FAIR WEATHER FRIENDS

Fair Weather Friends:

Our Highlights from the American Folk Art Museum’s Weathervane Exhibition

Weathervanes are in the air—figuratively and literally. The current exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, “American Weathervanes: The Art of the Winds” is curated by our friends Bob Shaw and Emelie Gevalt and the accompanying book features more than 30 weathervanes previously sold by David Schorsch and Eileen Smiles American Antiques. We are immensely proud to have contributed to this important exhibition, the first in more than four decades to highlight the “beauty, historical significance, and technical virtuosity of American vanes fashioned between the late seventeenth and early twentieth centuries,” and we encourage you all to see it in person and/or purchase the accompanying book authored by Bob Shaw. On Sunday, October 24, the AFAM virtually hosted the inaugural Elizabeth and Irwin Warren Folk Art Symposium, Points of Interest: New Approaches to American Weathervanes, which brought together a range of scholars on the subject. Our friends at Olde Hope, Pat Bell and Ed Hide, are presenting an exhibition at their New York Gallery, “100 Years of American Weathervanes.” Finally, our own David Schorsch recently participated in a Magazine Antiques YouTube video on the weathervanes, which you can watch here.

Highlighted below are important examples of weathervanes that feature prominently in the American Folk Art Museum exhibition and were sold by us.

Fig. 1. Ezra Ames and Bela Dexter, Heart and Hand Weathervane, Chelsea, Massachusetts, 1839. Carved white pine with original paint; 21 x 39 inches. Private collection.

This image of an extraordinarily special heart and hand weathervane (Fig. 1) has been used in much of the promotional materials for the exhibition—and with good reason. It is one of a few examples in the exhibition to have been carved from wood (white pine), despite it being a fairly typical choice for early makers working at the individual level. The design and execution is both realistic and stylized, resulting in a profound and unique beauty. It originally stood atop the Taft Hotel on the Dedham Turnpike in Massachusetts and was made by two Boston craftsmen, Ezra Ames, a housewright on Hanover Street, and Bela Dexter, a stonecutter on Ann Street. When we acquired this vane in 2003, we discovered a time capsule letter hidden in a secret compartment within the heart, which in part read:

To the finder,

Chelsea, June 5, 1839,

This heart and hand was made by Ezra Ames and painted by Bela Dexter, it is destined to be a weathervane for Read Taft of Roxbury.

In the second quarter of the twentieth century, weathervanes came to be appreciated and collected by early connoisseurs of American folk art, many of whom were practitioners or professionals in the Modern Art movement. This heart and hand weathervane was recently shared on Instagram by the wildly popular artist KAWS, demonstrating how American folk art, and weathervanes specifically, continue to inspire and influence present day artists and art markets.

Fig. 2. Warren Dragon Weathervane, Warren, Pennsylvania, circa 1891. Molded copper with glass eyes, overall height 82 inches; dragon 57 x 40 x 6 inches. Collection of Jane and Gerald Katcher.
Fig. 3. Postcard image of the Warren Dragon on its original site at
315 Second Avenue, Warren, Pennsylvania; the building is a Victorian
replica of the Flatiron Building in New York City.

Dating back to antiquity, the dragon has been a powerful and awe-inspiring creature symbolizing supernatural power, both good and evil. Like the other examples in this blog, we are proud to have sold this supernaturally rare and important Dragon weathervane to a private collector (Fig. 2). It was commissioned circa 1891 for the Warren Savings Bank in Warren, Pennsylvania (Fig. 3). Nearly 7-feet tall with eyes made from red glass, its taloned arms scale the pole as if guarding the riches of the bank below. It has become a symbol of a town, the high school football team is still known as the Warren Dragons [1].

Fig. 4. J. Howard & Co., Small Rooster, West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, circa 1856-67. Painted and gilded copper, cast zinc, 13 x 12 ½ x 3 inches. Collection of Jane and Gerald Katcher.

Fig. 5. J. Howard & Co., Wholesale price list of vanes, Bridgewater,
Massachusetts, circa 1856. Collection of Stewart Stender and
Deborah Davenport.

This small rooster vane by J. Howard & Company of West Bridgewater, Massachusetts is one of our favorite weathervanes in the exhibition (Fig. 4). J. Howard & Co. offered a number of their models in two different sizes, large and small, and our rooster is of the far-less common small size. We also discovered and owned the firm’s wholesale price list, the only surviving copy of this document known (Fig. 5).

