The first component of the Trust’s Emerging Scholars Program was the Dewey Lee Curtis Scholarship to attend our biannual symposia. We are proud to continue the tradition of bringing at least two scholarship recipients to these wonderful events and prouder still that they find the experience so meaningful. This spring, we awarded scholarships to our symposium in Savannah to Maureen Marton and Lea Lane. They thoroughly enjoyed the program and shared their thoughts below.
We are very grateful for the generosity of our participants for making this opportunity possible for Lea and Maureen. If you would like more information on the Trust’s Emerging Scholars Program or how you can assist this effort, please feel free to contact us or visit our website. We look forward to hosting scholarship recipients this fall during our 40th-anniversary symposium in Connecticut!
“The opportunity to hear from the heads of museums and historic houses in Savannah, who have overcome the challenges intrinsic to working in the field, encouraged me as I build the foundation of my career. Kathleen Staples’ conclusion that a family heirloom was several decades older than the owners believed, despite many generations relaying the same incorrect information, was eye opening. As historic houses and the objects they contain always come with the lore of multiple generations, her presentation offered a concise reminder that one should not take these stories at face value, despite how often they are told. My current work at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute involves a great deal of research on the three generations who occupied Fountain Elms. As I learn more about the family and their influence in the community, the nature of the relationship between objects in the museum and the family become increasingly complex. First-person sources do not always know the facts about the items that they lived with, and it is crucial to dig deeper, even with years of oral history substantiating a claim.”
Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Intern
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY
“The experience of attending the Decorative Arts Trust symposium in Savannah opened my eyes to the cross currents of culture, class, and materials that defined the Low Country in the 18th and 19th centuries. The presentations introduced a cast of historical characters worthy of a great American novel, who shaped the local physical environment and spearheaded the preservation movement that made it possible for us to enjoy the city today. Savannah may have shed its original utopian philosophy over time but has kept the fundamentals of urban design and organization that make it so distinctive. Similarly, the symposium brought together individuals from varied disciplines and backgrounds, unified by their love of the antique. Walking the streets of Savannah, I learned about their personal interests and vision for the future of cultural heritage sites. Likewise, each speaker brought their own perspectives drawn from their work in the field. These discussions will continue to inspire me as I look to direct my research and work to best serve new generations of decorative arts enthusiasts.”
The Trust pursues collaborations with other organizations as an essential part of fulfilling its mission “to promote and foster the appreciation and study of the decorative arts.” We have recently partnered with the International Society of Appraisers and the Foundation for Appraisal Education to provide continuing education opportunities for appraisers who are new to the field. Long-time ISA members Cindy Charleston Rosenberg and Fred Winer recently became members of the Trust because of this partnership. Grace Fitts, our spring intern who is pursuing a certificate in appraisal studies, recently spoke with Cindy and Fred about their backgrounds and their thoughts on the importance of collaboration to their field.
Cindy has been an active member of the ISA since 2000, including service as the organization’s president. She became an appraiser while the owner of a successful art gallery, which she ultimately closed to focus on a full-time appraising business, the Art Appraisal Firm in Pennsylvania. As an experienced appraiser, Cindy recognizes the persistent challenges that face the field, particularly when the comparable sales used to substantiate value are few and far between. In response to these challenges, she is thankful to have the opportunity to collaborate with her generous ISA colleagues and benefits from their shared efforts and insight.
Cindy joined the Trust in 2016 after learning of the organization through Matt Thurlow and Christian Roden. Although she has not yet had the opportunity to attend a Trust program, she loves keeping up to date with our activities. Cindy believes membership in the Trust is beneficial for appraisers because of the quality of the continuing education opportunities the Trust provides. “The Trust offers a level of scholarship and advanced knowledge you are unlikely to find elsewhere,” she advises.
Fred Winer became involved with the ISA in 1983, coming into the field indirectly while helping an acquaintance, who had trained as an appraiser but lacked business experience. Fred, on the other hand, was an adept hand at commerce but knew nothing of appraisals and auctions. Their partnership led him to a career change, and now he and his wife, Maureen, own their own business, Parting with Possessions in Maryland.
While most personal property appraisers tend to specialize in a particular component of the fine or decorative arts, Fred’s expertise lies in the application of appraisal theory and methodology, allowing him to think outside the box when an object doesn’t fit into a normal classification scheme. This skillset was essential when tasked by an insurance company to appraise an unusual gargoyle in the shape of a golfer that was damaged in a house fire. Believed to be the work of the master carver of the National Cathedral, Fred’s sleuthing led him down the chain of apprenticeship in the carving world (with a detour into the market for European gargoyles), but the lack of comparable examples prevented a firm appraisal until he was able to confirm that the carver of the National Cathedral was a friend and golfing partner of the original owner of the golfing gargoyle, which was a wedding present. This key provenance allowed Fred to make an informed appraisal that would have been impossible from face value alone.
