A Charmed Life (From our Archives)

WILLIAM NATHANIEL BANKS Living with Antiques

From The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2015. |

English inspiration, American creativity, and a bit of historical luck are joined in the author’s house and gardens

Fig. 1. The neoclassical façade of the Gordon-Banks house in Newnan, Georgia.

Several years ago English friends came for lunch at my house, now called the Gordon-Banks house, in Newnan, Georgia, some forty miles southwest of Atlanta. They walked down a wide hallway onto a porch that overlooks a terrace and what the English call “the park”—in this instance, a broad sweep of lawn trimmed with trees and shrubs that slopes to the banks of a small lake (see Figs. 1, 3). “Why!” one of the guests exclaimed, “You have a Capability Brown landscape.” I accepted the compliment, since Lancelot Brown (1716–1783), who was called Capability because he was quick to discern the capabilities of an estate, was the most eminent landscape gardener in England for much of the eighteenth century. However it is the work of his successor Humphry Repton that I believe has an affinity with the park and formal gardens at the Gordon-Banks house. My father, William N. Banks Sr. (1884–1965), had acquired the property in the late 1920s and worked with William C. Pauley (1893–1985), a landscape architect, to create a pleasing landscape in the English style.

Fig. 3. The view from the front hall of the terrace, “clipt hedge,” and the “park” beyond.

In the 1820s, a hundred years before my father built a Tudor-style house on the property in Newnan, John W. Gordon (1797–1868), an affluent cotton planter, hired a young carpenter named Daniel Pratt (1799– 1873) to build an impressive house on his plantation near Milledgeville, Georgia. Pratt was born on a farm in Temple, a village in southern New Hampshire, and at sixteen was apprenticed for five years to a master carpenter, Kimball Putnam. After four years, when Putnam suffered financial reverses, Pratt reckoned that his best prospects lay in the South where, thanks to Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, the planters were prospering as never before. The enterprising youth borrowed twenty-five dollars from his grandfather and sailed from Boston to Savannah in November 1819 with no possessions except his carpenter’s tools and, most likely, a copy of Asher Benjamin’s book The American Builder’s Companion. He worked there for a year or so before moving to Milledgeville, the capital of Georgia from 1805 to 1868. Although there is little documentation, it seems that from 1821 to 1831 Pratt built at least eight remarkably elegant neoclassical houses in the town and on nearby plantations.

Fig. 5. Lord Sidmouth’s, in Richmond Park by Humphry Repton (1752–1818), from Repton’s ‘Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening’ (1816), suggesting the travails resulting from having the park extend to the house.

The façade of the house he built for John Gordon features a portico with a pediment and balcony supported by two slender Roman Doric columns; Doric pilasters ornament the corners (Fig. 1). Inside, an arch trimmed with gilded acanthus leaves divides the central hall, and at one end a circular stair ascends two flights to the attic (see Fig. 4).

Although Pratt would have described himself as a carpenter or builder, not an architect, he did in fact design the houses he built. However, for a number of the decorative elements he relied on drawings in Benjamin’s American Builder’s Companion, first published in 1806. Pratt’s successful applications of Benjamin’s designs at the Gordon house include the configuration of the balusters on the porch and balcony; the cone-shaped guttae, instead of the ubiquitous dentils, that trim the external entablature; and the resplendent fanlight spanning a double door in the hall. It seems remarkable, when Milledgeville was still a frontier town with Indians ensconced between the town and Alabama, that artisans were available to execute the expert millwork, the wood graining and marbleizing, and the elegant plaster decorations.

Fig. 6. Repton’s Fence near the House, from ‘Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening’, demonstrating the advantages of having the park separated from the house.

In the early 1830s Pratt decided that manufacturing was more lucrative than the building trade, and he believed there was greater opportunity farther west. He, his family, and two servants set out in wagons for Alabama, taking with them material for fifty cotton gins. Acquiring property near Montgomery, he founded a town and named it Prattville. He built a cotton gin factory where he manufactured an improved model of Eli Whitney’s gin, and before the Civil War the New Hampshire farm boy became Alabama’s first industrial millionaire.

Fig. 7. Among the furnishings of the parlor are terra-cotta busts of Marie-Antoinette and the eighteenth-century French actor Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy, the latter a copy of the bust sculpted by Jean-Jacques Caffieri (1725–1792). The settee is inscribed by Samuel McIntire, an early nineteenth-century Philadelphia cabinetmaker with the same name as the famous Salem, Massachusetts, artisan.

In 1848 John Gordon sold his house to Thomas O. Bowen for eight thousand dollars and moved to Wharton, Texas, where he owned a large property. The Bowen family occupied the house throughout the Civil War and in November 1864, in the course of Sherman’s march through Georgia, General Francis P. Blair Jr. (1821–1875), commander of the Seventeenth Army Corps, briefly made the Bowens’ house his headquarters. Blair wrote his father in Washington boasting of the appalling damage he and his troops were inflicting—but, for whatever reason, he left the Bowens’ house untouched.

