The following is excerpted from “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley,” by Donald C. Williams, with photographs by Narayan Nayar. This book is the first in-depth examination of one of the most beautiful woodworking tool chests ever constructed and presents the first-ever biography of Studley (1838-1925), a piano and organ builder in Quincy, Mass. After a brief stay at the Smithsonian, the cabinet was sold to a private collector and hasn’t been seen by the public for well over a decade. Studley’s workbench has never been on public view. In this excerpt, Nayar’s approach to capturing the monumental Studley Cabinet is reverent and moving.
In the winter of 2010, Don Williams and I calculated that principal photography and primary study of the Studley ensemble could be accomplished in a single three-day trip. Photographically, we’d have one day to shoot the tool cabinet and bench, another day to shoot the tools and a day to spare for contingencies. Don had already visited the ensemble, taken survey pictures and had worked out with the owner some general rules about how we could work with the cabinet. By studying Don’s photos and making some assumptions about the room in which we would be working, I formulated a plan for a three-day shoot and packed my gear accordingly.
It took only five minutes standing in front of the tool cabinet and bench for those plans to disintegrate. Within hours, we were discussing follow-up trips and wondering how to talk the owner into letting us take the cabinet off the wall.
Principal photography ended five trips later and spanned roughly four years.
The overwhelming majority of images in “Virtuoso” are forensic. After all, the primary goal of the project was to document the cabinet, its contents and accompanying workbench both photographically and historically. To accomplish this, we worked methodically through every artifact, capturing every detail at great resolution from multiple angles. Images from this important documentary aspect of the project intentionally forgo any creative interpretation or photographic flair. They are shot with flat, diffuse lighting on simple backgrounds to reveal Studley’s ensemble with an almost clinical objectivity.
I refer to these photographs as “necessary” images – i.e. photographs taken to address the dearth of public information about the cabinet, its contents and maker. The process to capture these images was production-like, but in no way did that diminish our enthusiasm. Many, if not all, of the objects in the cabinet are not only perfectly executed, but also bear some witness to Studley himself – be it in the way the blades evince his sharpening technique, to the patina and wear patterns formed by his hands as he used his tools. Discovering these details as we worked through the collection delighted us and reminded us how important it was to shine light on these details for others.
Like thousands of people, I became acquainted with H.O. Studley many years ago through one of the famous Taunton posters. These posters feature the cabinet in its “natural” state – upright and open-kimono, enticing and not unlike a girlie magazine centerfold. Photographed in this pose and presented in two dimensions, the cabinet registers as an exquisite piece of graphic design, mesmerizing with its masterfully arranged contents, visual elements that crescendo and decrescendo, staccato accents of decorative inlays and the multi-layered tapestry of materials, color and texture. We gaze upon the poster as we would a painted masterwork, wondering what kind of mind would conceive such a thing and what kind of hands could bring it into this world.
Though the exterior of the cabinet benefits from the same care and precision of design and manufacture as its interior, it’s clear from a newspaper photo of Studley in front of the cabinet that the wide-open object is, in fact, its face. The Taunton posters have allowed the cabinet’s face to also represent the face of Henry O. Studley and, for many, of the very concept of master craftsmanship. So it somehow seems awkward to deem the ubiquitous, straight-on view of the cabinet a “necessary” image, as if the term relegates the most recognizable and revered glance of Studley’s masterpiece to mere documentation. But it’s only one view of an artifact that supplies infinite distinct and equally alluring views, and whereas extant appearances of the tool cabinet have more-or-less reduced our understanding of it to a single, postcard-like glance, “Virtuoso” has provided us the requisite space for exhaustive coverage and analysis. If the straight-on view of the cabinet is the necessary image, we felt an obligation to enrich everyone’s understanding of all that this single image contains: the cabinet’s layout, its suitability for use, its mechanical properties, its inner and sometimes hidden grandeur. The Studley tool cabinet is a woodworking fractal; as you zoom in on one detail, you not only see that detail in greater resolution, you discover a universe of new details.
