Ingrained patterns at SHELBURNE
By Kory Rogers
A photograph of Shelburne's rug room about 1960 captures Electra Havemeyer Webb's eye for mixing and matching decorative patterns (Fig. 12). Measuring nineteen by thirty-three feet with a thirteen-foot ceiling, the expansive gallery showcased the museum's collection of oversized area rugs and hall runners. Displayed both on the floor and hung on the walls like tapestries, the hooked, embroidered, and braided rugs became the backdrop for large-scale folk sculpture, including gilded American eagles and a rocking chair used as a trade sign, encapsulating the four tenets of Mrs. Webb's collecting aesthetic: color, pattern, whimsy, and scale. This quixotic installation was one room in the Hat and Fragrance Gallery complex, which was designed by Mrs. Webb to celebrate the patterns found in quilts, coverlets, samplers, lace, rugs, costumes, fashion accessories, wallpaper, hat- and bandboxes, and other artifacts.
Hat- and bandboxes, American, 1825-1855. Photograph by J. David Bohl.
The Hat and Fragrance Gallery owes its name to the collection, of course, but also to the aromatic herbal sachets once used to preserve early textiles.1 The structure as it exists today evolved over a period of ten years from 1947 to 1957 into a series of contiguous single-story galleries designed to resemble the exterior of rural New England's continuous architecture, in which additions were tacked on as needed. The oldest portion of the Hat and Fragrance complex, known as the "Town Barn," was built in 1800 by Captain Benjamin Harrington as a distillery for his inn in Shelburne.2 Constructed of hand-hewn timber with plank siding, the barn was later used for storage by the municipality of Shelburne, which gave it to Mr. and Mrs. Webb in 1947 in gratitude for their donation of a new town hall to replace the first, which had been destroyed by fire. The barn was used for storage and a carpentry shop until 1951, when a series of galleries was constructed on the north side of the structure for the installations of hatboxes (see Fig. 14), quilts, and needlework. Officially, Hat and Fragrance opened to the public in 1953. Subsequent galleries, including the large rug room, were added beginning in 1955, and renovations to the complex and exhibitions continued until 1957.3
When asked to describe the Hat and Fragrance Gallery, Mrs. Webb explained, "I [had] to have a unit that I could create myself...[and] that I could sort of go a little wild inside."4 She left her "wild" aesthetic imprint throughout the building's interior. Pattern was applied onto every surface from floor to ceiling and on everything in between. An early proponent of "upcycling," Mrs. Webb salvaged wood from old fencing and leftover stock from a defunct box factory to use as flooring and wall paneling throughout the galleries. Pickets of "mellow, weathered" pine from Shelburne Farms were "set into geometric shapes and sanded to a dusty rose, [to] make an enticing background for the various collections."5 A photograph taken during the construction of Hat and Fragrance about 1953 captured Mrs. Webb standing in front of a fan design built into the walls of what was then the main entrance gallery. Although hard to discern in the photograph of the rug room (Fig. 12), the walls are covered in a mosaic of maple, birch, and beech veneers arranged in a tiered pyramid pattern framed by upper and lower friezes. The "seasoned stock" from the defunct box factory was "clear and free" of knots because it had been intended to be used as veneering for wire-bound boxes.6 In addition to the walls, the entire gallery interiors received decorative treatment: the floors were artfully arranged in a checkered pattern; the exhibition case furniture was clad in striped veneers; built-in wall cases and ceilings were covered with cheerful Nancy McClelland wallpapers.
The so-called "quilt room" at the Brick House is a prime example of Mrs. Webb's approach to unusual wall treatments (Fig. 15). The walls are covered in many patterned pieced fabrics carefully arranged into architectural elements-chair rails, engaged pilasters, and cornice molding. Even the ceiling is tented with a patterned textile.