Fred met Matt Thurlow many years ago while the latter was lecturing at the Tuscaloosa Antiques Symposium, an event organized by fellow ISA appraiser Molly Snow. Their paths crossed again after Matt became the director of the Decorative Arts Trust in 2014, as both the Foundation for Appraisal Education and the Trust funded scholarships to Winterthur Institute, a decorative arts bootcamp that many appraisers attend as part of their recertification process. A mutual interest in funding access to these essential continuing education programs underscores the importance of this collaboration.
The Trust is grateful for the support, appreciation, and cooperation Cindy and Fred have encouraged between the Decorative Arts Trust, the International Society of Appraisers, and the Foundation for Appraisal Education. We are thrilled to welcome appraisers from around the country to our programs, and look forward to creating many more opportunities to foster this exciting partnership!
Daniel’s path to Historic Deerfield included many hands-on opportunities with the decorative arts. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where he obtained a Master’s Degree in American History, Daniel most recently served as a researcher with the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Prior positions include two years as an auction assistant at Skinner Auction and Appraisals and a summer internship with Winterthur’s Boston Furniture Archive, spearheaded by Sarah Parks, the first-ever Trust Curatorial Intern, and Trust Governor Brock Jobe (a podcast featuring Sarah and Brock can be found here). In each position, he particularly enjoyed the daily opportunities to work with historic objects, whether for photographic documentation, setting up for an auction at Skinner’s, or researching provenance–a skill honed at the Genealogical Society. This varied sampling of the decorative arts field gave him the taste for more, and the Trust’s curatorial internship provides the perfect opportunity to build upon these experiences.
During his first month at Historic Deerfield, Daniel had the chance to conduct research on potential acquisitions, write labels for an upcoming exhibition, and commence research for an upcoming catalog on Deerfield’s English ceramics collection alongside Amanda Lange, Director of the Curatorial Department. His efforts have focused on probate records of Deerfield residents’ estates to see what imported ceramics are known to have been present in their homes. He is also enjoying the day-to-day workings of a curatorial department and looks forward to assisting with exhibition planning and design. “I’m very excited to be working at Historic Deerfield,” he says, “I love being surrounded by so many historic objects every day, it’s one of the best parts of being at this museum! I look forward to working with and learning from the staff here!”
Historic Deerfield is likely a familiar institution to most Decorative Arts Trust members. For the past several years, the Trust’s Emerging Scholars Program has underwritten a scholarship for Deerfield’s Summer Fellowship Program, an intensive nine-week summer course for undergraduates focusing on New England history, material culture, and museum studies. The museum and collection is a western Massachusetts time capsule. Founded in 1952 by Henry Needham Flynt and his wife, Helen Geier Flynt, the institution consists of twelve historic houses furnished with period-appropriate collections to interpret life in Deerfield and New England in the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition, the Flynt Center for New England life and the institution’s two research libraries contain materials spanning from the town’s founding in 1650 to the 20th century, such as samples of the blue-and-white needlework made famous by the town’s Colonial Revival craft industry.
The c. 1734 Allen House at Historic Deerfield. Image courtesy of Historic Deerfield.
The 1799 Stebbens House. Image courtesy of Historic Deerfield.
Examples from Historic Deerfield’s renowned costume and textile collection in the Flynt Center for Early New England Life. Image courtesy of Historic Deerfield.
We look forward to hearing about Daniel Sousa’s accomplishments over the next two years! “We are thrilled to have Dan working with Historic Deerfield’s curatorial staff,” says Amanda Lange, “We plan to make good use of his strong skills in the areas of research and writing and are extremely grateful to the Decorative Arts Trust for making this internship available to us and for their continuing support of decorative arts scholarship and emerging professionals in the field.”
With January’s Emerging Scholars Colloquium fast approaching, we are happy to introduce Emelie Gevalt, another Summer Research Scholarship recipient who will be presenting there. An alumna of Yale University, where she majored in Art History and Theater Studies, Emelie worked for several years in New York City, first as a curatorial assistant for a private collection and then at Christie’s auction house in their Department of Estates, Appraisals & Valuation Services.
Her desire to develop a particular specialty in the decorative arts field led her to Winterthur, where she fell in love with Taunton chests during her furniture class. As a former auction professional, she found their historical journey through families and collections as interesting as the aesthetic appeal of their construction techniques and painted surfaces, particularly as furniture has been the centerpiece of collecting and Americana studies for a long time.
“Generous funding from the Decorative Arts Trust facilitated essential foundational research on my Winterthur thesis this past summer, as I undertook a study of the painted chests of Taunton, Massachusetts, attributed to the hand of Robert Crosman. My work took me to cities across Northeast as well as the Midwest, where examples of the early-to-mid 18th century chests had found their way into numerous museum collections, including, among others, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Henry Ford, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, the Dietrich American Foundation, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire, and the Old Colony History Museum in Taunton itself. Through this summer’s journeys, with the gracious help of numerous curators and museum staff, I have now conducted firsthand examinations of almost all of the Crosman chests currently held in public collections. Along the way I drew diagrams, took endless detail shots, and compiled a chart of comparative data on points of construction, decoration, and object history. This key primary source research will form the basis of my thesis, allowing me to pose questions about authorship, ownership, and the creative process involved in both the making and the later collecting of these beautiful and mysterious pieces of furniture.
