The Art of Thomas Nisbet, Master Cabinetmaker
ne does not ordinarily associate early 19th-century Canada with elegance and wealth, yet that is what was presented recently at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre in “The Art of Thomas Nisbet, Master Cabinetmaker.” As curator of the exhibition in Guelph, Ontario, furniture maker David Nasby has acted as a detective, closely examining details to establish attributions to one of Canada’s most accomplished cabinetmakers. The perspective of a connoisseur guides the visitor through the elements and decorative devices in these twenty-two pieces of furniture.
Nisbet (circa 1777 – 1850) was born in Dunse, Berwickshire, Scotland, where he was an apprentice for eight years before moving to Canada to pursue opportunities for success. In 1812, he immigrated to New Brunswick, and by 1814 he was a “freeman” with full political and civil rights in the city of Saint John. At this time he established himself as a cabinetmaker and upholsterer, as well as importer of fine household goods from Britain, and lumber merchant. Although Nisbet used domestic woods, his primary material was mahogany, which he imported from the West Indies. The use of this material distinguished his work from that of other early Canadian cabinetmakers.
Nisbet often affixed labels to his work, unlike many of his peers, thus making it possible for the curator to attribute unlabelled pieces that used similar devices, materials, and techniques to the cabinetmaker and his workshop. Fourteen pieces included in the exhibition did not have labels, but clearly had features frequently used by Nisbet, thus enabling Nasby to establish attribution.
Brief texts accompany each object identifying the reappearing devices and the styles, which developed following European trends. Since Nisbet lived in a cosmopolitan port city, he was able to stay up-to-date with the latest fashions, as he could receive new design books within two weeks of publication in England.
Earlier works in the show are more closely aligned with British Regency tastes of the early 19th century, while later works follow the change in trends towards French Empire. Nasby focuses on the formal aspects of the pieces and their attributions rather than their history. He acknowledges that work on provenance must be done, but that was not his goal for this show.
The exhibition begins along a hallway in which smaller objects, such as chairs and sewing tables, are displayed in an intimate space. The show then opens into a larger room displaying the elegance of individual pieces present in the parlours and drawing rooms of the wealthiest citizens of Saint John in the early 19th century.
The exhibition includes four fold-over card tables, ranging in date from circa 1820 to circa 1830. The tops of these tables can rotate 90 degrees, first revealing a space in which game-playing accessories can be stored, then providing a frame on which the open leaves can rest. These four examples clearly demonstrate the transition from Regency to Empire style: the earlier two examples have rope-turned legs, a nautical motif employed by patriotic English cabinetmakers following Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805; the later two examples have more elaborate surface decoration characteristic of the Empire style, such as cast brass lion’s-paw feet and Nisbet’s device of half-round beading along the bottom of the skirt. The finer of the two Empire-style tables has a combination of an elaborate rope twist motif, ebonization, and acanthus leaves on the tripod support. The mahogany-veneered table skirt has delicate acorn shaped drop-finials, which can be found in other examples of Nisbet’s work.
Perhaps the most spectacular piece in the exhibition is the sofa table, circa 1820, which does not initially draw the viewer’s attention in a room filled with larger pieces, but warrants close examination. Nasby characterizes this piece as a “tour de force of Canadian cabinetmaking.” It employs many of Nisbet’s decorative devices, such as turned and ebonized columns that connect the mahogany with ebony-inlay tabletop to a pedestal with concave sides. This platform is then supported by splayed legs that include the highly unusual feature of wolf’s-paw feet. The lion’s-paw had become popular with the spread of the Empire style, as can be seen in several other pieces in the show, but wolf’s-paw is a curious feature, particularly since the fur extends well beyond the paw and up the splayed leg of the table. Acanthus leaves are carved up the front of the legs, curling outwards at the platform. This bizarre yet effective combination of motifs exemplifies Nisbet’s skill and artistic sensibility.
The Récamier, a style of sofa named after its appearance in French painter Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Madame Récamier (1800), became fashionable during the French Empire. The example attributed to Nisbet that is included in the exhibition has reeding and acanthus leaves, features of the Regency style, but the scrolled arms and crest rail, and overall form are Empire. The accompanying text helpfully notes that the re-upholstery is appropriate to the object, unlike ahistorical changes and repairs made to other pieces in the show. Nasby describes the Récamier as “a study in proportion and balance with no elements seeming out of place.”
The exhibition is complemented by a catalogue that includes more detailed text about each of the objects, an essay by the curator, and a glossary. Nasby outlines in detail the characteristics and process he used to determine attributions. He addresses the fact that the study of decorative arts has not been a priority in Canadian academic institutions, but that he hopes this exhibition will promote interest in the field.
The curator, using the eye of a connoisseur and the knowledge of a furniture maker, has constructed a strong argument not only for his attributions, but also for the significance of these art objects.
Krystina Mierins is an independent writer based in Toronto. She has an M.A. in Art History and has worked in art museums in Canada and the United States.
Possible attribution to the workshop of Thomas Nisbet
Mahogany with pine drawer bottoms
29 ¼ x 17 x 17 3⁄8 inches
29 ¼ x 34 x 17 3⁄8 inches with leaves raised