In 1881 Bowen sold the house to his brother-in-law James H. Blount of Macon, Georgia, and for more than a century it was sporadically occupied. In the 1940s, when the house was threatened with demolition by a lumber company, a professor at the college in Milledgeville, L. C. Lindsley, who considered the house an architectural treasure, bought it to preserve it. Although he never lived there, he diligently maintained the grand old house. In 1959, having seen photographs taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey in the 1930s, I contacted Lindsley, and he graciously gave me a tour of the property. I was awestruck by a unique house that had remained virtually unaltered for more than a century; and, I confess, I fell in love.

Fig. 8. The caryatid card table has been attributed to Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819) and, more recently, to Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854), who is thought to have copied Lannuier. Flanking the windows are lyre-back chairs attributed to Phyfe.

In 1968, after Professor Lindsley’s death, my wonderful mother, Evelyn Wright (Mrs. William N.) Banks, persuaded a Lindsley daughter to sell her the house, and she chose a multi-talented architect, Robert Raley from Wilmington, Delaware, to move it. Within a year and a half Raley, supervising capable contractors and veteran artisans, managed to transfer the Gordon house from a barren field near Milledgeville to verdant surroundings in Newnan. Indeed, the park and gardens originally created by William Pauley and my father might have been designed to accommodate and enhance the house.

Of course the house was empty, with no furnishings whatever. Since I believe that if a house makes a strong architectural statement, that statement should be respected and reflected in its decor, I tried to collect furniture and paintings appropriate to this remarkable early nineteenth-century house. In the sun-filled parlor, with its original wood graining and marbleizing and its intricate plasterwork, there are lyre-back chairs attributed to Duncan Phyfe and a caryatid card table originally attributed to Charles-Honoré Lannuier and, more recently, to Phyfe (Fig. 8). In the dining room is a Sheraton style Massachusetts sideboard of about 1820 equipped with a butler’s desk (Fig. 9). To its left hangs a still life by Severin Roesen (c. 1816–c. 1872). The painting above the bookcase in the study (Fig. 10), a view of Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, was painted by Albert Bierstadt. Another White Mountain scene, this one by Asher B. Durand, hangs above the fireplace.

Fig. 11. This room in one of the flanking wings displays an assemblage of nineteenth-century American paintings, most prominently a portrait of Ann Elizabeth Harris James (1818–1908) painted by Henry C. Byrd (1805–1884) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the 1840s.

After the house was moved to Newnan, two flanking wings were built on the east and west sides to replace outbuildings that had been long ago destroyed. One houses the kitchen, the other a gallery of nineteenth-century paintings and sculpture (Fig. 11). Upstairs there are three bedrooms. After spending a night in one of the guestrooms (Fig. 12), in which hangs a portrait of John Gordon, a gift from descendants, Morrison H. Heckscher, the former chairman of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote to me: “I know of no more comfortably authentic, untouched, all original house in America.”

Some years ago I had acquired at auction all three of Humphry Repton’s folio volumes—Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1794), Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803), and Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816). These fascinating books are composed of text and pictures that explicate Repton’s preferences in the designs of parks and gardens. I was immediately struck by the resemblance of Repton’s designs to the landscape of the Gordon-Banks house.

Fig. 13. The focal point of a formal garden a few steps from the terrace is an Italian fountain with three basins and carved lions’ heads and dolphins. It was acquired in New Orleans in 1858 by Godfrey Barnsley for his Tuscan villa with elaborate gardens in the north Georgia hills.

Humphry Repton was born in Bury St. Edmunds in April 1752 to well-to-do parents. His father, John Repton, envisioned a business career for his son, and when Humphry was sixteen John secured a position for him at a prosperous textile house. He remained with the firm for five years, but it appears from his recollection of the period that he was more concerned with his own apparel than with the textiles he was hired to purvey. “In those days of my puppy-age every article of my dress was most assiduously studied, and…I recall to mind the white coat, lined with blue satin, and trimmed with silver fringe, in which I was supposed to captivate all hearts.”1 The heart he succeeded in captivating belonged to Mary Clarke, and he proposed when he was eighteen. Due to parental pressure the engagement endured for three years, and they married at last in May 1773.

After the death of his parents in 1778 Repton happily relinquished his business career. He bought Old Hall in Norfolk, a seventeenth-century manor house, and relished the life of a country gentleman, overseeing his farm and working in his garden. However, with his increasingly numerous progeny, he realized his income was inadequate. He sold Old Hall and bought a cottage in Essex in the oddly named village of Hare Street. He tried his hand at a variety of occupations: as private secretary to a distinguished friend, as a writer of essays and art criticism, and as a playwright. None of these provided a sufficient income. One restless night in the summer of 1788 it suddenly occurred to him that he was already prepared to practice landscape gardening. His lifelong interest in horticulture and architecture, his talent for writing and drawing, and his acquaintance with prosperous members of the aristocracy were all assets. Capability Brown had been dead for five years, and as no one of comparable stature had appeared. Repton was convinced he was singularly equipped to replace the master.

