The Alexandria Association is the city’s oldest organization devoted to the preservation of Alexandria’s historic buildings, landscapes, records, and antiquities; and to education in the decorative, fine, and building arts.
Though no personal papers have been discovered and very few records, Scottish immigrant John Shearer left behind fifty-four pieces of furniture, many of which contain hidden inscriptions and bold inlay incised with chains, anchors, crowned lions rampant and thistles. From about 1790 to 1815, while many American craftsmen were adding eagle inlays to furniture as a symbol of the new American government, Shearer demonstrated his dual loyalty to England and Scotland, and his passion for the Royal Navy and Admiral Horatio Nelson, through his inscriptions and inlay.
Like the caricaturists of the day, Shearer responded to current news events with commentary. But instead of putting pen and ink to paper, Shearer added his inscriptions and inlay in response to a current event. Shearer’s pro-British inlay and inscriptions reflect how a ‘true North Briton,’ an eighteenth century lowland Scot, felt about his place in the world. That Shearer never got into trouble for his attitude like other loyalists in New England and the mid-Atlantic reflects just how culturally British life was in post-Revolutionary Virginia. Despite not knowing much about the man, Shearer’s furniture reveals all we really need to know.
Elizabeth A. (Betsy) Davison is an independent decorative arts scholar. She is a 2004 graduate of the MESDA Summer Institute. After graduating from Parsons The New School for Design, New York City and the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C. program with a M.A. in the History of Decorative Arts and Design (2008), Ms. Davison guest-curated the exhibit ‘A True North Britain:’ The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820 which ran at the Daughters of American Revolution (DAR) Museum in Washington, D.C., October 2010-March 2011 followed by the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, April 2011 - March 2012. The exhibit and its accompanying book, The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820: “A True North Britain” in the Southern Backcountry, were based on her Master’s Thesis. Ms. Davison has lectured widely on Shearer in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Scotland. She recently completed an article for the MESDA journal entitled Scottish Bedroom Tables from Scotland to the American South. While John Shearer remains a tantalizing presence in her life, Ms. Davison now turns her focus to Johannes Spitler, another fascinating craftsman who worked in the early Virginia backcountry.
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"The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820: A ‘true North Britain’ in the Southern Backcountry"