“I first became captivated by Taunton chests during my furniture connoisseurship course at Winterthur, when I investigated the example acquired by Henry Francis du Pont. I was struck to note that although the chests are constructed simply, they are intricately decorated, featuring tenderly expressive tree-of-life-type designs. In addition, the complexity of the decoration varies considerably from one piece to the next, ranging from sketchily executed single trees to far more elaborate overlapping compositions of multiple birds, vines, berries, and blossoms. These contrasts – both from one chest to the next, and from complex decoration to plain construction – inspire intriguing questions. Was Robert Crosman truly the sole maker of each of the chests attributed to him? Can we view the changing complexity of decoration as a gradual artistic progression, as Esther Stevens Fraser suggested in her 1933 article in The Magazine Antiques, or is this idea an imposition of a 20th century art historical conceit? What design sources inspired the maker(s), and how might they have been transmitted to the small Massachusetts town? Finally, how might the chests’ “re-discovery” by Americana collectors in the early 20th century have impacted our present day interpretations of the painted designs?
A Taunton Chest attributed to Robert Crossman, 1742. White Pine, Red Oak, Chestnut. Image courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library.
Emelie examining the Taunton chest in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Emelie Gevalt.
Emelie at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image courtesy of Emelie Gevalt.
“The time is ripe for a re-examination of this subject. Fraser’s article has served as the basis of scholarship on these chests, proposing a maker on the basis of a single example initialed ‘Taunton, R.C., 1729.’ Although scholars and curators have since addressed the chests in catalogue entries and other short studies, no comprehensive review of Fraser’s original findings has been published. In addition to exploring the questions posted above, a major component of my thesis will be to prepare a catalogue of the chests I have now seen, documenting their points of consistency and divergence, in the hopes of re-opening the topic for further study.
“The opportunity to examine multiple chests in person has laid essential groundwork for my project. Moreover, visiting the above collections prompted invaluable conversations with curators across the field, providing numerous helpful suggestions, observations and insights that advanced my research. I truly am grateful to the Decorative Arts Trust for helping to make my summer research trips possible.”
This past summer, the Trust was fortunate enough to award two Marie Zimmermann Summer Research Grants for the study of 20th-century American craftspeople and their handiwork. Sarah Mills, a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, received one of these grants to assist her study of weaver Dorothy Liebes.
Hailing from Asheville, North Carolina, Sarah grew up in a region with a long tradition of the handicraft she studies today. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Ashesville, Sarah has taught at Hunter College, CUNY, and Christie’s, and served as a copy editor and translator for publication houses that include Landmarks50. Her dissertation focuses on the spread of the American school of craft hand-weaving, which rose to popularity around 1930. Although her summer project focused solely on Liebes, her larger investigation covers the wider culture and surviving objects of this weaving tradition, which remains little studied. Many weavers, including Liebes, worked with the great architects and designers of the 20th century, and their textiles became central to the modern aesthetics of the period.
“This summer I pored over numerous swatches woven by Dorothy Liebes housed at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in Washington, DC, in a trip made possible by the Decorative Arts Trust. My dissertation, Craft Consciousness: Modern Weaving in the United States, 1935-1956, considers the mid-century weaver’s work and others in examining how a wave of industrialization and the professionalization of weavers in the field of industrial design impacted the form and meaning of woven objects. My research at the Smithsonian’s archives helped me grasp the extent of Liebes’ experimental studies with modern fibers.
“I focused predominantly on Liebes’ work with synthetic threads, particularly metallic ones known by their brand names Lurex and Fairtex. If you bought a shimmering interior fabric in the 1950s in the United States, there is a good chance that you bought a Dorothy Liebes design. In 1946, the Dobeckmun Company, which was the first to make modern metallic threads, hired Liebes to test their new Lurex fiber in woven swatches. Dobeckmun, under the guidance and sole direction of Liebes, then mass produced specific designs for a mainstream textile market. As a result of her expertise in hand weaving and as a style authority, Liebes held contracts with multiple manufacturing companies, giving her access to an enormous range of natural and innovative artificial fibers. Between the mid-1940s and the late 1950s, she eagerly experimented with metallic threads.
“The organization and diversity of Liebes’ swatches suggest that her weaving studies analyzed color relationships, densities, textures, and performance capabilities. For instance, she constructed charts based on the graduated thicknesses of yarns. She also designed grids where in each cube a multitude of threads reveal a range of value for one specific hue. More elaborate studies occurred on the loom. The differences in texture and density in woven swatches proved telling of Liebes’ concerns in function and the effectivity of fabric intended specifically for automobile upholstery, wall covering, or window drapery.