Fig. 14. About 1800 Repton designed a garden feature for Bulstrode, the duke of Portland’s estate in Buckinghamshire, seen here in a print by John Peltro after Repton, from Peacock’s Polite Repository (1802).

Repton genuinely admired Capability, referring to him as “the immortal Brown,”2 and he learned a great deal by studying his impressive achievements. They both designed picturesque parks with gently rolling hills, vast lawns, strategically placed trees and shrubs, and a stream or lake. Despite their similarities, Repton differed from Brown on certain significant issues, and he emphatically denounced what he regarded as Brown’s defects. For instance, Brown had insisted that the park extend right to the front door of the mansion, and he eliminated any trace of formal gardens around the edifice. Repton ridiculed “that bald and insipid custom, introduced by Brown, of surrounding a house by a naked grass field.”3 He wrote, “If there be any part of my practice liable to the accusation of often advising the same thing at different places, it will be true in all that relates to my partiality for a Terrace as a fence near the house…that line of demarcation betwixt art and nature…betwixt the garden and the park; betwixt the ground allotted to the pleasure of man, and that to the use of cattle.”4 In contrast to Brown’s aversion to formality, Repton insisted on a terrace framed with a balustrade (see Fig. 6) or “clipt hedge,”5 and he frequently designed a series of formal gardens in the vicinity of the house.

Fig. 15. A flight of stone steps leads to a pool and a pavilion with a striped canopy remarkably similar to Repton’s design in Fig. 14.

Once Repton determined to practice landscape gardening for profit he wasted no time launching his career. His first commission in September 1788 was a 112-acre estate at Catton on the outskirts of Norwich. It was for his third commission in March 1789 that he prepared his first so-called Red Book. Brandsbury was a modest property near London, one of several domiciles belonging to Lady Salusbury, an imposing widow often surrounded by her six pet dogs. Bound in red leather, the Red Book proved to be a brilliant marketing device. Repton produced one for most of his subsequent commissions. When he was invited to recommend what were called “improvements” at an estate, he would spend several days there, surveying the property, and he would eventually present a Red Book to the owner. The books were composed of a handwritten text, explaining in detail his suggested improvements, and illustrated with his watercolors. The pictures were often unflattering representations of the existing scene, to which he attached a flap; when the flap was opened, uncovering a large portion of the picture—lo and behold!—there was an irresistible depiction of a transformed landscape if Repton’s improvements were implemented.

Fig. 16. From the pool an opening in the hedge gives onto a boxwood maze crowned by a gazebo with an oriental motif.

In contrast to the relative modesty of his early commissions, in 1790 Repton was engaged by the duke of Portland to improve his nine hundred-acre park at Welbeck in Nottinghamshire, and, in 1791 the prime minister, William Pitt (1759–1806), retained him to design the gardens at Holwood, his seat in Kent. Pitt’s friends and supporters discovered Repton, and his reputation soon spread all over England. In her novel Mansfield Park Jane Austen devised a scene that attested to his fame. James Rushworth, a young gentleman of means, is deploring the condition of the estate Sotherton Court.

“I never saw a place that wanted so much improvement in my life; and it is so forlorn I do not know what can be done…I hope I shall have some good friend to help me.” “Your best friend on such as occasion,” said Miss Bertram calmly, “would be Mr. Repton, I imagine.” “That is what I was thinking of…I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day.”

Figs. 18a, 18b. Repton’s “before” and “after” pictures of Wingerworth Hall, Sir Windsor Hunloke’s estate in Derbyshire, from Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscaping Gardening, p. 64.

Despite some frustrations, in the first decade of the nineteenth century Repton achieved major successes. For the Woburn Abbey estate in Bedfordshire of his most valuable patron, the sixth duke of Bedford, he created a dazzling series of formal gardens: a rosary, American and Chinese gardens, an arboretum, and a menagerie, among others.

Now, when I stand on my porch and look over the terrace and “clipt hedge” to the expanse of lawn planted with trees and shrubs and, beyond, to the lake, I think of Repton. I walk down a slight incline to the formal garden with a nineteenth-century marble fountain (Fig. 13) and continue on to a pool and a pavilion with a striped canopy (Fig. 15). Strolling through an opening in the holly hedge surrounding the pool, I pause at a gazebo that overlooks a boxwood maze (Fig. 16) before entering the flower garden with its roses and peonies (Fig. 17). I appreciate the series of well-designed gardens—and, again, I think of Repton.

