Eyre Hall on Virginia's Eastern Shore

When Littleton Eyre died in 1768, he left his land, including the fifteen-hundred-acre Eyre Hall plantation, to his only son, Severn. As a teenager, Severn had been sent to a school in Abington, Virginia, run by William Yates, who would later become president of the College of William and Mary and rector of Bruton Parish Church, both in Williamsburg. Severn spent two years at William and Mary beginning in 1754. In 1760 he married Margaret Taylor (1739-1812) of Norfolk, the daughter of a prominent merchant. Like his father, Severn was a vestryman of Hungar's Parish and a member of the House of Burgesses. On May 18, 1769, he signed the Virginia nonimportation resolutions along with fellow burgesses George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Traveling to New England in the company of his friend the Reverend Richard Hewitt the following year, Eyre met John Adams who recorded in his diary:

We all dined at Stedman's and had a very agreable Day. The Virginia Gentlemen are very full, and zealous in the Cause of American Liberty. Coll. Ayers [Eyre] is an intimate Friend of Mr. Patrick Henry, the first Mover of the Virginia Resolves in 1765, and is himself a Gentleman of great fortune, and of great Figure and Influence in the House of Burgesses. Both He and Mr. Hewit[t] were bred at the Virginia Colledge, and appear to be Men of Genius and Learning. . . .These gentlemen are all Valetudinarians, and are taking the Northern Tour for their Health.7

In January 1773 the Virginia Gazette announced the death of Severn Eyre of a "pleuritick" disorder in Norfolk, noting that "He was a Gentleman of Abilities, a warm Friend to his Country, and greatly esteemed."8

Only five years separate the detailed probate inventories of Littleton Eyre's estate recorded in 1769 and Severn's taken in 1774. It is apparent that Severn and Margaret Eyre had been active participants in the eighteenth-century consumer revolution, adding luxury goods to the household that expanded their ability to entertain in a genteel fashion. The 1774 inventory specifies two turkey carpets, "Queens china," "two neat fowling pieces silver mounted," "1 Violin Bow and Case," and a three-hundred-volume library. To his father's furnishings, which included "Forty five black Walnut, Cherry, and Megoggony Chairs" as well as twelve windsor chairs and "6 Leather Maple Chairs," Severn added a fashionable mahogany sideboard table, a desk-and-bookcase, and a pair of card tables-these last possibly the ones produced in the Anthony Hay shop in Williamsburg that have descended through the family, one of which remains at Eyre Hall (see Fig. 7).9 The silver listed in Littleton Eyre's probate inventory totaled 237 ounces. To the forms delineated, Severn added a "coffee pott," a "tea pott," a pair of silver candlesticks, a pair of "Silver Butter & Boats," and two dozen "new Silver table Spoons." Both inventories include "1 large silver Punch Bowl," which, valued at thirty pounds, was the most expensive single article of silver included in 1774. This is almost certainly the so-called Morning Star punch bowl made in London by John Sutton in 1692 and a rare survival of seventeenth-century domestic silver with a Virginia provenance. Eyre family lore recalls that Morning Star, a family racehorse, quaffed champagne from the bowl after winning a race (see Fig. 7).

Severn Eyre's death at thirty-seven left his widow to care for his business interests, plantation, and six children under the age of thirteen. The eldest son, Littleton (b. c. 1765), attended the College of William and Mary, where he was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. The second son, Severn (b. 1769), was sent to London to pursue a course of medical study at Guy's Hospital. In a series of weekly letters to Littleton in Virginia, Severn chronicled his studies and the diversions of London, including candid reports of his dalliances with prostitutes. In one letter he justified the beneficial effects of his nocturnal activities, observing, "speaking physically [I] think nature has clearly pointed out their advantages in clearing the head & stomach...for I declare positively that Dr. Saunders lecture is more easily comprehended after such an indiscression."10 Severn died in London in 1786 and Littleton followed in 1789. At twenty-one, the third son, John, inherited Eyre Hall, over which he would preside for sixty-six years.

John Eyre married Ann Upshur of Warwick in Accomac County in 1800. She was nineteen, and like her thirty-two-year-old husband had a distinguished Eastern Shore ancestry going back to the seventeenth century. Ann and John Eyre made subtle but fashionable changes to the house, including replacing a simple bolection fireplace molding in the parlor with a neoclassical chimneypiece featuring a carved urn and anthemions (see Fig. 1). To a late eighteenth-century story-and-a-half extension, they added a full second story in 1807 and extended the whole to accommodate a dining room (see Figs. 12, 13), storeroom, and housekeeper's room. A "porch room" with an architectural display cupboard connected this wing to the original house.

A barrel organ made in London by George Pike England in 1804 provided dance tunes, marches, and hymns for the merriment and edification of the musical household and its guests (see Fig. 5). A new and extensive dinner service of Chinese export porcelain in the neoclassical taste decorated with orange and brown swags and the cipher E guaranteed that the Eyres' table would be the most fashionably set in Northampton County. The suite of Baltimore furniture in the classical taste dating from about 1818 to 1825 that is now in the passage was probably ordered for that space (see Fig. 6). With Baltimore's emergence as the Chesapeake's primary business and maritime hub, the city's furniture manufacturers had a ready market in the more rural areas of the Chesapeake as well as Norfolk.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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