New Book Details Nichols House Museum Collection Item

-By Dan Murphy

Boston-based furniture conservator Robert Mussey works on the Nichols House Museum’s pier table. (Courtesy of the Nichols House Museum)

The Nichols House Museum is receiving new recognition, thanks to the recent publication of  “American Furniture,” which devotes an entire chapter to the significance of one piece in its collection.

The book, which was published by the Chipstone Foundation in January and is distributed through the University Press of New England, includes an essay by Robert Mussey and Christopher Shelton of the Boston conservation firm Robert Mussey Associates on the “discovery” of the museum’s pier table.

In 2005, the museum received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and hired Mussey to conduct a survey of its wooden furnishings.

Upon viewing the collection, Mussey was immediately taken with a painted pier table in the Nichols House entryway and described it as a rare piece of American furniture worthy of future study but in need of conservation treatment.

After the findings of the survey were released, the museum received a $60,00 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services and matched it with a with $60,000 raised by the Nichols House board of governors to perform conservation treatment on 25 pieces in the wooden furnishings collection, including the table.

“This extraordinary table is among the finest known examples of Boston Federal painted and gilt furniture, perhaps the finest,” Mussey and Shelton wrote. “At a time when Baltimore and Philadelphia led the new nation in production of such fancy painted work, Boston’s competitors produced principally painted and decorated chairs, clock dials and tablets.”

Adding to the piece’s significance was the discovery of the inscription “Painted in M___ 1809 by J P____iman,” which Mussey and Shelton believe is undoubtedly the signature of Boston’s leading decorative painter, John Ritto Penniman.

“Several features of Penniman’s technique are distinctive and immediately recognizable. The acanthus leaves on the lyre have rounded tips, with the definition and shadowing being developed and picked out with four different shades of brown oil glazes,” Mussey and Shelton wrote. “These range from very pale sienna and transparent to a very dark and opaque brown for the fine-lined details. The different layers of glaze are built up with brush strokes with each layer oriented roughly at right angles to the previous layer.”

Meanwhile, Nichols House Museum Executive Director Flavia Cigliano is quick to point out that the piers table is only one item in the museum’s collection, which offers a glimpse into life on Beacon Hill at the turn of the 20th century.

“The table is a unique piece, but it also represents the fine taste of the Nichols family when they chose furniture for their home,” Cigliano said, “The Nichols family and what they decided to surround themselves with was an indication of the level of connoisseurship among Bostonians of that era.”

To learn more about the Nichols House Museum, visit

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