Fig. 19. Restoration of the Reptonian landscape is progressing, as seen in this view of the candlelit house and park at dusk.

Reading more about him in preparation for writing this article, I was surprised to learn of Repton’s considerable influence on landscape architects in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In his very successful book, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841), Andrew Jackson Downing described Repton as “one of the most celebrated English practical landscape gardeners”6 and quoted extensively from his writings. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) was also a devotee of Repton, recommending his work to young landscape architects who asked his advice. The most serendipitous revelation, thanks to a friend’s research, concerned the educator Frank Waugh (1869–1943). In 1902, with an academic background in horticulture, Waugh joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts) in Amherst; and there he established a department of landscape gardening, the second in the United States. Waugh, like Downing and Olmsted, was an advocate of Repton’s work. In his book The Landscape Beautiful, Waugh wrote, “the extravagances of Brown and his immediate imitators had been succeeded by the practical common sense and masterful genius of Repton,”7 and in recommending Repton’s Observations he commented, “This is the most valuable of early works on the practice of landscape gardening. Its instructions are still of great value.”8 Waugh not only praised Repton in his books and articles, he discussed his theories in his lectures.

Fig. 4. An arch with its original moldings, gilded acanthus decoration, and wood-grained columns frames the wide hallway and circular stairs.

William Pauley, who, with my father, designed the grounds of the property in Newnan, earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1918. Since Waugh was his instructor, it seems likely that Pauley absorbed Repton’s principles of landscape gardening in the two years he spent at the college. Pauley moved to Atlanta in 1919 and in 1923, when he opened his own practice, he was the only professionally trained landscape architect in the state. Five years later my father retained his services. Thus, Repton’s theories may well have influenced Pauley’s designs for the Gordon-Banks landscape, and his precepts are still respected here.

Fig. 10. The oil painting above the bookcase in the study is by Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902); the one above the fireplace is by Asher B. Durand (1796–1886). The pair of armchairs was made in New York c. 1825.

When I was perusing Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening I was struck by the similarity of the site of Wingerworth in Derbyshire to my property in Newnan, but I was dismayed to note that aspects of my landscape resembled the “before” illustration of Wingerworth’s park (Fig. 18a). In the 1930s and 1940s Pauley planted trees and shrubs that had grown and merged to create a pair of vegetative masses framing the lawn. In an effort to replicate the picturesque effect of Repton’s “after” illustration (Fig. 18b), I took his advice, removing trees and shrubbery to open the massive rows that he described as “puerile attempts at mock importance…not worthy to be retained”9 and planted several widely spaced elm trees and a small grove of fruit trees on the lawn (see Fig. 19). Still a work in progress, I believe that a well-preserved neoclassical house from the 1820s deserves a Reptonian landscape.

Special thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas M. Lee, who was inestimably helpful to me in writing this article. 

WILLIAM NATHANIEL BANKS, a writer and lecturer on American art and architecture, is a frequent contributor to Antiques, most often writing about historic towns and (other people’s) historic houses.

1 Quoted in Edward Hyams, Capability Brown and Humphry Repton (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1971), pp. 117–118. 2 Humphry Repton, Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (London, 1794), introduction, p. xiv. 3 Humphry Repton, assisted by J. Adey Repton, Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening…(London, 1816), pp. 38–39. 4 Ibid., p. 8. 5 Humphry Repton, Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (London, 1803), p. 126. 6 A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (New York, 1841), p. 268. 7 F. A. Waugh, The Landscape Beautiful…(Orange Judd, New York, 1910), p. 160. 8 F. A. Waugh, Landscape Gardening…(Orange Judd, New York, 1905), p. 147. 9 Repton, Fragments, p. 61.

This Week’s Destinations for Digital Culture: July 8 to 14

Jenamarie Boots Exhibitions

Collage on front of tape box from NBC Timex All-Star Jazz Show (1957 & 1958). Louis and Lucille Armstrong on the left and a man wearing a Velma Middleton necktie on the right. Louis Armstrong House Museum.

Louis Armstrong House Museum

The Louis Armstrong House Museum is physically situated in Queens, New York; a modest home that was inhabited by Armstrong and his wife, Lucille, from 1943 until their passing. It’s virtual location – That’s My Home– captures the comfort of the abode; particularly poignant at a time when many of us have to remain inside. The virtual exhibits, album track collections, videos with jazz historian and educator Hyland Harris, and virtual tour of the house all make use of the museum’s extensive digital collections. Containing more than 60,000 items, the digital collections are extensive enough to warrant their own series of visits.

Of the virtual exhibits, one of the most striking is “A Little Story of My Own”: Armstrong and Collage. The inimitable jazz musician was also a prolific maker of Scotch-taped collages, and he made extensive recording of conversations that can be listened to as part of the exhibit. Both the collages and recordings are a treat – lending a very intimate and unique lens for us to view the great Satchmo.