Sarah examining textile samples at the Archives of American Art. Image courtesy Sarah Mills.
A textile sample incorporating metallic lurex threads. Image courtesy Sarah Mills.
“Metallic threads, because of their strong mirror-like reflectivity, offered Liebes a profound freedom to play with spatial illusions. Where Liebes used tiny metallic threads sparsely as weft with thicker, fuzzier natural yarns as warp, she created highlights in swatches with considerable illusions of depth. When moving or walking by a fabric with metallic thread, light quickly dashes across the smooth gilt-like surfaces enhancing the sculptural quality of the material’s form. In a way, this approach created the concept of woven fibers as conduits of electricity. That Liebes utilized metallic materials as weft and warp threads also indicates her interests in testing their durability.
“My insights into Liebes’ weaving studies could not have been possible without observing her fabrics first hand. I am grateful to the Decorative Arts Trust and the Marie and John Zimmermann Fund for their support. I hope to continue sharing my research so as to broaden an understanding of modern weaving in the United States.
The Trust echoes Sarah’s gratitude to the Zimmermann Fund, Inc., for their ongoing support of the Trust’s Emerging Scholars Program, and the Summer Research Grants in particular. We are also pleased to announce that Sarah will present her findings during the inaugural Emerging Scholars Colloquium, to be held on January 22nd, following our annual Antiques Weekend program. Co-sponsored by the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust and supported by the Wunsch Americana Foundation, the Colloquium provides Sarah and four of her 2016 Emerging Scholars cohorts to share their exciting new research. Registration opens soon, and we encourage all who can come to New York for the day to hear first-hand the noteworthy results of the Trust’s scholarship program!
This past summer, the Trust received an unprecedented number of Summer Research Grant Applications, and had the opportunity to award eight grants—a new record for us! Our summer research scholars all had busy and fruitful summers, and we will be introducing these emerging scholars to the membership over the next few months through our blog and magazine.
Sarah Grandin, a PhD candidate in Art History at Harvard, studies how Louis XIV harnessed the decorative and fine arts to demonstrate his absolute political and material power at Versailles. The key of this propaganda campaign, however, was the skill and mastery of the artisans and craftsmen who are often left out of the historical and academic narrative. It was their own abilities and control over the materials that made Louis’s narrative possible.
Sarah’s background includes a BA in Art History from Stanford University, a stint as a Fulbright Research Fellow studying the development of French gastronomic guides (in the interests of full disclosure, she and Christian were in the same cohort of research fellows), and culinary training. While writing her PhD, she is living in France with her husband, a chef by profession, and two Brittany pointers.
“Thanks to the generosity of the Decorative Arts Trust, I was able to observe the production of Alençon lace, Savonnerie carpets, and Gobelins and Beauvais tapestries in national workshops throughout France this summer. Given that artisans at these ateliers employ manual techniques almost identical to those used when the manufactories were founded in the seventeenth century, I have gained a better understanding of early modern textile production by watching them work. Such insight is essential to my dissertation, which suggests that artisanal operations that preserved or shifted the scale of images across mediums were essential to the projection of Louis XIV’s grandeur.
“In my visits to the ateliers of the Manufactures Nationales this summer, a word resurfaced across workshop vocabularies: “réseau.” In common French parlance, this word means “network.” In the realm of the fiber arts, it refers to the actual grid-like net of thread that forms the constitutive tissue of these products. The réseau is made differently in each medium. In lace making, individually stitched loops form the net ground, and the equal size of these loops—and thus the integrity of the plane on which motifs are built—is dependent on the lace maker’s maintenance of equal tension in her thread. The demonstrator at the Alençon lace museum described the shape of each lace maker’s loop as a sort of identifiable handwriting. This description has inspired me to think more critically about the co-presence of regularity and irregularity in craft objects.
“In the case of Beauvais basse lisse and Gobelins haute lisse tapestry weaving, the first step in the construction of the tapestry is the tying of the white, vertical wool warp threads, across which the colored wool weft threads are passed horizontally to render an image. It is essential that these warp threads be tied at perfectly equal distances, at a density of about six threads per centimeter. No rulers are employed; the “licier” uses her eyes and fingers to gauge the regular intervals. This establishment of the matrix of the wool warp threads is also the first step in making Savonnerie carpets, though in this case, weft threads are in ecru linen. What brings color to the carpet are the individual knots tied at the intersection of the warp and weft. As with the lace maker’s réseau and the setting of the warp threads, the regularity of the knots requires an ingrained dexterity. The flick of the weaver’s wrist must cast the perfect and equal amount of wool thread from the bobbin for each knot.
“These artisans possess a unique kinesthetic intelligence, and the precision with which they set down and maintain a regular network rivals mechanical processes. At the same time, their work demands the creativity of translation. They must sensitively interpret cartoons in mediums that are not undergirded by grids, such as drawings, paintings, and watercolors. Each textile practice has a different set of interpretive capacities and restrictions based on its tools and materials. For example, Savonnerie carpets must interpret images knot by knot in a mode that predates digital pixels. To try and hide this “pixelation,” the weavers manipulate the velour or height of the shorn knots to modulate light and shade, to overcome the impossibility of continuous oblique lines, and to blur harsh tonal juxtapositions. This trimming is all done by hand with scissors, which the licier sharpens herself.
