Can a Shorthand New Testament and Cincinnati Art-Carved Furniture Possibly Be Related?

When I wrote yesterday about my visit to Ohio State University’s Thompson Library Gallery to see the King James Bible exhibit, I mentioned that The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in Phonetic Shorthand had particularly “openeth the window to let in the light” for me. Here’s why.

According to the caption for this book that was printed in Cincinnati around 1850, Sir Isaac Pitman introduced his phonetic system of shorthand in an 1837 pamphlet that included sample shorthand versions of biblical texts of the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 100. Fuller phonetic shorthand versions of the Bible became popular during the 1840s, thanks to the efforts of Isaac’s brothers, Jacob and Benjamin. Jacob introduced the system to Australia, while Benjamin spread the word in Cincinnati.

When I read this, I wondered. Could this Benjamin Pitman be the same British expatriate who had settled in Cincinnati and became a prolific creator of the art-carved furniture that was such a significant part of the Aesthetic movement?

During a visit to the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Cincinnati Wing around 2004, I discovered Benn Pitman’s work and was immediately taken with this talented artist and craftsman. In the 1870s, Pitman began teaching classes to well-to-do women at the McMicken School of Design, which later became the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Pitman achieved recognition not only for his woodcarving through a display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, but also for the lectures he gave and the articles he published on the subject.

I couldn’t stop admiring the three-tiered table, hanging cabinet, frame, secretary-bookcase, chest of drawers, dining table and daybed, all Pitman creations that were included in the exhibit. My favorite was the magnificent bedstead that Pitman designed for his marriage to Adelaide Nourse in 1882. Considered today as one of the masterpieces of the American Aesthetic movement, the bedstead was carved by Adelaide and was displayed at the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition of 1883. The central arch of the Gothic-inspired headboard features swallows flying over hydrangea blossoms and the wish of “Good night, good rest.” The panels on either side were painted by Adelaide’s twin sister, Elizabeth Nourse, and represent Morning and Evening. Carved lilies, geraniums and palms decorate the footboard. Pitman and the Norse sisters also collaborated on a dresser that is considered to have been made as a complement to the bedstead. Carved sunflowers, passionflowers, ivy and berries team with painted panels of summer daisies and winter birds, making it equally spectacular.

That day, I left the museum with plenty of postcards of Pitman’s works, a heart-shaped pin inspired by his woodcarving, and a copy of Cincinnati Art-Carved Furniture and Interiors, a book edited by Jennifer L. Howe and published by Ohio University Press in 2003.

Not long after, I had an opportunity to learn more about Pitman during a tour of Chatfield College in Brown County, Ohio that was arranged by the Ohio River Valley chapter of the Victorian Society in America. This Catholic liberal arts college began as a log-cabin school on the grounds of an Ursuline convent that was founded in St. Martin, Ohio in 1845. In the late 1870s, Pitman taught artistic woodcarving to several nuns at the convent and school. You can still see the sisters’ work in some of the buildings and the Ursuline museum on the campus. These include a prie-Dieu (praying desk) and kneeler, chancels and doorways of chapels. Hand-carved flowers, vines, palms and leaves abound on these pieces, with the passionflower as the chief motif of the carvings. Some pieces were even exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

So when I got home on Sunday, I pulled out my Cincinnati Art-Carved Furniture and Interiors and confirmed that Benn and Isaac were brothers. If you’d like to learn more about the Pitman brothers, see Cecelia Scearce Chewning’s chapter, “Benn Pitman and the Americanization of the Decorative Arts.”  Better yet, see his work at the Cincinnati Art Museum, or try to see his special students’ creations at Chatfield College.

This entry was posted in Art, Books, History, Libraries, Museums, Ohio, Special Collections. Bookmark the permalink.

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