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If it could be known, the notion held by most Americans about the England of the colonial period would probably be found to consist of a hodgepodge of courtiers, younger sons, and comely maids, all variously at the mercy of a rich nobleman living amid gilded furniture and leather bindings in an ancestral mansion set in a picturesque landscape. What is the Englishman's mental image of the American colonies and early American colonial furniture ? Possibly the following: flinty Puritan patriarchs, tradesmen who mingle piety and profit, and hardy frontiersmen - all so busy wrestling with their souls, business affairs, the Indians or the howling wilderness that they have little energy left over for making a civilisation. Both conceptions contain an element of truth and both reflect the stress that historians have placed upon the differences rather than the similarities between the Old World and the New World.
Conceptions affect our perceptions, which is why the reader is gently cautioned, as he views the illustrations, to avoid committing what an historian of American painting has called the 'frontier fallacy'. early American colonial furniture of the period with which we are here concerned, which opens with the Restoration of Charles II and closes shortly before the founding, in 1732, of the colony of Georgia, does not derive its appearance from the deprivations of life on an American frontier. To be sure, there are lapses in the quality of execution, but similar expressions of provinciality can be found in the furniture of the same period throughout Great Britain.
Our view of early American colonial furniture - indeed, of colonial society itself-depends to a large extent upon what we see in English furniture and society of the same period. Our knowledge of English homes of the period is largely based on the work of such outstanding artist-designers as William Kent, whose wealthy patrons, Lord Burlington among them, moved in a cultured and sophisticated world where they were able to commission extravagant buildings incorporating furniture and decoration in the latest fashion. The modest home of a Virginia planter is clearly not comparable with the splendors of Burlington House, but, nevertheless, early American colonial furniture and furnishings have undoubtedly suffered by such comparisons being made. Recently published studies of English architecture in which both great and small houses are discussed should help to place American architecture of the colonial period in sharper perspective. Similar studies on furniture are needed before a fair comparison can be made and the American contribution properly assessed.
This writer is inclined to view colonial furniture within a broad Euro-American context that includes some of the following propositions: