Noonmark Antiques

Thistles & Crowns, The Painted Chests of the Connecticut Shore Exhibition at the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut

Charles HammellComment

Since Pennsylvania German blood flows through my veins, I tend to have a fascination with painted blanket chests. Paint decoration resonates with me and I never tire examining yet another fancy chest.

A friend of mine recommended the current exhibit at the Florence Griswold Museum so I made a point of stopping by this past weekend. She was right. This concise display show cases six wooden chests of various dimensions created by craftsmen of Guilford and Saybrook Connecticut. Less flamboyant, in my opinion, than Pennsylvania artwork, these English influenced chests deserve a closer look.

Tradition and historical evidence claims Charles Guillam (1671-1727) of Saybrook. Connecticut as the creator of these intriguing pieces. Further research and discovery attributes these diverse chests to a variety of different craftsmen along with Guillam. The display at the Florence Griswold Museum includes a modern unpainted replica of one of the chests. This model provides a fascinating look at the construction techniques employed by the carpenters as well as an examination of the primary woods used in construction.

Polychrome paint decoration applied to these chests over a base coat of warm brown paint include vermilion, orpiment ( a rich yellow), verdigris, blue verditer, carbon black, lead white, and mars red. The decorations tend toward specific images as opposed to geometric figures. Thistles, Tudor roses, fleur de lis, and crowns are among the various symbols used to imply a wide range of meanings from the obvious natural sense to the political.

I highly recommend a visit to the exhibit. The documentation is educational and thorough. No photography is permitted, but, the companion book sold at the gift shop provides highlights and useful information.

The Florence Griswold Museum welcomes children. While I was there, at least three groups of children led by a guide spent about 10 minutes in the room discussing and examining the chests. There was the promise that, “they, too, would paint their own chest, and they should look for ideas from the exhibition.”

Thistles & Crowns will be on display until September 21, 2014.

This chest is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the American Wing. It is attributed to the same hand as the chests on display at the Florence Griswold Museum. It shows the warm brown 'ocher' color that unify these chests, although it lacks the thistle and crown motifs.