Daniel Jackson’s Unicorn Rocker

Daniel Kemper Jackson, Unicorn Rocker, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1974. Pine, oak, maple. Moderne Gallery, Philadelphia.

There is presently a rare opportunity to see the work of Daniel Kemper Jackson (October 18, 1938- August 3, 1995) in person.  Dan’s Rocking Unicorn is on currently on display at the Moderne Gallery, 111 North Third Street, Philadelphia. A public viewing has not been possible since its creation in 1974. It was a private commission and was not included in the 2003 exhibition “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History” at the University of the Arts, the present name of what had been the Philadelphia College of Art when Dan taught there from 1964 to 1976. Dan made two previous carved rocking animals, in 1971 a rocking horse for his daughter Sophia and a rocking peacock in 1973. In scale and volume, the Unicorn rocker is the largest work Dan produced – it is 73 inches high, 76 inches long, and 15 inches deep – as well one of his last.

His career was tragically cut short by illness not long after he completed the Unicorn Rocker and few people outside of his contemporaries in the craft scene, his students, and craft historians would recognize his name today. Yet his influence was great, both through his inspirational teaching – many of his students became teachers themselves, his influence now felt by several generations of woodworkers – and by his guidance at setting up two of the preeminent woodworking programs in the country – in 1964 Dan established the woodworking department at the Philadelphia College of Art, and in 1975 he was asked by Jere Osgood to create the woodworking shop for the Program in Artisanry at Boston University.

Dan had a deep interest and knowledge of historical furniture and worked restoring and refinishing furniture for antique dealers while in his teens. This familiarity and appreciation of the history of woodworking is present in much of his work. It is overwhelmingly so in the case of the Unicorn Rocker.

The Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, where Dan had his studio on Tulpehocken Street, has a history of intense activity in the woodworking trades, especially from the last quarter of the nineteenth century into the middle of the twentieth. The Dentzel Carousel Company, established in 1867 – at several locations on Germantown Avenue – and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, established in 1904, later purchasing the Dentzel Company in 1928 – at 130 East Duvall Street – left a legacy of excellence in the creation of carved carousel animals. Dentzel had been absorbed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company by the time of Dan’s arrival in the early 1960’s but the Philadelphia Toboggan Company would not leave Germantown for Lansdale, Pennsylvania until 1971 and there were still several carving and turning shops producing traditional work throughout the neighborhood during Dan’s time here though they are gone today. (Today Germantown has a thriving arts scene that includes contemporary furniture makers.)

Dan must have come to know this history and was moved to create a carousel animal in his own terms. It does not move up and down on a pole or revolve on a pedestal but it is given movement through its rockers. Like the Dentzel carousel animal carvings it is both sculptural and functional. It is unpainted and the exceptional knowledge of material and lamination and joinery technique is on full display. Now 43 years old, it remains in perfect condition. There is not one split in the numerous laminations. It is worth the effort to see it in person – and make sure you watch it rock.

Dan Jackson in his studio during the making of the Unicorn Rocker. From “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History”, The University of the Arts, 2003. No photo credit given.

Daniel Jackson’s Unicorn Rocker in his studio on Tulpehocken Street, Germantown, Philadelphia, 1974. From “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History”, The University of the Arts, 2003. No photo credit given.

Dentzel Carousel Company master carver Salvatore Chernigliaro, Germantown, Philadelphia, c. 1920.

The catalogue of the 2003 exhibition “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History”, with a forward by Steven Tarantal and essays by Helen W. Drutt English and Edward S. Cooke, Jr. is an invaluable resource for information of Daniel Jackson’s life and work.

Dan Jackson’s Unicorn Rocker at The Moderne Gallery, 111 North Third Street, Philadelphia. September 14, 2017. Still rocking, but get permission from the gallery first!

One thought on “Daniel Jackson’s Unicorn Rocker

  1. Pingback: Jackson in Miami | In Proportion to the Trouble

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