The furniture of Thomas Day has long been celebrated for its craftsmanship and artistry. His mantels, newel posts and other interior woodwork, however, have generally been regarded as a minor sideline.
With the recent release of “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color,” a book co-written by Dr. Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll (Interior Architecture), his interior woodwork will start to receive its due. Leimenstoll has made the most extensive study to date of Day’s architectural woodwork.
Her co-author, an expert on Day’s furniture, is Patricia Phillips Marshall, curator of decorative arts for the N.C. Executive Mansion and the N.C. Museum of History. Published by The University of North Carolina Press, the book was released in conjunction with the opening of “Behind the Veneer,” a Day exhibit on view this summer at the Museum of History.
The roots of the book project go back to 1991, when Leimenstoll worked as the architect on the restoration of the Thomas Day House in Milton. She heard from locals that other houses in the area had woodwork by Day, who owned the largest furniture shop in the state in the mid-19th century.
She knocked on doors and did much of her research by word of mouth. She explored the Greek Revival homes that Caswell County planters built more than 150 years ago with riches made from bright leaf tobacco. In many cases, these formal exteriors hid the undulating shapes and fluid lines that are Day’s hallmark.
“In a staid kind of setting, you walk in the door and it just knocks your socks off,” Leimenstoll says.
The houses with Day woodwork continued to add up.
“I was very excited to find six newels that appeared to have been cut from the same template,” she says.
“That’s when I realized he was really turning out the woodwork as well as furniture. Prior to this, people thought of him as a furniture maker who happened to occasionally dabble in woodwork.”
She eventually documented 80 homes with the same motifs and distinctive energy found in Day’s furniture. For instance, as a furniture maker, Day used S-shaped brackets. In his architectural woodwork, those same serpentine shapes are writ large, including as three-foot-tall newel posts.
“I believe his woodwork is even more evocative than his furniture, because it’s on a bigger scale,” Leimenstoll says. “It’s like he’s sculpting the whole stair hall and the living room. It’s just bolder.”