The tour guide of the Gobelins Manufacturer in Paris reveals the backside of a contemporary Beauvais tapestry enlarging a bright, abstract watercolor. Photo courtesy Sarah Grandin.
In the 1960s, the Savonnerie plotted out their cartoons on graph paper in a manner similar to counted cross stitch patterns as part of training and employing harki women who fled Algeria after its independence from French colonial rule. Photo courtesy Sarah Grandin.
“An eye for color matching is also an essential skill in this métier. When tapestry and carpet weavers first set out to interpret a cartoon, they must test and choose the color of threads they will employ throughout the project, which will take years depending on its size. Artisans have a choice of thousands of different colored threads, all of which are still dyed at the Gobelins laboratory in Paris. Once they have chosen the colors that correspond to their master image, they must submit an order called the “kilotage,” which is their estimate for the weight of each color of thread they anticipate needing. Doing this at the outset allows weavers to maintain the desired regularity of color throughout the textile.
“The purpose of my trip was to better understand how artisanal techniques in the fiber arts allowed for the controlled interpretation of images and motifs across mediums and scales. While the political régime of contemporary France little resembles that of Louis XIV (thankfully these government-employed artisans have a 35-hour work week!), the political role these carpets and tapestries play is not dissimilar to that of their Ancien Régime antecedents. These graphic objects propagate designs by renowned contemporary artists and grace the walls and floors of French civic buildings and embassies the world over. Moreover, the regular nets these men and women weave allow for the execution of works of impeccable quality and artistic merit, whose fine surfaces materially embody years of work and thousands of hours of labor. The artisans who create these carpets, tapestries and lace sustain French patrimony, creating material connections between the past and present, weaving not only spatial but also temporal networks that extend and project a long legacy of artistic glory.”
We’re thrilled with Sarah’s project, and look forward to hearing about future discoveries and observations. We also wish to thank the many generous donors who, over the years, have funded our Summer Research Grants that allow us to support emerging scholars and professionals such as Sarah.
One of the special features of a Decorative Arts Trust event—domestic or foreign—is the chance to learn from top experts in a variety of fields related to the decorative arts. While historically the Trust’s lectures and guides come from the curatorial end of the field, 2016 has seen new forays for the organization into the field of conservation. The expertise of these professionals is the flip side of the coin to curatorial knowledge: the physical and scientific evidence that can support historic research and, in many cases, reveal more information about an object’s history that escapes both the connoisseur’s eye and the historic record.
One of the sites for this month’s London-based extension of the fall Study Trip Abroad was a tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where we enjoyed a tour led in part by Senior Furniture Conservator Dana Melchar. An alumnus of the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, her path to the V&A was unique. She is one of the few professionals from the field whose work has led to a permanent home in a new country and dual citizenship.
Conservation is actually Dana’s second career. Her undergraduate major in English initially brought her to a job in Manhattan for BusinessWeek Magazine. Finding that position unfulfilling, she turned to some of her happier memories spending time with her grandparents at their interior decorating and upholstery business in Newport, Rhode Island. Their connections to the antiques trade eventually led her to Winterthur’s conservation program, and she trained for two years at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, in addition to taking preparatory classes in chemistry, art history, and studio art, to meet the entry requirements.
Her formal introduction to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s conservation department came during her third year internship. At Winterthur, she focused on painted furniture, which gave her an entry into a wide variety of time periods and materials that she sought to capitalize on throughout her third year, which she divided between the V&A, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Colonial Williamsburg, treating everything from Asian lacquer to contemporary furniture. At the time, very few conservation programs in Europe offered the Master of Science degree that Winterthur does, which made her all the more attractive to the leadership at the V&A. When a job opening became available, her bosses there encouraged her to apply, and she got the job.
At the V&A she has developed a specialty in French furniture, but has treated a wide variety of items from the collection, including a painted suite of Thomas Chippendale bedroom furniture made for the English actor David Garrick. Much to Christian’s delight, a current project is preparing a chair from the restaurant of the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2 as a loan to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, for an upcoming exhibit on ocean liners.
Dana’s perspective enriched the Trust’s tour of the V&A, and we benefitted from her behind-the-scenes perspective. Trust members should look out for stateside opportunities to learn more about the fascinating field of art conservation, starting with our special one-day symposium “Latrobe and Philadelphia: The Waln House Furniture Revealed and Reconsidered” on November 4, 2016, which represents a partnership between curatorial and conservation colleagues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art!
Although Yorkshire and Winchester loom large on the calendar, here at the Trust we’re always looking ahead to future events. The schedule for our Spring 2017 Symposium to Savannah is rapidly being finalized before registration opens in October. One of the sites that has been on the agenda since this program was first envisioned is the Isaiah Davenport House.
