Thomas Molesworth: A Legacy of Western Art

By Terry Winchell

W hen I was first approached by a major western art collector with the opportunity to help furnish their western retreat, I was both excited and apprehensive. I knew of course that it was the perfect environment for Thomas Molesworth’s furniture. However, the public areas were large and required a lot of seating and it was not an easy task to locate what was necessary.

Molesworth loved and lived western art. He had admired it from an early age and was somewhat immersed in it during his time at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1908-1909. He had aspired to become a painter; however, his family suffered some financial reversals and his father advised him “You’ll never be Charlie Russell, come home and make a living.” Those times at the Art Institute were not forgotten and he often returned to Chicago for inspiration. Molesworth’s early experiences became important years later when he collaborated with many of the most important western artists of the era. After Molesworth started Shoshone Furniture Company in Cody Wyoming in 1933, he was quick to develop his style of rugged furniture with a sophisticated western romantic presence. After early success with Ranch “A” which was owned by Moses Annenberg, Molesworth gained the confidence and financial security that put Shoshone Furniture Company on the “map.” In 1936, Molesworth was instrumental in forming the Cody Art Colony, Mary Jester Allen, the niece of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who helped start the Buffalo Bill Museum had a vision that an artists’ colony in a rural area like Cody would be an inspiration to artists and help Cody to become a leading center of Western Art. The first two artists to come to Cody were painter Ed Grigware and photographer Stan Kershaw, both moved from Chicago to Cody with some arm-twisting by Molesworth and J.C. “Kid Nichols.” They become frequent collaborators with Molesworth on numerous projects. Grigware painted the now-famous bow-legged cowboy (lot 207) which became a symbol of the iconography of the west. Grigware was a noted muralist and had a successful career as an illustrator in Chicago before coming west. He created the Cody mural as well as the friezes for the Kalif Shrine Reading Room in Sheridan, Wyoming and numerous other commissions.

In 1937, the Frontier School of Western Art was formed in Cody and it flourished until 1941 and the start of World War II. Although it was never the success that it had hoped to be, it left a lasting impression on the Cody area and especially on Molesworth. It helped him to define the “Western Roomscape” that made him famous. Not only did Molesworth enjoy Western Art, but he also created many pieces of furniture for the likes of Joseph Henry Sharp, Kathryn Leighton, and Frank Tenney Johnson— often trading furniture for art. He was friends with Will James and Earl Snook who was the western agent for Charles Russell as well as Sharp and Weinhold Reiss with a gallery in nearby Billings, Montana. It was common for Molesworth to sell a painting right off the wall of the house. His son shared with me that his mother knew not to get too attached to the art on the walls as it might soon be gone. My apprehension with locating the right furniture started to go away when I received a call from the Kalif Shrine in Sheridan, Wyoming. The Kalif Shrine had a wonderful reading room that had been financed by the family of Wyoming Governor Milward Simpson. Molesworth had been hired to create the reading room with the help of Grigware who painted the friezes, and the large room was completed in 1940. As was typical of Molesworth’s special commissions, he fabricated some extraordinary furniture. The six-legged round library table (lot 217) is one of a kind with six beautiful matching burl legs combined with well executed joinery and proportions. Of the 3,500 pieces of Molesworth furniture that I have owned it has always been one of my favorites and this was just one piece of a large group of couches, chairs, tables, and lamps that I was able to acquire. The two-tier lamps (lot 231) with applied half pole trim are rarely seen and were difficult and expensive to produce.

The commission had numerous chairs and several couches in different styles, all with great patina and color. This collection became the foundation for the public areas in the lodge. Since the collector often entertained larger groups, we created some small intimate seating areas that were framed by the wall art clustered amid bronze sculptures. Molesworth’s signature burled Club Chairs were perfect for these groupings and the collection has examples of many different forms. The closed-side couches (lots 209-210) and chairs (lot 205) with applied half-poles along with the grain pattern and color of the inland fir they are constructed of create a different feeling than the open-arm style with fringe (lot 203). As luck would have it, shortly after I purchased the Kalif Reading Room furniture a major ranch changed hands up the South Fork Valley, near Cody, Wyoming. The J Bar 9 Ranch was sold, and the new owner did not purchase the furnishings. This ranch and several cabins were commissioned by Shoshone Furniture Company in the late 1930s and there was a wonderful collection of sofas, chairs and some rare table designs. The large corner console table (lot 229) is the only one known of this form. The semi-circular console table (lot 218) has perfect proportions and balance, and the wonderful games table (lot 219) is a masterpiece with an amazing burled base with beautiful patina and original leather and fringe in pristine condition and in a rarely seen color combination. This grouping of tables was perfect for the collector’s bronzes and artifacts, and made the art and furniture appear to have always been together. The owner and Thomas Molesworth had one thing in common: they both loved red. Molesworth had a saying that any color was fine so long as it was red. Molesworth’s use of primary colors against the background color of the wood formed a beautiful palette to design a room around. It has been great fun to be able to put this collection together and to have the opportunity to see all this furniture in Jackson, as I was fortunate enough to be a frequent guest, and I hope the new owners love it as much as the last ones.

Happy Trails

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