Operated by Jonathan Howard (1806-1889), his younger brother Charles Howard III (1817-1907), and Jonathan’s son John Williams Howard (1836-1865), the firm was an early manufacturer of commercial weathervanes, active between 1850 to 1867. Howard weathervanes are considered to be some of the most beautiful and are highly sought after; we have sold several great examples in our forty years in business.

Howard’s horses, roosters, and peacocks can be recognized by their sheet copper tails in a distinctive relief pattern. While the rooster’s tail, legs, and feet are cut from sheet copper, the body is of cast zinc. The firm used zinc, a heavier metal, to create a sense of balance—however, it may have hurt them commercially: the metal does not hold gold leaf long, allowing for unhappy customers [2]. In this rooster weathervane, the original surface has weathered to show red and yellow sizing, gilt, and verdigris.

Fig. 6.  J. Howard and Company, Dressage Horse and Rider Weathervane, West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, circa 1856–1867. Cast zinc and molded copper with sheet copper mane, tail, and reins; 29 x 29 x 3 inches. Collection of Barbara and John Wilkerson.

Although the original patinated surface of this Howard dressage horse and rider weathervane has worn away to reveal a cast zinc front in combination with a molded copper back, it’s exceptional form and rarity make it one of our most memorable weathervanes (Fig. 6). Unlike the rooster, it bears the J. Howard & Co. stamp.

Fig. 7. William F. Tuckerman, Steeplechase Horse, Boston, Massachusetts, circa 1850. Painted sheet copper, 36 x 26 inches. Collection of Nell and Ed Shapiro.

Only a few weathervanes are known to bear the stamped signature “William F. Tuckerman, Boston”, including this leaping horse example that we sold in the early 1990s (Fig. 7). William F. Tuckerman (1816-1871) of Boston was a successful businessman and described as a “master copper smithy” in the 1860 federal census [3]. Tuckerman’s vanes are likely to be some of the first commercially produced examples, dating as early as 1840 [4]. They share precise similarities with weathervanes made by Alvin Jewell of A.L. Jewell & Company of Waltham, Massachusetts, suggesting a relationship between the two makers [5]. However, while weathervanes made by Jewell have molded eyes, Tuckerman’s vanes have distinctive drilled eyes.

Fig. 8. Henry Leach (1809-1885), Pattern for Weathervane, Boston, Massachusetts, circa 1869-1870. Carved wood, 16 ¼ x 16 ¾ x 17 ½ inches. Private collection.

Fig. 9. Cushing & White, Squirrel Eating Nut Weathervane,
Waltham, Massachusetts, circa 1870. Molded copper,
height 18 inches on 24 inch long. Private Collection.

When Alvin Jewell and his business partner died in a tragic accident in 1867, the business was sold to Leonard W. Cushing (1830-1907) and Stillman White (1838-1880). Although Cushing & White advertised themselves as successors to A.L. Jewell & Co. and continued to manufacture many of the Jewell designs, the firm also developed new weathervanes based on models made by Boston woodcarver Harry Leach (1809-1885). These wooden models allowed Cushing & White to cast iron molds which in turn produced multiple copies of the same form. Additionally, Leach’s highly realistic carvings added a level of sophistication to the firm’s vanes that competitors wear unable to match. On more than one occasion, we have exercised a combination of good fortune and ability to sell not only some of the finest examples of Cushing & White weathervanes but also pair them with their accompanying unique carved patterns (Fig. 8, Fig. 9, and Fig. 10).

Fig. 10. Cushing & White, Molded Copper Fox Weathervane together with Carved Wooden Pattern by Henry Leach, Boston, Massachusetts, circa 1870. Private collection.

Evidenced by the heart and hand weathervane featured first in this grouping, antique weathervanes are not just indicators of weather but also of time. These weathervanes and others not only represent an innovative and imaginative American folk art tradition, but also signal the forward direction of our experiences in business across a lifetime…we’ve had good weather.

Among the thousands of antique weathervanes that survive, we are attracted to only a very small percentage that combine superior form and surfaces that “speak to us.” We are always in the market for weathervanes of the highest quality and we invite you to inquire with us about growing your collection.

By Laura Cunningham, Research Associate, and David Schorsch

[1] Robert Shaw, American Weathervanes: The Art of the Winds (New York, NY: Rizzoli Electra, 2021), 210.

[2] Ibid, 125.

[3] Ibid, 111.

[4] Ibid, 111.

[5] Ibid, 111.