can restore it.

Roberts is especially enthusiastic about restoring a walnut grandfather clock case built by Elijah Warner, who worked in Lexington from 1810 to 1829. While Roberts works on the case, he has sent the rare wooden clockworks, made by the prolific Cincinnati clockmaker Luman Watson, to Edgar Hume at The Clock Shop on Short Street for restoration.

Roberts works with several local artisans — clockmakers, blacksmiths, locksmiths. He has even worked with a Lexington weaver to replicate antique chair-bottom fibers from European rush and Kentucky cattails.

For the past four years, Roberts has been assisted by Colin Kellogg, 24, a Michigan native.

Roberts’ workshop is filled with salvaged wood, parts of broken furniture, old mirrors and pieces of wavy “seeded” glass for replacing cabinet panes. He also has a few antiques he bought and restored for himself.

He paid $80 for a damaged walnut tilt-top table. The type of screws used on a metal support piece indicate it was made about 1810, and some unusual turned wood on the tilt mechanism might allow him to identify the craftsman eventually. When fully restored, the table will be worth several thousand dollars, he said.

Roberts has become an expert on old nails and screws, which is useful in determining furniture’s age. His small office is filled with books and old Christie’s auction catalogs for reference.

“It’s rewarding work; it’s part of our cultural identity that we’re preserving,” said Roberts, whose clients have included Middle Eastern royalty and the chairman of Ford Motor Co.

“I’ve had people break down and cry when they see a restored family piece that had been so damaged they thought it was lost,” he said. “I used to be a mechanic. Nobody ever got excited about getting their car fixed.”

For more information

Antique Services

(859) 381-1948