The Davenport House plays a significant role in Savannah’s history as the first effort of the local historic preservation movement. Unlike the other historic homes discussed recently on this blog, the Davenport House has been a museum in one iteration or another for over sixty years, and the shifting focus of its collection, decoration, and interpretation is becoming just as much a part of its history as its historic aura.
Isaiah Davenport (1784-1827) was a Rhode Island-born carpenter who moved to Savannah sometime in 1808. Although primarily remembered today as a house carpenter, he was also a city alderman from 1817 until 1822 and an occasional firemaster and constable for the Greene and Columbia city wards. As befit the successful circumstances of many of his clients, Davenport’s buildings incorporated phenomenal architectural detail and millwork, features which he prominently displayed in the house he built for his own family.
Isaiah Davenport House, 1820. Image courtesy of the Historic Savannah Foundation.
Parlor of the Isaiah Davenport House. Image courtesy of the Historic Savannah Foundation.
Woodwork detail of the Isaiah Davenport parlor. Image courtesy of the Historic Savannah Foundation.
The parlor mantel, detail. Image courtesy of the Historic Savannah Foundation.
Stairway of the Isaiah Davenport House. Image courtesy of the Historic Savannah Foundation.
The structure that survives today was built in 1820, a particularly busy time for Davenport, as he was helping to rebuild the city after a major fire. An elegant, if not slightly retard a terre, five-bay Federal-style structure, the dwelling served as a tour de force of Davenport’s aesthetic sense and technical skill. The curved double staircase and the extraordinary wood archway in the front hall, supported by ionic columns, are of particular note. Thankfully for the historically minded, these prominent features also saved the house from destruction.
Isaiah Davenport died in 1827 during a yellow fever epidemic, leaving the house to his wife Sarah, who took in boarders to help make ends meet. In 1840, she sold the home to the Baynard family, who owned the property until 1949. By the turn of the 20th century, the fashionable quarters of the city had shifted away from State Street, and the house increasingly suffered from neglect. And yet by 1934, when the house could be charitably described as “seedy,” its fine features were apparent enough to attract the attention of the Historic American Buildings Survey, which documented the structure. By 1955, the house was in dire straits, and, as so many historic structures were in post-war America, threatened with demolition. A group of concerned citizens banded together to purchase the dwelling, and, in doing so, formed the nucleus of the Historic Savannah Foundation, a community force that has saved hundreds of buildings in the city, and preserved the historic character so valued by locals and tourists today.
Front stairs of the Davenport House, photographed 1934. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey.
Front hall of the Davenport House, photographed 1934. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey.
Parlor woodwork of the Davenport House, photographed 1934. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey.
For the past six decades, the role and interpretation of the Davenport house has evolved, along with the fields of historic preservation and museum management. Originally the headquarters of Historic Savannah, the first floor opened as a museum in 1963, with the second and third floors added in subsequent decades as the Foundation moved its offices elsewhere.
Beginning in the 1990s, efforts to keep the house up to date with the latest museum standards and interpretation practices resulted in a new furnishing plan, research into the Davenports’ lives and possessions, and partnerships with craftsmen and scholars across the country to help bring the house back to the height of its 1820 glory. The efforts paid off. In 2003, the Historic Savannah Foundation won the Preserve America Presidential Award for the work on the restoration of the Davenport House and garden. In preserving the home, the Foundation has not just saved the visual record of the city’s history, they have saved the stories and tradition surrounding one of the key players in Savannah’s 19th-century development. We can hardly wait to explore the house next spring!
“Historic home” is a catch-all term that often fails to adequately describe the complex life and development of a dwelling. As properties change hands, new owners modify the structures and sites to better suit their own needs or the dictates of fashion. Happy Retreat, one of the stops on the Trust’s Fall Symposium to Virginia’s Northern Valleys, not only possesses a rich pre-Revolutionary connection to the Washington family, but a vibrant history, with a new and exciting chapter in its life, as a public venue, that is just beginning.
The land upon which Jefferson County and Charles Town, West Virginia (not to be confused with Charleston, the state’s capitol) sit was owned by Charles Washington—George Washington’s youngest brother—who inherited property from their half-brother Lawrence. Charles began laying out the present estate in 1780, and Charles Town in 1786, naming the streets for his older brothers, as well as his wife Mildred. Evidently the town was a bigger concern to Charles than his house. Architectural analysis by Matt Webster, Director of Architectural Resources at Colonial Williamsburg and a native of Jefferson County, confirms the long-held local knowledge that Charles and his family lived in two small brick structures (today comprising the east and west wings of the house), connected by a breezeway. Most of the house we see today was completely unknown to its most famous residents. The center block of the house was not built until 1837 under the ownership of Isaac A. Douglas, who renamed it Mordington after his family’s ancestral home in Scotland. Thankfully, Charles’ original structures and outbuildings were incorporated into the new design, preserving the spaces where his family lived and entertained his famous brother.
