Let’s face it: Annapolitans really like old stuff. And by old stuff, I mean antiques, which happen to be everywhere in historic Annapolis.
If you’re a fan of American antiques, then make your way to the Hammond-Harwood House to see the collection of fine furniture made by John Shaw, Maryland’s most famous cabinetmaker. John Shaw created his furniture more than two hundred years ago, and today you can see 21 of Mr. Shaw’s beautiful pieces on display at the Hammond-Harwood House on Maryland Avenue.
The Hammond-Harwood House Museum
The Hammond-Harwood House is a perfectly preserved colonial mansion and museum open to the public. Designed by renowned architect William Buckland for the American Revolutionary figure Matthias Hammond, the elegant 1774 brick building is now home to an incredible collection of paintings, furniture, and utilitarian objects of early life in Annapolis.
Who was John Shaw?
John Shaw (1745–1829) was an Annapolis cabinetmaker working in the Federal period. In addition to handcrafting furniture for elegant Annapolis homes, Mr. Shaw made most of the furniture used in the early days of the Maryland State House for the Senate and House of Delegates. Some of his work is still on display in the State House Archives Room and Old Senate Chamber.
The cabinetmaker was the unofficial State House caretaker from around 1770 to 1820. He supplied furniture, made repairs, maintained the building and grounds, and illuminated the building for special occasions.
Having arrived in Annapolis from Scotland around 1763, John Shaw soon owned the largest cabinetmaking shop in Annapolis with his business partner and fellow Scott, Archibald Chisholm. In 1776, Shaw opened his own shop and became very successful at fulfilling public and private furniture commissions. He employed many apprentices, including future independent cabinetmakers William and Washington Tuck.
The prodigious work produced by Shaw’s shop is evidenced by the many pieces remaining extant today. Nearly fifty examples bearing his printed paper label are known today, and at least as many more pieces exist that are otherwise attributed to his firm. The survival of so many items associated with a colonial artisan is unusual.
As a prominent supporter of the Revolutionary War, Shaw provided the patriots with many handcrafted items from gun barrels to coffins. A zealous patriot, Shaw was appointed State Armorer, 1777-1819, stocking arms and ammunition and maintaining the armory building. He also served during the Revolutionary War in the Severn Battalion under General William Smallwood. Shaw played many other roles, serving as the official Annapolis fire engine keeper, City Councilman, State legislator, juror, undertaker, retailer, and member of the Saint Anne’s Church vestry.
Shaw’s home still stands at 21 State Circle, a convenient location for the State House caretaker and furniture supplier. Purchased by Shaw from the butcher Cornelius Brooksby, Shaw’s house was later home to the Elks Lodge and is today occupied today by Maryland State government offices.
Furniture as Art
The exquisite desk with bookcase pictured below was made circa 1797 in the workshop of John Shaw and is now in the study at the Hammond-Harwood House. It combines the wood inlay popular in the Federal era with the Chinese influence of the Chippendale style seen in the door fretwork. This piece is just what a wealthy 18th century gentleman needed for his books, letters, and business papers.
Historians say that there are only four other such John Shaw desks with bookcases still in existence, two in museums and two in private hands. Annapolis is very fortunate to have this and other distinctive Shaw pieces available for viewing. This particular desk with bookcase even bears the original Shaw label still attached.
Other beautiful Shaw pieces at the Hammond-Harwood House include the tall case clock made circa 1797 and the dining room sideboard.
The Hammond-Harwood House is open to the public for tours and hosts many events for families and history buffs. Activities include a ninety-minute tour exploring the craftsmanship of John Shaw. Visit the HHH website for an events calendar and a listing of John Shaw furniture pieces on display.
Photos courtesy of Ann Powell