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Published: 20 January 2016

Wharton Esherick from an Important Private Collection

This spring, Freeman’s is proud to present Art + Design, a new auction highlighting icons of art and design from the twentieth century. Among a number of rare works featured in the sale will be over ten pieces from the Lehrer Family Collection by the famed woodworker, Wharton Esherick (1887-1970). Perhaps the greatest American furniture craftsman of the inter-wars period, Esherick created paintings, sculpture, furniture, woodcuts, and set designs of great imaginative scope.  Spanning the Arts & Crafts movement, Cubism and German Expressionism, he helped to elevate woodworking to a fine art, imbuing his furniture with great sculptural quality and movement.  His oeuvre and creative spirit have served as a point of departure for subsequent generations of craftsmen, including Wendell Castle, Sam Maloof, and Arthur Espinet Carpenter, to name just a few.  

Wharton Esherick from the Lehrer Family Collection

Eleanor and Luis Lehrer purchased works from Esherick over the course of a forty-year relationship with the artist, furnishing their Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, and later Cherry Hill, New Jersey homes with cabinets, tables, chairs, sculpture, and lighting acquired from one of the nation’s most significant and artistically free-spirited woodworkers. Among the works featured from the Lehrer Collection in Freeman’s March 20 sale will be four distinct examples of Esherick’s iconic three-legged stool, each with a sensuously-sculpted seat that highlights a different wood.  He constructed these stool seats from wood scraps, carving their profile by hand; the stools feature three slender legs joined by staggered stretchers for improved strength.  The four examples from the Collection date from 1952-1960 and are offered at $6,000-8,000 each. 

Other pieces from the Collection include three “ash chairs,” the outgrowth of Esherick’s “hammer handle” chairs which were initially brought to life in 1938. He acquired two barrels of hickory and ash hammer handles at the auction of a woodworking firm that had gone out of business. A commission from the Hedgerow, a theater company in nearby Rose Valley, Pennsylvania in which multiple members of the Esherick family were involved, gave Esherick the opportunity to use the hammer handles ingenuously to effect for the legs, stiles and rails of chairs he created for the theater’s rehearsal room. His patrons loved the chairs and soon the hammer handles, in short supply, were replaced by sculpted chair members, all the result of a chance encounter with a discarded material then turned anew. These he called his “ash chairs.” Esherick’s superbly crafted furniture became a part of daily life for the Lehrer family, with one of the children recalling: “We sat on the chairs every night for dinner our whole lives with our parents. We often ended up on stools at family parties sitting at the kids table.”  Three chairs will be offered—a pair with woven leather seats ($15,000-25,000) and a single with a stretched rawhide seat ($7,000-9,000).  Other unique items in this March sale include a shaped side table with integral, sliding trays ($25,000-35,000), a wall rack with bowls and utensils ($20,000-30,000), and a fourteen-foot-long sculpted wall shelf ($9,000-14,000).

Born in Philadelphia, Esherick attended the Central Manual Training School and later the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he pursued an education in painting and drawing.  Upon graduation, he worked as an illustrator for a local newspaper and later the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey.  Using skills developed from carving woodcuts for print-making—one of his great artistic pursuits in its own right—Esherick set about carving sculpture and designing furniture. His artistic endeavors were informed and enlivened by his wife and children and the family’s mutual artistic exploration with dance, music, theater, and progressive education.  Through his paintings and sculpture, Esherick elevated the human body to the realm of the divine, aligning his muses with the movement and eternal soul of the natural world.

The construction of a new studio in 1926, set on a hillside in Paoli, Pennsylvania, presented opportunities for the artist to carve his personality and creative voice into the structure.  Esherick used exotic woods like rosewood, padouk, and cocobolo alongside timber from walnut, cherry, chestnut and oak sourced locally. Among his more important partnerships, he began a life-long relationship with the Hedgerow Theatre in the late 1920s. Esherick’s children performed on the stage and he found great inspiration from the playhouse while he created furniture and set designs for the productions.

Over the next several decades, Esherick created some of his most pivotal works. He was involved with several important commissions, including the Curtis Bok residence in Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania, and today works from this commission can be seen in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By the 1960s, Esherick’s work had been featured in several exhibitions at prominent institutions including the Detroit Institute of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Despite suffering a stroke in 1967, Esherick continued to develop his craft until his death in 1970.  Since 1972, the Wharton Esherick Museum has preserved and presented his work and studio to the public. Esherick’s iconic designs and lasting legacy are represented in several public and private collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.

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