George Crowninshield Jr., the son of one of Salem’s wealthiest shipping merchants, was something of a showboat. With his father’s fortunes he not only commissioned America’s first private yacht, Cleopatra’s Barge, but he hired the finest craftsmen to make the furnishings.
One table in particular, ordered during this historic spending spree, is a personal favorite of Dean Lahikainen, The Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Art.
“In seeking important works for the collection,” he says, “this is as good as it gets.”
Lahikainen calls the table one of the most important pieces of furniture in the PEM collection. Scholar Robert D. Mussey Jr. once wrote that “even adjectives such as superlative, exuberant and rich do not do full justice to this spectacular card table.”
But the appeal, for Lahikainen, is about more than beauty. The table showcases the superior skills of Boston’s leading furniture craftsmen at the time and also holds great cultural importance because of who commissioned it. There is also a good story behind how the table returned to Salem in 1998 and was reunited with some of the yacht’s other original furnishings, which are on view in PEM’s re-creation of Cleopatra’s Barge main salon in the first-floor American art gallery.
Built in Salem in 1816, Cleopatra’s Barge created a sensation on its maiden voyage to Europe, where thousands of visitors lined up to tour the yacht. In fact, so many people sat on the salon’s red velvet settees (also on view at PEM) that they had to be recovered.
At the age of 51, Crowninshield suffered a fatal attack aboard the yacht as he prepared for his second voyage. A succession of owners followed, the last being Kamehameha II, King of Hawaii. Before the boat sunk in Hanalei Bay in 1824, family members had claimed furnishings from the yacht, and others were sold, including a pair of card tables briefly owned by Gen. Andrew Jackson. In 1998, one of tables ended up at Christie’s auction house and was purchased by a Connecticut dealer who recognized its similarity to other furnishings from Cleopatra’s Barge. Familiar with PEM’s collection, he reached out to Lahikainen.
Made from mahogany with maple and rosewood veneers, the card table exemplifies the classical revival style popular after 1815 when furniture makers shifted to a more Greco-Roman aesthetic. The base mimics a lyre, an ancient musical instrument, with strings made from brass. The top surface is decorated with inlaid brass in a Greek key pattern and acanthus leaves are carved into the base.
“This is a curator’s dream — to find something so amazing, of such high-quality and historical importance to add the collection,” says Lahikainen. “I personally like the boldness and the gutsiness of this style of furniture. We have a classical table from this same period in our living room.”
Editor’s Note: AUTHOR TALK
Shipwrecked in Paradise: Cleopatra’s Barge in Hawai‘i
Thursday, November 3
Noon-1 pm Morse Auditorium
Included with admission
Join renowned archaeologist, author and maritime historian Paul Johnston as he discusses his years of research and excavation of the ship Cleopatra’s Barge and his 2014 book that chronicles the experience.
The first oceangoing yacht ever built in America, Cleopatra’s Barge endured many incarnations over her 8-year life, from Mediterranean pleasure cruiser for a Salem, Mass., shipping magnate to a Hawaiian king’s personal yacht.
The famed ship wrecked on a reef in Hanalei Bay on April 6, 1824. Obtaining the first underwater archaeological permits ever issued by the state of Hawai‘i, a team of divers from the Smithsonian Institution located, surveyed and excavated the wrecked ship from 1995 to 2000.
After the talk, audience members are invited to visit one of the recreated interior rooms of Cleopatra’s Barge, complete with original furnishings, on view at PEM as part of the museum’s collection of maritime art.
Dr. Paul F. Johnston is Curator of Maritime History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where he is responsible for the maritime history and national watercraft collections. Prior to that, he was Curator of Maritime History at the Peabody Museum of Salem. A book signing follows the talk.