Happy Retreat, front elevation, c. 1937. Image courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.
Happy Retreat, rear elevation, c. 1937. The portico at the extreme left of the image, marks part of Charles Washington’s original structure. Image courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.
Illustration of the phases of construction at Happy Retreat. Image courtesy of the Friends of Happy Retreat.
Sadly, little seems to be recorded of Charles or his life in the house although George Washington was fond of visiting him as well as their brother Samuel, who also lived in Charles Town in a house called Harewood, which remains in the Washington family. George’s diary entries reveal that he spent the night at Happy Retreat, making it one of the comparably few houses in the country that can undeniably prove that “George Washington slept here.”
Although Happy Retreat has remained structurally intact since 1837, the house’s contents have not. When the property left the care of Washington’s descendents, original furniture and possessions went with them, and have largely been lost to history. A family of local furniture makers, the Conklyns, lived there for a time and used it as their workshop, fortunately preserving all the original woodwork. The 1940s proved to be a particularly colorful time in the house’s history, as it was briefly owned by R. J. Funkhouser, a West Virginia-born industrialist “who had a taste for Washington family estates.” Happy Retreat was one of several local properties, including Cedar Lawn, Blakely, and Claymont Court, to be purchased, restored according to historic records, and decorated with fine antiques. For two decades, these contiguous Washington estates became a Funkhouser family compound known collectively as O’Sullivan Farms, after R. J.’s shoe heel manufacturing corporation in Winchester, Virginia. Beginning in the late 1960s, the Funkhousers began divesting themselves of the historic estates one by one. William Gavin purchased Happy Retreat in 1968, and he and his wife lived there until the turn of the 21st century.
Happy Retreat, kitchen photographed c. 1937. The right side of the building dates from Charles Washington’s earliest occupation. Image courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.
Happy Retreat, schoolhouse built in 1837, photographed c. 1937. Image courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.
Happy Retreat, surviving interior mantle surround. Image courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.
In 2003, the Gavins put the house on the market. A property appraisal by the City of Charles Town showed that the land could potentially be subdivided for residential use, which worried local preservationists. Headed by Walter Washington, a direct descendent of George and Charles’ brother Samuel, a non-profit group named Friends of Happy Retreat formed to advocate for the acquisition, preservation, and reuse of the property. All told, the process took nearly nine years. Friends of Happy Retreat acquired the house and two acres outright in 2014, and the City of Charles Town purchased the remaining ten acres for use as a community park.
Friends of Happy Retreat find themselves in a unique position. Although seven Washington family homes are extant in Jefferson County, Charles Washington’s house is the first open to the general public. While making Happy Retreat a traditional house museum certainly holds an attraction, the challenge of furnishing an entirely empty structure with authentic objects—even if they had no direct connection to the Washingtons—would be difficult, costly, and limit the site’s potential. Even acquiring just one Washington family object would pose a challenge–any time one comes on the market the competition between collectors and museums is keen. Instead, the Friends and the town will collaborate to make Happy Retreat a destination: a location for community events, art exhibits, and festivals. The Trust’s visit to Happy Retreat in October will be an exciting opportunity to explore a significant property that has long been out of public view, and we look forward following the site’s progress as it develops its identity and unique niche.
Although the Trust’s Fall 2016 Study Trip Abroad is subtitled “Yorkshire in the Age of Chippendale,” the 18th century was just as much the age of Adam, Paine, and Brown, all designers and craftsmen whose collaboration—and competition—were equally responsible for the golden age of the 18th-century country house. A combination of factors helped create the remarkable edifices and interiors of this era: political stability, economic growth, the philosophical influence of the Enlightenment, and the historical and aesthetic reawakening of those making the Grand Tour on the continent. Any one of the houses on our schedule could be considered a representative sample, but Nostell Priory, near the town of Wakefield in West Yorkshire, possesses particular charm, as well as a noteworthy record of successive campaigns of building, decoration, and furnishing.
Writing about the English stately home involves as much genealogy as it does architectural and design history, and each subsequent campaign of building and redecorating can be tied to a specific generation–although in many cases the principal figures of each generation bear the same name. In the case of Nostell Priory, the family name tends to be Rowland Winn, Baronet Nostell. The current house was built by the 4th and 5th Baronets Nostell, who each benefitted from financially advantageous marriages and curated the most fashionable tastes and trends of the era by going on a Grand Tour.