Philip Mould in his barn, aside a 19th century sculpture. Philip Mould & Co.

Art in Isolation: Philip Mould

British art dealer Philip Mould – familiar to many from the BBC program Fake or Fortune? and responsible for major discoveries of Thomas Gainsborough, Anthony Van Dyck and Thomas Lawrence works – has produced an extended series of videos from his home at Duck End in Oxfordshire. The first in the Art in Isolation series has Mould giving a brief history of his home, and some highlights from his personal collection connected to the home. Subsequent videos follow a similar format, some of the highlights of which are:

Philip Mould & Co. have even more videos outside of this series, which you can enjoy on their YouTube channel.


The Irish Country House

The Irish Georgian Society has recently shared a 1993 film charting the development of the Irish “country house” from castles to Palladian mansions available to watch on Vimeo. Narrated by Anjelica Huston, the film visits some 40 locations across Ireland and explores how ideas of the country house changed over time. Special emphasis is given to the Georgian era, with both aerial and detail views, and – I feel I must note – Huston’s voice and lilt make it a particularly pleasant listen.


Display with Asokan inscription at the centre in the Early History section of the Hotung Gallery. Photograph © Sushma Jansari.

The Wonder House

Dr. Sushma Jansari, curator of South Asian art and artifacts at The British Museum,  writes and records – sharing conversations with colleagues across the cultural and higher education sectors –  Wonder House, a platform for a podcast and articles that offer a behind-the-scenes look at the museum’s collections. Two notable entries are:

  • Moved, blown up, restored: the journey of an Asokan Inscription at the British Museum: an extensive review of one of the most important objects in the South Asia collections at the British Museum. Jansari covers both the history of the object itself, as well as the challenges faced while making the museum display that accompany it. This is an interesting inside look at how the process of curation plays out within an exhibit.
  • The Wonder House podcast interview of Miranda Lowe: Lowe’s work as principal curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the Natural History Museum (London) has included research into Graman Kwasi, a Surinamese freedman, natural scientist and collector. Lowe speaks about unearthing stories about the important contributions that people of color have made to the study of natural history and science, as well as the challenges of curation.

Vladimir Jurowski at his home, performing the King Stephen Overture. London Philharmonic Orchestra.

London Philharmonic Orchestra

While nothing can replace the feeling of live music, the London Philharmonic Orchestra has created a new series of digital initiatives to bring the spirit of live performance into our homes. LPOnline – consisting of Playlist Concerts, Performances, and Behind the Music videos and recordings – is a blend of serious and playful pieces created from isolation. Themed playlists are also available on Spotify; perfect for a drive or a socially-distanced walk. Two TMA favorites from the collection:

  • The Undiscovered Beethoven: Vladimir Jurowski, the LPO’s principal conductor, offers insight into four lesser-known Beethoven works, originally due to be performed at the Southbank Centre. Scroll down this page to find the video, Spotify and Idagio playlists, as well as the program.
  • The LPO Choir performing a “lockdown version” of Awen by Paul Fincham: Awen was selected because it refers to the Druid symbol of the Triad of the Sunrises, and the recording was posted to celebrate the summer solstice. The performance is, of course, spectacular and sure to lift you into a summer state of mind. (Also, it may offer inspiration for your next Zoom conference?) 

Jenamarie Boots

New light: More squares from Mrs. Miner’s carpet (From our Archives)

JAN WHITLOCK Art

From The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2015. |

Deer panel from carpet worked by Eliza Campbell Miner, 1836–1844. Wool on linen, 25 ½ by 26 ½ inches. Jewett-Berdan Antiques, Newcastle, Maine.

Discoveries come in such unexpected ways. You can search for years for a missing piece of your puzzle without success. And then, sometimes, it falls in your lap! That is what happened last year when my friend Tom Jewett, of Jewett-Berdan Antiques, posted pictures of his Christmas decorations on Facebook.

Tom and Butch Berdan go all out for Christmas at their home in rural Maine, displaying antique decorations collected over the years. Last year they posted a picture of an embroidered panel depicting a deer that they had placed above a garland-bedecked mantel.

Although I had not seen it before it looked familiar. I asked them about its size and when they measured it as 25 ½ by 26 ½ inches, I knew I had stumbled on one of the missing panels of Mrs. Miner’s carpet. Even better, they had, they told me, a second panel, a floral bouquet.

