The legacy of Henry Davis Sleeper


Value and display
While Beauport and its many objects were cited in many articles meant to educate readers interested in collecting antiques, it was Sleeper's dramatic arrangements of these objects—rather than any individual pieces-that have most fascinated people. Sleeper's most obvious and beguiling technique was the massing of objects of the same color—the false windows lined with amber and amethyst glass (see Figs. 2, 4), or the shelves with redware in the Pembroke Room (Fig. 8) and the green majolica in the Golden Step Room (Fig. 5). In the 1951 book Beauport at Gloucester: The Most Fascinating House in America, full of detail-crammed photographs and breathless text, is an account of a woman visiting from San Francisco who fainted, not once, but twice over Sleeper's signature arrangements of colored glass.8

This massing of similar objects in museums and private houses is so familiar today that we may take their impact for granted. A lot of any one kind of thing, valuable or not, has a huge effect. Of course, Sleeper and his Pembroke Room may also be partly responsible for the lamentable ubiquity of old-time butter churns and spinning wheels by the fireplaces of many a house from the 1920s onward.

Atmosphere and poetic license
Another of Sleeper's tricks was the introduction of "relics"—both authentic and not—to give various places their distinctive personality. The Nelson Room holds a framed shred of toile de Jouy depicting the funeral procession of Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), while a miniature of the naval hero's great love Emma Hamilton (c. 1765-1815) hangs above the bedside lamp. To further enhance the medieval atmosphere of the Chapel Chamber, the salvaged Gothic windows look out on a cathedral-like dovecote rooftop. A Franklin stove and other evocative objects underscore the Benjamin Franklin theme of the Game Room. The Byron Room was said to contain the poet's bed from Newstead Abbey, and although this wonderfully dramatic object seems appropriately Byronic, it is now known to have been made in Boston. The house is full of such stories and associations, although a curator once warned that, "it's better not to investigate some of them too closely."9

Here, perhaps, Sleeper was drawing on an older tradition. We know that he spent time in England and France, where he must have visited and been inspired by many great houses. And he himself apparently drew parallels between what he was doing at Beauport and what earlier romantic collectors like William Beckford (1760-1844) and Horace Walpole (1717-1797) did in their houses.10 While Sleeper identified with such earlier gentleman amateurs, he took a distinctly twentieth-century approach when he put his cultivated tastes and shopping skills to professional use. One of the things his clients seemed to want from him was the acquisition and installation of the same kinds of carefully curated "treasures" they saw at Beauport.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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