Construction on the current house began in 1735 under the direction of James Paine. The selection of Paine, then 18 years old and unknown, by the 4th Baronet was a surprise. Paine was enthusiastic, however, and fortuitously possessed access to James Gibbs’ Book of Architecture. The austere Palladian house, renamed Nostell Priory following 110 years as Nostell Hall, represented the height of fashion in the 1740s. Paine was retained on and off at Nostell for the next thirty years as Clerk of Works and ad hoc decorator. Formally establishing an architectural practice in 1750, Paine also worked on a number of homes throughout West Yorkshire, eventually publishing two volumes of Plans, elevations, and sections of Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Houses (featuring many of his own commissions) before being named in 1780 as Architect of the Office of Works, the department of the overseeing the maintenance of the Royal Family’s castles and palaces throughout the country. Today, Paine’s sumptuous late-Baroque interiors, which contrast strikingly with his relatively plain exteriors, survive at Nostell Priory most notably in the South Staircase, State Dining Room, and the Crimson Room.
Unfortunately for Paine’s career, his aesthetic loyalties remained with the Baroque for his entire life, which caused an unfortunate professional slump in the later 1780s. Upon the 4th Baronet of Nostell’s death in 1765, his son the 5th Baronet (another Rowland Winn), ditched Paine for Robert Adam. A full decade younger, Robert Adam was the wunderkind of the mid-18th-century architects. Nostell Priory was one of two grand houses Adam snatched from the teeth of John Paine, and, unfortunately for the elder’s ego, Adam was also appointed to full term as Architect of the Office of Works in 1761, a good two decades before Paine received the honor himself. Adam produced a series of grand designs for the house, adding a curved double staircase to the front façade, and building the first of what was supposed to be four additional pavilions, extending from the four corners of Paine’s original block. Where Robert Adam truly introduced the Grand Tour at Nostell Priory was in his interiors. The Top Hall in particular is a masterpiece of neoclassicism, with the delicate plasterwork on the ceiling, frieze, and apse, providing a theme and variation on the architectural ornament of ancient Rome. The hall is missing the vibrant pastel colors of many of Adam’s other creations, but beautifully emphasizes the extraordinary oval-backed chairs by Thomas Chippendale.
Chippendale was brought on the work at Nostell in 1766 at the recommendation of Adam, although a (likely baseless) family legend has the teenage furniture virtuoso collaborating with John Paine to build an oversized doll house for the Winn family, still on display today. At the height of his career, Chippendale delivered some of his most technically advanced and creative work to Nostell Priory, including these chairs, a suite of extraordinary japanned green furniture. Some of his commissions hearkened back to his iconic pieces made famous in his The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director of 1754, and, unusually, he seems to have supplied mundane household objects for the staff spaces as well.
Circa 1770, Mahogany, Nostell Priory, attributed to Thomas Chippendale. Image courtesy of the National Trust. One of six dining chairs supplied to the Winns, directly quoting from designs appearing in both the 1754 and 1762 editions of the “Director.” Image courtesy of the National Trust.
1771, lacquered wood, Nostell Priory, Thomas Chippendale. Supplied for the State Apartment in 1771. Image courtesy of the National Trust.
Chair, c. 1770-75, pollard oak inlay, painted finish, Nostell Priory, attributed to Thomas Chippendale. These turned and carved oval-back chairs feature the Winn family crest, and were originally japanned or painted white to better coordinate with the plasterwork in Nostell Priory’s Top Hall. They were faux-grained in 1821. Image courtesy of the National Trust.
Circa 1785-95, Giltwood, Nostell Priory, attributed to Thomas Chippendale II. One of a set of giltwood furniture for the Nostell Priory Music Room. Image courtesy of the National Trust.
Perhaps it is because he possessed the artistic flexibility and adaptability that others like Paine did not that Chippendale’s name has become most strongly associated with 18th-century furnishings and interiors, and most of the houses we will be seeing proudly display his many fine commissions. At Nostell Priory, Adam and Chippendale’s superb collaboration ended with the furniture maker’s death in 1779. Thomas Chippendale the Younger continued his father’s tradition of commissions for the Winn family, including the fashionable giltwood seating for the music room, and the collaboration may well have continued for several more years had not the 5th Baronet died suddenly in a carriage accident in 1785. Work stopped immediately, and Adam’s plans for the house, including three more extensions to Paine’s original block, were never realized, as the house’s unusually asymmetrical appearance today bears witness. The 6th Baronet (also Rowland Winn), was aged only 10, and in his adulthood he proved interested primarily in hunting and sports, to the exclusion of building, decorating, marrying, and having children, in any order whatsoever. When he died at the age of thirty in 1805, the title and family name died with him.
Fortunately for the preservation of the house, the children of the 6th Baronet’s sister, Esther Williamson, inherited the house and its contents, and embraced their heritage with enthusiasm. This did, however, include taking on the Winn surname, and producing several more generations of Rowland Winns, who by the 1880s were re-elevated to the peerage with the title Baronets St. Oswald, in reference to the patron saint of the original medieval Nostell Priory. While they added to the both the fine and decorative arts collection of the house, they kept Adam’s completed interiors, along with the furniture designed both by the architect and Chippendale. In 1953, descendants of the family turned Nostell Priory and its contents over to the National Trust, while retaining private apartments on an upper floor for personal use. Since then, the house, surrounding park, and its contents have been on public view, providing a wonderful record of this unique period in British history!