The Portsmouth Collection


Located less than 10 minutes from downtown Portsmouth, Wentworth by the Sea offers an inspiring meeting, wedding or special event venue with remarkable views.

The exhibition is augmented by a series of programs with leading experts in the field, including Hollis Brodrick on April 18, and Ron Bourgeault on June 15. The exhibition is organized by Gerry Ward, consulting curator at PHS.


The Portsmouth furniture makers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries adapted English designs to satisfy their customers’ tastes, while retaining local stylistic characteristics that reflect a sense of place. This exhibition brings together furniture from a broad range of the Museum’s collections to explore the richness and diversity of this material culture.

The exhibit was designed by the Society’s staff in close collaboration with furniture maker and conservator Brock Jobe and is organized by style and function, with a strong representation of furniture from the Rundlet-May House collection, which represents the work of the most important cabinetmakers of Portsmouth’s early nineteenth century. Among them was Langley Boardman, who moved from Ipswich to Portsmouth at the turn of the nineteenth century. His own style evolved from the more straightforward Federal style of his earlier days to a sophisticated form of English rococo inspired by pattern and design books (Fig. 5).

Although the furniture in this exhibition was not all made in Portsmouth, it is clear that it was designed by local craftsmen and commissioned by local families for their homes and public buildings. The carved scrolls and foliage of this pair of chairs echoes carving on an altar table (St. John’s Church) and a dressing table (private collection), also attributed to the Portsmouth cabinetmakers of the period.

This furniture also offers a glimpse into the lives of the owners who commissioned it and used it in their houses. The inscriptions on the back of this chair, for example, tell the story of John and Martha Langdon and their connections to the revolutionary leader and signer of the United States Constitution, General John Langdon, and Ona Judge, who was enslaved by George Washington’s family in New Hampshire and escaped to freedom and a life with the Langdons.

The Museum is a regional center for education and the preservation of historic houses and their furnishings, with a special focus on Portsmouth’s unique maritime heritage. Visitors can tour historic houses on their original sites, meet engaging costumed roleplayers, see traditional crafts demonstrations, and explore heirloom gardens. The Museum is open daily from May 1 through October 31. For more information, visit The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which owns seven historic houses in Portsmouth, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, has been a leading force in historic preservation for more than sixty-five years. SPNEA’s collections, research, and publications serve a diverse audience of historians, curators, students, teachers, and the general public. This exhibition is the result of an intensive study of furniture at the Museum and other archival and museum holdings. It places the Portsmouth furniture makers alongside those of Newport, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York as creators of some of the finest early American furniture.


The publication of this catalogue reflects the inexhaustible interest in furniture and furniture making in Portsmouth and the surrounding region. The book’s large format makes the excellent photographs by David Bohl stand out, highlighting detail and texture. Its interpretive essays and catalogue section of 117 objects are the result of extensive scrutiny by the authors, curators and conservators, all of whom have made significant contributions. It will be a major contribution to the literature and a useful guide for those visiting Rundlet-May House and other historic houses in Portsmouth.

This exhibition and catalog mark the first time that Portsmouth cabinetmakers are recognized as creators of some of the finest furniture in early American history. It places them in the context of a town that was important for its trade, its mercantile fortunes and its political power, as well as for its enduring cultural influence. It also explores changes in attitudes toward and uses of furniture, including the transition from a utilitarian to a retail market.

In the eighteenth century, the town prospered as one of the primary centers of Atlantic shipping. The accumulated wealth of a few well-connected mercantile families enabled them to construct houses and furnishings that imitated English patterns and models. This reflects the town’s long association with London-trained craftsmen, as well as the continuing importance of English styles in the New England market after the 1740s.

As the exhibition demonstrates, Portsmouth cabinetmakers were masters of both traditional forms and advanced, experimental construction techniques. It is therefore no surprise that their work is of the highest quality, although there are differences in style and interpretation between the works by different makers. The most distinctive feature of this collection is the work of Langley Boardman, whose idiosyncratic use of construction features and his ability to produce exquisite forms are displayed in the two armchairs (catalogue numbers 88 and 89) and the secretary-and-bookcase (catalogue number 28).

This exhibit also raises questions about how one approaches or defines a “region.” As discussed in the essay by Philip Zimmerman published in Perspectives on American Furniture Studies (1988), there are three chronologically successive kinds of regional study – descriptive, comparative or evaluative. The authors of Portsmouth Furniture take a descriptive approach, identifying specific objects as Portsmouth pieces with the zeal of archaeologists uncovering buried treasure. This method, however, does not allow for a deeper analysis of why particular styles were so popular in the area. Taking a more analytical approach would require a less chauvinistic view of the furniture makers of Portsmouth and a greater appreciation of the social and economic factors that drove stylistic choices. This is a worthy challenge for the future of furniture scholarship.


During the eighteenth century Portsmouth became one of the principal centers of Atlantic shipping and the great fortunes realized by mercantile families like the Wentworths, Moffatts, Langdons and Wendells enabled them to construct houses that reflected their refined tastes. The furniture produced in Portsmouth was often locally modified and influenced by London styles but also embraced regional forms and idiosyncratic details. This exhibition and catalogue is the first comprehensive study of the defining characteristics of Portsmouth furniture and places it in the context of New England cabinetmaking in general.

The book begins with three introductory essays. James L. Garvin’s essay, “The Piscataqua Frontier and the Development of Furniture Style,” reminds us that local traditions were not always conservative and demonstrates how Portsmouth craftsmen developed their own expressive interpretive language that could sometimes be as bold as the most sophisticated work of London or Philadelphia.

Brock Jobe’s essay, “Furniture Making in Eighteenth-Century Portsmouth,” describes the working environment of cabinetmakers and the wide variety of tasks expected of them. He demonstrates the extraordinary skill required to produce highly complicated pieces inlaid with exotic veneers and intricate moldings.

Furniture makers were also tasked with producing utilitarian objects, such as chairs and boxes. A survey of surviving boxes (catalogue entries 117-118), which are primarily identified by their shape, shows that these were among the most important furniture types produced in Portsmouth.

The catalogue section consists of interpretive essays and entries for 117 objects. The majority are unequivocally attributed to Portsmouth, with a few examples that can be classified as being from the Portsmouth area (catalogue entries 6-12). A few objects, however, are less securely identified. For example, the blockfront chest of drawers attributed to Portsmouth by Jobe (catalogue entry 7) is similar to Boston precedents and has construction features that deviate from the respected Portsmouth norm. The fact that the piece has a lengthy history of ownership in the Saltar and Wendell families is what ultimately links it to Portsmouth.

Similarly, the fancy painted side chair (catalogue entry 13) bears the brand of Lewis Barnes (1776-1856), a merchant and sea captain who apparently branded his furniture to facilitate its recovery after a fire. The labeling system of this period also included the name of the maker and a description of the type of wood used in the piece.

Strawbery Banke gratefully acknowledges the support of the Wendell Family and Ron Bourgeault for their gift of objects that will allow us to continue stewarding the collection at the Chase House in Portsmouth. The generous donation of the Wendell furniture, along with a major gift of nineteenth and twentieth century objects from the home of the sixth Earl of Carnarvon at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, will allow our exhibition to become an integral part of a national dialogue on furnishings that span multiple centuries of cultural exchange between America and Europe.

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