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A Private Collection of Rare, Early Pioneer Furniture & Art Now on View

  • By Micah Christensen

A Private Collection of Rare, Early Pioneer Furniture & Art Now on View

"There is probably no community on this continent, of our numbers, which has as many skilled artisans as are to be found here." 

— George Q. Cannon, Salt Lake City, Oct. 8, 1875.

At first glance, it appears to be a mundane round pine center table. But, close inspection shows remarkable care and unusual colors and carvings. It was made by William Bell within a few years of the Pioneers entering the Salt Lake Valley. In design and execution, it is a rarity, valuable to collectors and, even more, as a manifestation of the unique culture that created it on the edge of civilization.

When the Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, they were traveling light. Most had abandoned homes and travelled with little more than their own clothing. Yet, within a few weeks, Brigham Young, the leader of the Church, announced that the Wasatch Front would be a new, permanent home, prophesying the building of a settlement that would rival world capitols.

The table was made by William Bell who, for fifteen years worked as the exclusive furniture maker to President Young. Together they created the interiors of the Beehive and Lion Houses, which served as the home and official offices for Young as he served as the region’s civic and religious leader.

Mormon furniture is unique in history. It was made by European and Eastern American craftsmen accustomed to working in fine materials that were unavailable in Salt Lake Valley before the arrival of the railroad in 1869. 

For this Pioneer Day, Anthony’s Fine Art (anthonysfineart.com, 401 E. 200 S. SLC) has assembled some of the rarest works of Mormon art and furniture in private hands. Many of the works on display were owned by the family of Brigham Young or made by artists under his supervision. Writing of Young’s pre-Church career, the historian Leonard Arrington said:  “As a master carpenter, Brigham built door fitting and louvered attic windows, and carved ornate mantelpieces for many homes. Many old home in [upstate New York] have chairs, desks, staircases, doorways, and mantelpieces made by Brigham Young.” (Source “Young, Brigham” Brigham Young, Second President of the Church, 1992.)

Young used this experience to oversee and encourage the early pioneers are they built up their homes and civic institutions, saying in one Church meeting: “Let the people build good houses, plant good vineyards and orchards, make good roads, build beautiful cities in which may be found magnificent edifices for the convenience of the public, handsome streets skirted with shade trees, fountains of water, crystal streams, and every tree . . . . To make our mountain home a paradise and our heats wells of gratitude . . .” (Source: Discourses of Brigham Young, 302.)

Unfortunately for many of the experienced furniture makers among the pioneers, the predominant wood available in the Utah Territory was softwood pine. Aesthetically, the pine grain was conspicuous. It was often considered undesirable by the craftsmen, who had been accustomed to working with hard and exotic woods. These materials were unavailable until the advent of the railroad — some 22 years later.

Armed with furniture pattern books, pioneer cabinetmakers established whole new arsenal of skills, using native plants and minerals, to create faux-finishes (i.e. false surfaces). These made large-grained pine appear to be oak, mahogany, burl wood, satinwood, and, even, marble. 

A pine desk passed down from the family of Brigham Young Junior; now on view at Anthony’s Fine Art

 

This Cylinder Roll Bookcase Secretary (c. 1870) is a tour-de-force of such faux-painting techniques. Made entirely of pine, the work appears to be made of oak, walnut, and ebony. The work was passed down from the family of Brigham Young, through his son Brigham Young Junior.

Danquart Anthon Weggeland. (Denmark, 1827-1918) The Wagstaff Family, Sugarhouse (c. 1860); now on view at Anthony’s Fine Art

 

In addition to decorative arts, there was a bourgeoning school of painting from the earliest days of pioneer settlement. Among the rare objects on view at Anthony’s is an major work by the “Father of Utah Art”  Danquart Anthon Weggeland. (Denmark, 1827-1918). Trained at the Royal Academy in Coppenhagen, Weggeland left school to join European converts to the LDS Church as they travelled to the Intermountain West by wagon. He was perhaps the earliest documenters of everyday life and scenery among the early pioneers. This work, “The Wagstaff Family,” was commissioned by one of the families that settled the area now known as Susgarhouse. The work was shown at the first major retrospective of pioneer art: 100 Year of Utah Art, sponsored by the Salt Lake Tribune and held at the Salt Lake Art Center in 1965.

      

Enoch Wood Perry, Jr. (American, 1931-1915) Portraits of Mary Ann Angell Young & Brigham Young (1865); now on view at Anthony’s Fine Art 

 

Weggeland, together with Enoch Wood Perry, Jr. (American, 1831-1915), established the first school of art, the Deseret Academy, a precursor to the University of Utah.) Perry was not Mormon. Trained in Munich and Paris, painted the likenesses Ulysses S. Grant and Jefferson Davis. Perry travelled through Salt Lake City in the 1860s on his way to New York, after spending some time with Mark Twain in San Francisco.

“Young was hesitant to welcome the outsider. But, over 18 months, Perry painted some 21 portraits of the Prophet, his wife Mary Ann Angell Young, and several Church leaders. They were the first professional works commissioned by the Church,” says Dr. Micah Christensen, art historian and partner at Anthony’s Fine Art.

In all, there are more than two dozen paintings and works of decorative art, made by Pioneer painters and sculptors, currently on view at Anthony’s, many for the first time.

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