In June of 1926 five panels of Mrs. Miner’s rug were published in The Magazine ANTIQUES. At that time it was recorded that she had made a patchwork rug sixteen feet square. In 1844 she had sent it to the New York State Fair for exhibition where, according to the magazine: “it was given a special display by itself. At the time it was described as showing a border, consisting entirely of bouquets of flowers, and a central series picturing groups of cattle, sheep with their shepherds, hunters on the trail of buffalo and moose, game birds, and what not else.”1

Mrs. Miner was born Eliza Gratia Campbell in Middlebury, Vermont, in 1805 and married Ebenezer Miner in 1829 in Canton, New York. She was about thirty years old when she started embroidering her rug. She is listed in the 1880 census as a widow with her occupation given as artist.2

Floral bouquet panel from Mrs. Miner’s carpet, 1836–1844. Wool on linen, 25 ½ by 26 ½ inches. Jewett-Berdan Antiques.

At the time of the article in 1926, the carpet had been broken up and its parts distributed among members of the Miner family. The five blocks illustrated were owned by Fanny E. Wead but the whereabouts of the remaining panels were unknown. We have since learned that three blocks from Mrs. Miner’s carpet were shown in the “Woman’s Department of the American Exhibition now held at Boston” in 1883.3 And that one block was exhibited at the “Woman’s Exchange, Atlantic avenue” at an unknown date.4

While researching my book American Sewn Rugs 5 we located and included a sixth panel—a fine wool-embroidered image of two golden retrievers with trees in the foreground and a manor house in the background—in the collection of the Shelburne Museum. The stitching covers the entire surface and attention to detail is evident in both the dogsand the landscape. This panel had been donated to Shelburne in 1953 by Tilton Wead Rodgers, a great-granddaughter of Mrs. Miner. At that time the donor wrote: “I wish all the pieces of this carpet could be brought together, but know that would be impossible. Each of my cousins has a square or two, but I think others were given away and I remember cutting up one piece to cover a foot-stool many years ago.”6

At some point fifteen squares of the carpet were exhibited at the Folk Arts Center at 670 Fifth Avenue in New York City “through the courtesy” of Mrs. Miner’s granddaughter Mary De Forest Wead Weeks. In a difficult-to-see image of the squares displayed at that time, it appears that the Jewett-Berdan pieces were among them.7

There is some discrepancy in the number of blocks in the complete rug. The relative measurement of each block as two feet square in a rug measuring sixteen feet square, as noted in the 1926 ANTIQUES article, suggests a total of sixty-four panels. However, the Folk Arts Center exhibition paperwork states that there were twenty-four original blocks. Three of the fifteen blocks shown then appear to be among the five illustrated in 1926.

Golden retrievers panel from Mrs. Miner’s carpet, 1836–1844. Wool on linen, 26 by 23 ½ inches. Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.

As Homer Eaton Keyes noted, “Mrs. Miner’s floral medallions are strongly suggestive of those with which hooked rugs have made us familiar. Indeed, the floral squares themselves, with their strongly marked centers and heavy borders, are definitely suggestive of the patterns of hooked rugs.”8

My hope is that more of these glorious panels will be uncovered. Wouldn’t that be something!

1 Homer Eaton Keyes, “A Note on Embroidered Carpets,” The Magazine antiques, June 1926, pp. 398-402. 2 I am grateful to Lynne Z. Bassett for sharing her research in the 1880 U.S. Census records. 3Clipping from unidentified Philadelphia newspaper, October 1883, acquisition papers, file 1953–1016, Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont. 4 Undated and unmarked news clipping, ibid. 5 Jan Whitlock with Tracy Jamar, American Sewn Rugs: Their History with Exceptional Examples (privately printed, 2012). 6 Acquisition papers, file 1953-1016, Shelburne Museum. 7 The papers in the Shelburne files related to the Folk Arts Center exhibition are undated, but since Mary De Forest Weeks died in 1945, the exhibition to which she lent the squares must have been before that year. 8 Keyes, “A Note on Embroidered Carpets,” p. 400.

Critical Thinking, Difficult Issues: Jeepers Creepers

Glenn Adamson Opinion

Victorian handmade figures of card players made from crab’s legs and claws. Photograph courtesy of the York Castle Museum, England.

It all started with a hair bun. The date was April 17, by which time most of Europe and America were a month into pandemic-prompted lockdown. Museums worldwide were closed, and facing staggering income shortfalls. They were also starting to think about how they might keep in touch with the public. And so it came to pass that the digital and communications team at the York Museum Trust put up the following Twitter post:

MUSEUMS ASSEMBLE! 

It’s time for #CURATORBATTLE

Today’s theme, chosen by you, is #CreepiestObject! We’re kicking things
off with this 3rd/4th century hair bun
from the burial of a
#Roman lady, still
with the jet pins in place… 

CAN YOU BEAT IT? 