Electra Havemeyer Webb was continuously experimenting with exhibition techniques and changing and refining museum displays from season to season. Her installations were designed to give visitors visual access to a wide range of patterns. The room she created to house her voluminous collection of hat- and bandboxes (see Fig. 13) was meant to dazzle and overwhelm visitors with the magnitude of its contents (more than two hundred pieces) and its profusion of patterns. Because the curved surfaces of the oval pasteboard and wood boxes made it difficult to see the entire pattern run, Mrs. Webb had damaged boxes steamed flat so they could be hung on the wall, making more of the patterns accessible.
An early collector of quilts, Mrs. Webb was one of the first to exhibit them on the wall as if they were paintings, allowing visitors to see their stitched patterns head-on. She also devised a "cutting-edge quilt display...that made use of large, lightweight, hinged boards on which textiles could be mounted and through which the visitor could leaf with ease, like pages in a book"7 (Fig. 16). A brochure bearing Mrs. Webb's signature was recently discovered in the museum archives, suggesting a possible source of inspiration for her innovative quilt pages.8 The pamphlet advertising "Multiplex Display & Selling Equipment" featured a wall-mounted system of "swinging wing panels" designed to display merchandise "attractively grouped to style, quality, color combination and price." Two racks of thirteen pages each, front and back, provided Mrs. Webb with space to exhibit fifty-two quilts, each folded advantageously to show off the most intriguing aspects of its design.
In 1956 Mrs. Webb engaged the services of the theatrical set designers at Novelty Scenic Studios of New York to engineer one of her more technologically advanced displays, an automated lift system for rugs. Installed in 1957, the button-operated rug lift consisted of fourteen pulley-drawn eight-by-five-foot panels raised and lowered by fourteen individual motors. As is apt to happen with mechanical devices, the rug lift was plagued by technological difficulties that ultimately resulted in its being dismantled.
Although Mrs. Webb's installation of Hat and Fragrance was innovative for its time, audiences and the way they view objects have changed dramatically. Accustomed to viewing art against the setting of plain white walls, they found the mosaic wood-paneled walls distracting. In 2005 the museum completed a major renovation of the Hat and Fragrance Gallery made possible by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. The patterned mosaic walls, with the exception of those in the new sampler gallery, were preserved and covered with drywall to create a smooth, unified substrate for rotating exhibitions of quilts and rugs. In keeping with Mrs. Webb's innovative spirit, Shelburne was one of the first institutions to adopt LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology, which does not produce UV rays, lasts up to fifty thousand hours, and uses a fraction of the electricity of fluorescent bulbs, making it ideal for textiles and their sensitive dyes.9
Electra Havemeyer Webb's love of decorative patterns combined with her playful sense of design is an inextricable part of Shelburne Museum. Pattern, a preference for bright colors, whimsy, and an interest in exaggerated scale are reflected throughout the museum's campus in the architecture, objects, installations, and soul of Shelburne.
KORY ROGERS is Curator of Design Arts at Shelburne Museum.
1 Shelburne Museum Guide to the Collections (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt., 1993), p. 28. 2 Catalogue book number 4.8, Shelburne Museum collection catalogue records for Hat and Fragrance, Shelburne Museum Archives. 3 For a complete history of the Hat and Fragrance Gallery please refer to the building finding aide, Shelburne Museum Archives. 4 Quoted in Lauren B. Hewes and Celia Y. Oliver, To Collect in Earnest: The Life and Work of Electra Havemeyer Webb (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt., 1997), p. 34. 5 Ralph Nading Hill and Lilian Baker Carlisle, The Story of the Shelburne Museum (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt., 1955), p. 28. 6 Catalogue book number 4.8, Shelburne Museum collection catalogue records for Hat and Fragrance. 7 Jean M. Burks, Beyond the Bed: The American Quilt (Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, N.Y., 2013), p. 24. 8 Hat and Fragrance Building File, Shelburne Museum Archives. 9 Richard Kerschner, "Preventive Conservation for Cultural Properties in Historic Buildings: Practical Environmental Control and Lighting at Shelburne Museum," lecture, New England Archivists Fall Meeting at Simmons College, November 14, 2008.