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Treasures of the Monadnock Region

Remembering our artisans through works left behind

The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript presents the third in a series of articles highlighting the region’s small historical societies and their collections. Through November the focus will be on Monadnock Treasures, presently on view at the Peterborough Historical Society highlighting prized objects from the collections of 16 area societies.

Monadnock Treasures, on view until Thanksgiving at The Monadnock Center for History and Culture at the Peterborough Historical Society, takes an eclectic look at the history of our communities through the objects they treasure. The exhibit, highlighting prized artifacts from 16 area historical societies, libraries, and archives, will be on display through Nov. 23, Weds.-Sat. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. General admission is $3; no charge for members of participating institutions or children under 12 free. For further information visit MonadnockCenter.org.

Prominent in the exhibit is a matching pair of Country Chippendale chairs, loaned by the Nelson Town Archives.

Chippendale furniture takes its name from the famous cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale (1718 - 1779). The first style of furniture in England named for the maker rather than a monarch, it became the most famous name in the history of English furniture at a time when such craftsmanship was at its zenith. Country Chippendale pieces were skilled adaptations, particularly of the renowned ribbon-back chairs like the Nelson pair, by artisans unable to replicate Chippendale’s intricate carving. The woods used were usually indigenous rather than the imported mahogany employed in more sophisticated furniture.

In 1795, Josiah Melville commissioned a set of eight Country Chippendale chairs with rush seats from cabinetmaker Solomon Wardwell. For the next 130 years members of the Melville family enjoyed the dining-room set. In 1925, when family head Henry Melville was more often in New York than in Nelson, the neighborhood was roused one evening by the glaring light of a fire. Neighbors looked on in horror as the historic mansion burned to the ground. Seward Verrill, a Winchendon antiques dealer, had stripped the house of its furnishings and set the conflagration to conceal the crime.

Luckily, many of the stolen items were recovered, including the two chairs on exhibit. Henry Melville built an exact replica of the homestead¸continuing the family’s presence in its beloved village.

‘Colby Mourning Picture’

One of the most intriguing articles in the exhibit, loaned by the Bennington Historical Society, is the “Colby Mourning Picture,” hand stitched in 1829 by Roxan Colby in memory of her father, John. The young woman’s elaborately embroidered memento is a typical specimen of the Victorians’ obsession with death and their accompanying craze for mourning paraphernalia. Bereaved parents, their grown children, or widows and widowers used tresses of the dear departed’s hair to create brooches, bracelets, and other jewelry, or had pieces designed to hold locks of hair; equally popular were talismans like Roxan’s embroidered tribute. Many grieving families commissioned postmortem portraits of the deceased, often posed in lifelike domestic situations – surrounded by kinfolk, eyes propped open, children gripping favorite toys.

In 1782 Roxan’s father John, a Revolutionary War veteran, bought 200 acres of the “wild land” that comprised Society Land, part of a much-contested land grant dating from the 1600s that encompassed present-day Antrim, Hancock, Greenfield, Deering, Francestown, and Bennington. There he built a house where he and Eunice, his wife, could raise a large family. The couple spent that first summer living without floors, windows, or a chimney, cooking on a large flat rock nearby. A contemporary described the dauntless Yankee as “unyielding in all the hardships of pioneer life”; a characteristic that Eunice surely shared.

A series of informal presentations exploring the stories behind treasures in the exhibit will be held on Oct. 11 and Nov. 7 at 1 p.m. Participants are encouraged to ask questions and share their knowledge. The gallery talks are free with museum admission.

Anne D. Lunt represents the Temple Historical Society.

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