Saint John, New Brunswick
Isaac Does It Again
by Peter Smit All prices in Canadian funds
During their annual Easter sale on April 13, Tim and Liz Isaac sold a small drop-leaf swing-leg dining table as a Thomas Nisbet table.
The table had many of the features that are often associated with the work of Nisbet; however, it had no label, no family record, or any other papers tying it to the workshop of this Saint John cabinetmaker.
No other auctioneers in Saint John, or in New Brunswick, or possibly even in Canada, are better at marketing the furniture of early Saint John than the Isaacs. Their hard work and skill resulted in a large spendthrift crowd of more than 400, five busy phone lines, and more than 100 absentee bids. Bids came in from all over Canada.
The eyes of some of Atlantic Canada's most prominent dealers and museum curators got as big as saucers, and nobody spoke a word in disbelief when this small table sold for a whopping $17,000 (no buyer's premium charged) to someone on the phone. No wonder; $1500 to $2500 was about the highest estimate for this table we heard before the sale. The Isaacs had estimated at least a $7000 sale price.
1998 by Maine Antique Digest
Antique Furniture by New Brunswick Craftsmen
Huia G. Ryder
Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1973.
While in the province of Quebec woodcarving was almost entirely a religious art, in New Brunswick it was entirely a secular art, and many men who worked for the shipbuilder also worked for the cabinetmaker. Saint John was the home of some of North America's finest woodcarvers. For almost fifty years most Saint John cabinetmakers finished their work with some form of carving.
Thomas Nisbet was among the first of the new group of cabinetmakers and he fulfils the dream of every research writer. In his wake he leaves a fine, clear record of his early life, his work and his death, a beautiful portrait of himself and, as if that were not enough, he pasted a lovely label on his work and left behind a large quantity of it.
Thomas Nisbet was born in Dunse, Scotland, in the early 1780's. He was apprenticed to his father, a cabinetmaker. In March, 1803, he married Margaret Graham, also of Dunse. In 1813 he arrived in Saint John and took out his Freeman papers as a "wright." In 1814 he took out another set of papers as a cabinetmaker. Thomas Nisbet might well be called the "Duncan Phyfe" of New Brunswick. The quality of his work, produced between the years 1814 and 1848, is equal to that of any made on the continent during that period. Nisbet followed closely the contemporary styles of his time. His early work was strongly influenced by the "Regency." Splendid examples of his sideboards and card tables with spiral-twisted legs and posts - a style that became so popular about the year 1815 - are still to be found in numerous homes, not only in New Brunswick but also in the United States. A pair of fine card tables was found recently in the former home of Admiral Owens (himself an historical figure in early New Brunswick life) on Campobello Island. Both tables bore his label. One went to the New Brunswick Museum and the other into a private collection.
When the Greek influence on decoration became strong, partly due to the installation of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum in 1816, Nisbet followed other cabinetmakers in the use of such details as the acanthus leaf and the anthemion, which he applied to many superb examples of his work. Thomas Nisbet worked mostly with mahogany, although many small pieces of furniture, such as sewing and bedside tables made from bird's-eye maple and often with a mahogany trim, do exist. He used birch for drawer linings and interiors, but we have found no labelled pieces of birch furniture. In 1815 he advertised the arrival of mahogany from the West Indies, and the manufacture of "Sophas." In 1835 he was advertising "all kinds of turning and carving done on the shortest notice" and "for a Turner for constant employment - one acquainted with woodcarving would be preferred."
Thomas Nisbet made a great success in his business of cabinetmaking. In 1835 he took into partnership his oldest son, Thomas. In 1836 he himself became President of the Mechanic's Whale Fishing Co., founded by himself and four other leading merchants. They owned at least five whaling ships. In 1837 he was also President of the Saint John Hotel Co. Thomas Jr. died in 1841, and a second son, Robert, took his place in the family firm.
When in 1848 Thomas Nisbet decided to rent his house on Wright Street, he advertised it as "eight rooms in first and second floors and two in garret, a large kitchen and a frost-proof cellar. Lot 120 x 140 ft. with a large barn in the rear." In 1848 Nisbet also assigned his complete cabinetmaking business, with all his stock in trade, to his son Robert. Thomas Nisbet died in 1851.
Robert Nisbet carried on his father's business until 1856. It had steadily declined until by 1855 the work consisted chiefly of undertaking and repairs.
Sewing Table. Bird's-eye Maple and Mahogany. Made by Thomas Nisbet. c. 1820. HENRY FRANCIS DU PONT WINTERTHUR MUSEUM, WINTERTHUR, DELAWARE.
With the kind permission of the Henry Francis DuPont Winterhur Museum in Delaware, we are reproducing a photograph of a sewing table in their possession. The dainty little combination sewing and writing table bears a Thomas Nisbet label in the centre drawer. Until a member of the New Brunswick Museum staff, while visiting the Delaware Museum a few years ago, noticed the maker's name, it had been assumed that the name "New Brunswick" referred to New Brunswick, New Jersey. The table is made with birch sides, and the front is veneered with bird's-eye maple. The legs are birds-eye, and all other parts are made from pine. The drawer pulls are of brass. The lower drawer is a false one and slides out to reveal the green silk work basket. We find a plate of this table, unopened and unidentified, as illustration No. 1182, in Furniture Treasury by Wallace Nutting (Macmillan Co., 1954). The lower right drawer pull and the dark markings in the wood are proof that it is the same table.
On such finely made examples of cabinetmaking we base our claim to Thomas Nisbet's superior ability as a cabinetmaker.