Magnificent Artifacts of Kentucky’s Golden Age

By STEVE KAUFMAN
Contributing Writer

Elizabeth Turner Howard.

Elizabeth Turner Howard.

The authors of the new book “Collecting Kentucky” had two goals in mind for the project.

And both goals are contained in the book’s title.

Inveterate collectors who met each other through their participation in local collecting groups, Elizabeth Turner Howard and Genevieve Baird Lacer wanted to produce an insider’s look at some of the great existing collections of Kentucky’s historical decorative arts.

So to that end, the book is a detailed view of 50 private collections of Kentucky-produced furniture, art, silver, textiles and assorted items (like stonewear and Kentucky long rifles), complete with 600 photographs by Bill Roughen with very detailed captions, making this a must-have for any collector who understands the value of such materials.

From Roughen’s extremely well lit and detailed images, experts will be able to recognize the craftsmanship, history and origin of each piece – even which county or time period they came from.

But Howard and Lacer also wanted to call attention to the Kentucky of 1790-1860, a Golden Age they feel too many Kentuckians are unaware of.

For too many of us, early Kentucky is characterized by frontiersmen like Daniel Boone, toting their hunting rifles through the woods and bringing their catch back to the primitive open cooking fires of their log cabins. Romantic, maybe, but not entirely accurate.

“Many early Kentuckians were the offspring of Virginia families who came here through land grants,” says Howard who is the former editor of Kentucky Homes & Gardens. “Because the farmland was so fertile, they knew and appreciated quality and aspired to replicate that gracious colonial lifestyle in their new surroundings.”

“I always point out that Kentucky went from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay within 15 years,” says Lacer, who also goes by “Gigi” and is the award-winning author of books about 19th century Kentucky painter Edward Troye. “As people of means began demanding nice things for their homes, an entire community of artisans – furniture-makers, silversmiths, potters and the like – moved here to serve those needs.”

Genevieve Baird Lacer.

Genevieve Baird Lacer.

By 1805 locally produced gilded chairs and inlaid sideboards were being shipped all over the state.

In the right hands, the craftsmanship of pieces using local material – like cherry and poplar wood with flora, fauna and Indian-themed inlays – was not only beautiful, but bigger, bolder and well-built. “It’s one of the reasons so many of those pieces remain,” says  Howard.

The time period of the book is instructive to both collectors and historians. This golden age, which thrived when Kentucky was growing at four times the national average and a center of American commerce and culture, began to dissipate as we got closer to 1860.

“It wasn’t just the effects of the Civil War,” says Howard. “After 1840 the steam engine made shipping the primary mode of transit. Goods were imported from Philadelphia, New York and New Orleans and the focus of the commonwealth shifted from Lexington to Louisville. Local artisans making hand-made, personally commissioned one-of-a-kind items became less predominant.”

“However,” says Lacer. “The war certainly impacted life in Kentucky. We were a divided community unlike any other state and we never entirely recovered from that – politically, culturally, economically or spiritually.”

And that’s another reason there are so many of these pieces of art and furniture remaining. “Families began treasuring them as a reminder of better times,” Lacer says, “a time when Lexington was called ‘the Athens of the West.’ ”

The 360-page book is the first publishing venture of Cherry Valley Publications in Louisville. To order it, find out where to buy it, read more about the authors or see their schedule of speaking engagements and book-signings, go to www.collectingkentucky.com.