It was an inspired moment. The tweet went viral, reposted more than five thousand times. Museums around the world began posting their own unsettling artifacts, among them a bat in a bottle, Victorian hair jewelry, a doll with a melted face, even a bracelet made of goat toenails. The press loved it. Creepiest Object got coverage from the BBC and CNN. Hyperallergic provided a gleeful rundown of the ghastliest entries, with the warning “this article includes images that you will not be able to unsee.” For the trust—which manages five venues in York, an ancient city in northern England—it was a public relations victory snatched from the jaws of institutional crisis. They’d had to furlough fully 80 percent of their staff to survive, leaving only ten people in place. Yet Millie Carroll, the trust’s digital communications officer, was working furiously to keep up public interest. Likes can’t replace core funding. But it was still a welcome development at a most unwelcome time.

One of the other staff members at the York Museums Trust who is still working is Lee Clark, head of communications. He was kind enough to share with me his thoughts about this runaway success. What did it suggest about the way his museum—and museums in general—was responding to the Covid-19 quarantine? “Social media is one of the few ways we can still reach audiences,” he replied. And while the sensationalistic tone of a Twitter throwdown is obviously quite different from a museum’s onsite communication style, the initiative did draw on the traditional strengths of the organization, with curators collaborating with the digital team to develop content. “By bringing these different skill sets 
together to work collaboratively, we’re able to think about our collections, audiences, and engagement techniques in different ways,” Clark says, “hopefully learning lessons for new ways of working in the future.” 

From this perspective, the idea of the Curator Battle was more than just a lighthearted gesture; it was a well-timed invitation to virtual conversation. With buildings closed to all but essential security personnel, museums are turning to online platforms—not only social media, but also Zoom “webinars” and online interviews, virtual tours, and other offerings—to continue their work. It will be fascinating to see whether, post-Covid, museums revert to the status quo ante. Perhaps the public will simply rush back to galleries with a flood of relief. But given the inevitably gradual nature of reopening, the new audience that has been established for online content, and the relative cheapness of that content’s delivery, it does seem likely that there will be a permanent shift. “Museums ignore digital at their peril,” Clark says. That has been true for a while now, but they’ll need to raise their game considerably in the years to come.

Seen in this light, York’s #CreepiestObject is more than just a curiosity. No doubt it caught on partly because of the theme’s implicit topicality, at a time of widespread anxiety (one of the most popular entries in the thread was a historic plague doctor’s mask). Yet the phenomenon is just one example of the way that museum collections are being rethought on the fly, little unnoticed by official cultural gatekeepers. In this dynamic online landscape, connoisseurship is not nearly as important as a sense of humor, lightness of touch, even a taste for the bizarre. Traditional qualitative hierarchies simply can’t compete. 

A case in point is the Museum of English Rural Life, in Reading, a tiny specialist institution that, seemingly inexplicably, has more than 150,000 Twitter followers. This astonishing statistic is thanks largely to the work of Adam Koszary, who fashioned the institutional account (@TheMERL) into a uniquely addictive blend of countryside arcana and comical absurdism. A breakthrough moment came in April 2018, when he sent out an archival photo of an amply proportioned sheep with the simple caption, “look at this absolute unit.” It’s been retweeted nearly thirty thousand times. 

3rd–4th century hair bun from the burial of a Roman woman. Photograph courtesy of the Yorkshire Museum, York, England.

After his post about the sheep (in fact, an aged Exmoor Horn ram) went viral, he realized he had to exploit the moment for all it was worth. He rooted around in the MERL collection for intriguing material, and teased his rapidly expanding audience with knowingly self-referential jokes and follow-ups. (My favorite is another sheep photo, poetically captioned, “i wandered lonely as a cloud.”) It worked brilliantly, making Koszary something of a guru; he recently moved to the august Royal Academy. He has commented perceptively about his role as a digital museums pioneer:  “Museums often struggle with the tension of trying to engage people while remaining respectable. But social media has pushed the envelope of what people consider respectable. . . . Writing in a friendly and humorous way doesn’t destroy the museum, and it’s simply one of the ways we reach our end goal: involving everyone in our heritage.” 

Clark makes a similar observation, describing the #CreepiestObject challenge as a kind of hook that might draw people into a deeper exploration of museums and their collections. He notes that there are all sorts of reasons something might seem “creepy”: “Some simply because they have aged or decayed. Others are only creepy to modern eyes because they are out of context with the time or culture in which they were created. But all create intrigue and hopefully a desire to learn more about where the object is from and who created it.”  

At its worst, social media can be the shallowest of pools. But it can also be a route into deeper engagement, a way to encourage people to value and protect heritage-based institutions, which are currently more endangered than at any time in recent memory. The complexity of the situation lies in the fact that these two sides of online content are interdependent. To reach a broad audience, social media needs to move fast. Posts can’t be burdened down with too much information, or even seriousness of intent. Yet it’s only worthwhile if it reminds people of the slow, patient, and essential work of caring for a collection. 

At a time of unprecedented stress, when the online audience is the only audience there is, museum professionals are trying to strike that balance. The folks up in York know this as well as anyone. At time of writing, they had just launched another theme in the Curator Battle, this time for Best Hat—and it was giving Creepiest Object a run for its money.