We are proud to submit this collection of necessary images to the historical record. Until the day that holograms become widely available, this collection of documentary images should satisfy the factual needs of historians, artisans and connoisseurs of well-made objects. But the ensemble’s visual facts in and of themselves, however well-documented, were not enough for me. I placed a great deal of personal importance on ensuring at least some of the photographs in “Virtuoso” imparted more than a factual account of the Studley ensemble. Whereas the “necessary” images strive to capture the cabinet and its contents as physical forms, I wanted to find ways to visually convey its more metaphysical attributes. The cabinet alone has become for so many people so much more than a collection of tools in an elegant box – it has become legend. For me, it is no less than a testament to what our species is capable of. Studley’s tool cabinet represents the hope that with enough perseverance, the things we create or pursue can achieve some small fraction of its magnificence.
Having spent considerable time with the cabinet during the past few years, I can say without hesitation that the legendary status the cabinet has gained through that single image on the Taunton posters is well-deserved. I can also say that in this case, the legend is orders of magnitude less compelling than the real thing.
The First Five Minutes
Throughout the course of this project, I witnessed a dozen or so people encounter the H.O. Studley ensemble for the first time. I’ve noticed only two reactions to experiencing the cabinet in person. The first involves the liberal use of choice expletives. The second (and more common) reaction: several minutes of utter silence (though to be fair, this silence is often followed by the liberal use of choice expletives).
In person, the cabinet is far more than a three-dimensional poster. It is a monument.
I have been an armchair student of architecture and architectural history for a long time, and for several years in college I was fascinated with the Hagia Sophia. Captivated by its shifting but always-prominent role in several civilizations, I spent many hours reading its history, looking at images of its interior and exterior, and studying its incredibly ambitious engineering. I spent enough time with texts on the Hagia Sophia that I came to refer to it as “Sophie.”
Years later I traveled to Istanbul in a pilgrimage of sorts to Sophie. However academically familiar I may have been with her – however many photographs and architectural drawings I had pored over – walking through its nave and standing under its dome made my palms sweat and my head swirl. As is the case with many of the world’s great religious structures, the scale of the Hagia Sophia filled me with equal parts awe and insignificance. I spent a whole afternoon in the museum, wandering its main floor and upper balcony, looking up at the architectural details and murals, realizing that the building I thought I knew existed only in books. The Hagia Sophia was not Sophie, and only by visiting it in person could I feel the weight of its history, grasp the scale of its majesty and find inspiration even in its imperfections.
When encountering the Studley cabinet in person, I believe all first-timers experience an even more amplified version of what I felt in Istanbul. The Studley cabinet features architectural themes found in and on many of the world’s greatest monuments, and in the first five minutes you stand before the cabinet, your eyes can’t help but lead you through ornamental doors and make you gaze through myriad windows. You are compelled to follow fences that divide the interior into courtyards
delineated by the lines and shadows of numerous arches, buttresses and columns. In those first five minutes you take a tour of a wood, metal, pearl and ivory palace so captivating and opulent that you forget that the cabinet is, in fact, smaller than you. Witnessing in person the masterpiece that one talented Mason created with his own two hands is as much an encounter with the sublime as standing in the shadows of structures many times its size, with masonry assembled by hundreds, if not thousands, of hands. It is no wonder that many people forget to speak when confronted with such concentrated grandeur. How does one capture this with a camera?
The truth is, one cannot. Not entirely, anyway. So the images in “Virtuoso” that carry the most personal significance for me are the ones that encapsulate some small fraction of the awe that overcomes anyone standing in front of the cabinet for those first five minutes. During the course of four years, I searched for ways to photographically convey the cabinet not as a postcard or a painting, but as an architectural space. Just as my Sophie could only ever exist on paper, for many of us, Studley has been to date a single image of a cabinet frozen in one quintessential pose. As you move through “Virtuoso,” you will, of course, see more of the H.O. Studley ensemble than has been historically possible for all but a select few. But if I’ve done my job, some of these images will bring you on the journey that I’ve been fortunate enough to take on your behalf during the last four years, and as you turn these pages, you’ll find yourself rendered mute, then apologizing to any sensitive souls within earshot.
— Narayan Nayar