Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color
Apparently, I like a good whatnot. Last week, the Renwick Gallery let me gaze lovingly at one. The exhibit, “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color,” which opened on April 12, had a beautiful whatnot.
Based in North Carolina, Day and his workmen not only created beautiful furniture, but also custom-designed and installed architectural elements that can still be seen in many southern homes. Day’s work dates from the mid-1800s. Thirty-six of his pieces plus pictures of architectural elements are on display at the Renwick Gallery, a museum located near the White House and dedicated to American craft and decorative arts.
My grandfather was a carpenter for forty years after he retired from the Army. From him, I learned the proper way to hold a hammer. (“Not like a girl. Don’t choke the neck.”) I was made to think very carefully about all the ways I could lose my fingers in the woodshop. (“Watch that bandsaw. It’ll take your whole hand off.”) I helped plane wood, bevel it, sand it, finish it. (“Always with the grain otherwise you’ll scratch it.”) I came to recognize the difference between an old piece of furniture whose only remaining service should be in the wood stove and a forgotten piece of art that could be made beautiful and useful again.
Thomas Day’s furniture is an amazing sight. His pieces curve. Whatnots aside, I especially liked the mahogany sideboard, an imposing piece of furniture with rounded doors and legs and two panes of wavy glass above the flat marble surface. (Sadly, I couldn’t find a picture online, but try to console yourself with this bedframe.)
Obviously, I went to see the furniture, but Thomas Day himself was an interesting man. The Renwick Gallery does a great job of explaining the unusual position Day and his family held in Southern society.
“Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color” closes on July 28. I highly recommended a visit to anyone interested in beautiful old furniture or African-American history.