The Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 5, 1998

Jan. 5, 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 16


Tiny Treasures To Fill Homewood House Museum

Collecting: To furniture fans and history buffs, little things mean a lot

Aaron Levin
Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Larger and smaller are equal departures from the familiar.

For new insights into scale this winter, you can look for the very large among the latest downloads from the Hubble Space Telescope. But the new exhibit at the Homewood House Museum offers a chance to look closely at the very small.

Though he never sold his miniatures, Baltimore's Enrico Liberti, seen here in a 1940s photograph, was considered a master of the medium. Every part of this 17-inch tiger maple secretary-bookcase works, including the minuscule prospect drawers. For 20 years, Liberti's shop sat across from the Peabody Institute.

"Small, Smaller, Smallest: Adults' Delights, Children's Enchantments" brings together about 100 pieces of miniature furniture, ranging in scale from things real children can sit on to furnishings for the tiniest doll house. There's also a middle range--scaled for dolls, too small for even a child to use, but still not small enough to fit in a doll house--which is the third category represented.

A specialized exhibit like this "offers something fun to do on campus during the winter," says Homewood House Museum director Lili Ott. It opens Jan. 10 and continues until March 29.

Some of the pieces to be displayed are similar to those the Carroll children would have played with when they lived in this house in the 19th century, Ott says. While the bulk of the exhibit will be displayed in cases in the front and back halls of the mansion, little vignettes will be shown in each of the period rooms.

"Small" in the exhibition's parlance "means chairs, desks or other objects made to a smaller scale for children to use," says guest curator Jennifer Goldsborough. "They may imitate the styles of adult furniture, but they are made to a more compact scale."

A specialist in American fine and decorative arts, Goldsborough has worked as a museum curator for 30 years. She is currently associate faculty in Smithsonian-Parson's American Decorative Arts master's program; core-curriculum instructor in Sotheby's graduate American Works of Art program; and adjunct professor of art history at Chesapeake College.

Many of these little chairs and tables, she says, were made as toys. But in the 18th century, cabinet makers displayed scale-model furniture in their shop windows as samples to draw the attention of passersby.

"These were working shops," says Goldsborough. "They had little extra space for display, so the miniature served as a kind of catalog for potential customers. Those pieces I found which had been made for this purpose were exquisitely made and are extremely rare."

Cabinetmakers put as much care into their miniatures as they did into full-sized furniture. They used intricate dovetailing to make joints. Tiny desks and tables had tinier working hinges.

These same craftsmen also made working models for the patent office in an age when miniature prototypes were required for patent filings. By the end of the 19th century, this advertising role and, with it, much miniature furniture, was lost. Printed catalogs served the same purpose, and retail shops with plate glass windows replaced the cramped front room of the cabinetmaker. "Small, Smaller, Smallest" includes tiny furniture crafted by Enrico Liberti, whose cabinetry shop stood for 20 years in a building called the Chimney Corner, across Centre Street from the Peabody Institute. Liberti had apprenticed in his native Italy before coming to the U.S. in 1894. After establishing his own shop in the 1930s, he made finely detailed models for display in his shop window.

"He was a throwback to the 18th century in his approach to craftsmanship and his way of doing business," says Goldsborough. "Liberti never sold any of his models, and his daughters still own many of them. He must have simply enjoyed the challenge and a personal sense of accomplishment from making the pieces."

With the exhibit at Homewood, Goldsborough sought not only to show the range of sizes and the special skills of the craftsmen but also to focus on private collections to give a wider audience a look at objects rarely seen by the public. Most of the pieces have some Maryland connection: They were either manufactured or sold here, and most of the collectors are from the Baltimore or Annapolis areas.

"People are always making and collecting miniature furniture, but there are waves," says Goldsborough. "The last upsurge of interest was in the late 1970s and 1980s, possibly connected to the country's bicentennial, with its evocation of history and a return to tradition."

Pieces of miniature furniture are hard to date because the styles often are historical and don't match those of the periods in which they were made. The age of a piece, Goldsborough says, has relatively little importance. It is the skill of its maker that sets its value and captures our imagination.

To Learn A "Little" More

"Small, Smaller, Smallest: Adults' Delights, Children's Enchantments" will be on view from Jan. 10 to March 29 at the Homewood House Museum on the Homewood campus. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $3 for students and free to Hopkins faculty, staff and students.

From 1 to 3 p.m. on three Sundays, Feb. 1, Feb. 22 and March 1, the museum will present family programs called "Toys, Tools and Tea," in which children and adults can make a simple piece of miniature furniture, see craftsmen using traditional hand tools and have tea. Reservations required; $6 per person.

During intersession, the university will offer a three-session course exploring the construction and function of the miniatures. In addition to viewing the collection with guest curator Jennifer Goldsborough, participants will examine the techniques, tools and materials used and will meet with the curator of decorative arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art to view the museum's miniature rooms. Sessions will meet at Homewood House from noon to 1 p.m. on Jan. 15, Jan. 20 and Jan. 22. Reservations required; $30.

A symposium on Friday, Feb. 20, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., offers four speakers: Susan Rountree, author of a book on miniatures in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center; Flora Gill Jacobs, director of the Washington Doll House & Toy Museum; Catherine Rogers Arthur, curator of the Homewood House Museum, on Enrico Liberti's work; and Will Tillman, who worked with Liberti. Reservations required; $55 for members, $60 for non-members, lunch included.

On Wednesday, Feb. 25, Goldsborough will talk as part of the Wednesday Noon Lecture Series in the Clipper Room of Shriver Hall. Free.

On Saturday, March 7, a miniatures fair brings vendors to the Garrett Room of the MSE Library, where they will sell handcrafted miniatures and children's furniture and offer appraisals. Included in that day's museum admission.

For intersession reservations, call 410-516-8209; all others, 410-516-5589.