Antiques and Collecting: Repro Crafts Recreate the American Dream; Newcomers to America at the Turn of the Century Looked to One Designer to Create Homes with a Sense of History and Place

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Byline: Richard Edmonds

For many years it was Vincent Price, star of so many horror movies, who came to visit the London antiques dealers looking for good furniture to take back to America.

Price led a double life as an actor and official furniture buyer for the American government and he replaced pieces (or filled the gaps) in the American national collections in the north or south, using his expertise to enhance beautiful rooms in houses as far apart as Charleston and New York State.

It is very likely that Vincent Price knew of Wallace Nutting, the American preacher, author, photographer and recognised authority on early American furniture which he reproduced for the American market. Nutting was a man who played a highly significant part in America's discovery of its colonial past in terms of interior and furniture design.

Nutting, who sounds as though he was my kind of dealer, reproduced and marketed through tempting illustrated catalogues which showed colonial artefacts and furniture. These things flattered his middle-class customers setting their interiors within a make believe, idealised world which supported notions of domestic calm in what Nutting called the 'Old America', style.

This was the fantasy region everybody would have liked to retire into - particularly during the 1930s when the Depression was at its height and people ate from soup kitchens since they were penniless.

Millions of Americans saw their life savings and share values go up in smoke. If you were an Okie (Oklahoman) share-cropper, hijacked off your land and forced to endure slave labour in the American fruit orchards, Nutting and his visions of a better life would have meant little to you.

But if you were able to achieve financial stability and had a home that had survived the financial holocaust you would have enjoyed the elegant lines of the 18th century furniture Nutting provided. Add to this his photographs of a vanished America, elegantly tinted in pink and white (pretty women in large hats in cherry orchards or cart horses pulling hay wagons into the sunset) then you could participate in Nutting's ready-made dream world.

Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America by Thomas Andrew Dernberg (Yale: pounds 27.50) which was published this week is a marvellous examination of a genius who, almost single-handedly reproduced for a nation a faithful copy of its own past. You wanted the kind of chairs used by the early settlers? Nutting provided them for you with no trouble and a desk to go with them. As a Christian and therefore given to proselytising, Nutting could trumpet family sentiment within a Christian structure in order to help his sale figures, something about which he seemed particularly unashamed.

Add to all this Nutting's skills as a museum advisor, lecturer, collectorA high chest of drawers reproducing an American 18th century colonial designand writer, and it is easy to see why this extraordinary man became a respected authority on the early reproduction of American life. And, I imagine, furniture from the Nutting workshops has now taken on a life of its own among American antiques dealers, although I missed it at certain American antiques fairs I have visited recently - perhaps the labels were not big enough.

Nutting's photographs of 'Old America', began to appear in photographic magazines around 1902. He was always popular because he tended to soothe the nerves of those who looked at his images since he evoked an idyllic America when the corn 'was as high as an elephant's eye'. …