1Hakim Bishara, “Museums Worldwide Post the Creepiest Objects in Their Collections,” Hyperallergic, April 22, 2020. 2Adam Koszary, “look at this absolute unit,” medium.com, April 10, 2018.

New Light: Notes on a Vermont Schoolgirl Embroidery

Gene R. Garthwaite Art

Silk embroidery by Hester Leavenworth (1796–1864), Hinesburg, Vermont, c. 1810–1815. Inscribed “Hester Leavenworth” on the verre églomisé mat within the original frame. Silk and watercolor on silk, 22 ½ by 20 ½ inches (framed). Private collection; photograph by Stephen and Carol Huber.

Vermont? Especially rural, north-central Vermont? Vermont hardly figures in the standard literature on schoolgirl needlework. While Glee Krueger includes a Vermont sampler in her New England Samplers to 1840, Betty Ring’s magisterial Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework, 1650–1850 (1993) does not mention a single one. Vermont was, and is, one of the least populated of the New England states; consequently, fewer Vermont needleworks were made, and even fewer survive. Ignorance of Vermont material culture in general—especially given that artisans often did not sign their work—reinforces the notion that little was produced there.

Needlework, however, is typically signed by the girl, or young woman, who made it. In addition to the maker’s name, samplers, unlike memorials or other pictorial works on silk, often include age, birth date, date of completion, and place—town, even county and state. A few mention the name of the maker’s teacher. Silk embroideries may append the name of the maker, and sometimes the title for the image depicted, but little more. Consequently, the focus is more on the image and the skill of the maker rather than on the maker, herself.

Mourning picture by Mary Wallace Peck Mansfield (b. 1800) from the album she kept while teaching at the Litchfield Female Academy, 1825–1826. Litchfield Historical Society, Connecticut, Litchfield Female Academy collection.

In the example here, the name “Hester Leavenworth” is not found on the embroidery, but appears on the verre églomisé mat surrounding it. The work’s subsequent history in the Miller and Leavenworth families is listed on the backboard. Genealogical research establishes that Hester, or sometimes “Hetty,” Leavenworth was born on August 4, 1796, in Hinesburg, Vermont, into one of its prominent families. Her father was General Nathan Leavenworth (1764–1849), born in New Milford, Connecticut, and her mother was Anne Buckingham Leavenworth (1770–1805) of New Milford. They were married on November 2, 1790, and three years later they moved to Hinesburg, where General Leavenworth farmed and served in various local and Vermont state offices.

Hester married Henry Miller of Williston, just north of Hinesburg, a member of another prominent Vermont political and farming family, on October 2, 1816. She died on February 27, 1864, without surviving children, and is buried in the Miller family plot in Chittenden Cemetery in Williston. Her husband, a farmer, served in the Vermont state senate in 1836 and 1837.

Several major questions remain about the embroidery. First, was it actually made in Vermont? Clearly, the expensively framed needlework gives evidence of Hester’s family’s pride in it and of their status. But where, when, and under what circumstances might Hester have acquired her skill? Silk pictorial embroideries were produced only in a few elite schools. Elements similar to those in Hester’s embroidery can possibly be discerned in the depiction of a stream between similar trees in a mourning picture made at the Litchfield Female Academy in Connecticut, and in Ann Marie Treadwell’s 1814 watercolor George Washington at Mt. Vernon, painted at the school Emma Willard (1787–1870) established in Middlebury, Vermont. Together, they suggest an answer to Hester’s education question.

Given Hester’s elite family status and that Hinesburg was about twenty-four miles from Middlebury, where the first school for girls in Vermont, the Middlebury Female Seminary, had been founded in 1800, she could very well have developed her needlework skills there. Idea Strong (1775–1804), the founder of the Middlebury school, had been educated at the academy in Litchfield, which was known for its fine needlework. Indeed, the Middlebury Female Seminary was based on the Litchfield Female Academy, and Sarah Pierce (1767–1852), that school’s founder, oversaw the establishment of the Vermont school. 

George Washington at Mt. Vernon by Ann Marie Treadwell (1800–1888), Middlebury, Vermont, 1814. Inscribed “Mount Vernon/ Painted by A. M. Treadwell at Mrs. Willard’s school Middlebury Vermont 1814” on back. Watercolor on paper, 14 ½ by 19 ¼ inches (unframed). Huber photograph.

It is also possible that Hester Leavenworth went to Pierce’s Litchfield academy, although her name is not found on its extant, if incomplete, list of students, which does include some from Vermont. Moreover, Hester’s parents were from New Milford in Litchfield County. Nonetheless, given its proximity to Hinesburg, Middlebury’s Female Seminary is the most likely place Hester learned to embroider. 

A second question is how to date the embroidery. