The exquisitely detailed furniture of craftsman John Shearer is showcased in the DAR Museum exhibition “‘A True North Britain’: The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820,” which runs from October 8, 2010, through February 26, 2011. Noted not only for its form but also for the politically charged symbols inlaid in many pieces, the furniture helps to explore early America’s cultural ties to Great Britain during the most contentious period in the two nations’ shared history.
John Shearer worked in northern Virginia and western Maryland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He left behind no paper trail, choosing instead to inscribe his biography and his politics directly on his furniture. While other early craftsmen were inlaying their work with eagles to symbolize a new American government, Shearer glorified Great Britain and its Royal Navy.
Shearer was from Edinburgh, Scotland. Like many from this region, he identified with the Kingdom of Great Britain, formed by the 1707 Treaty of Union which unified Scotland and England. Shearer touts his loyalty by signing two desks on view in this exhibition with the slogan, “A True North Britain.”
On another desk, he cheers Napoleon’s downfall and Britain’s victory in the Peninsular War by depicting a crowned lion rampant (rearing on hind legs, paws raised) from the Scottish and English royal coats of arms along with the inscription “Victory Be Thine.”
Shearer documented the Royal Navy’s exploits almost like a political cartoonist. Although fine furniture was an unusual medium for these messages, 52 of his pieces survive, showing that his pro-British sentiments did not deter demand for the simple but unconventionally embellished furniture. As America formed a national identity, its cultural and political diversity included many who retained a strong sense of loyalty to Great Britain.
Not all Shearer’s messages were meant to be seen, however. Shearer, following the age-old tradition of artist retaliating against problematic patron, hid a note inside one desk accusing his customer, a slave holder and trader, of being “the Greatest Scoundrel in Loudoun County.”
This unique piece is among 20 on display in “A True North Britain.” Independent scholar Elizabeth Davison is the guest curator for this exhibition. Her book, a catalog raisonne of Shearer’s work, will be published this winter. Her expertise informs this exhibition, exploring the work of one eccentric artist to show how a diversity of cultures and loyalty was built into the foundations of our country.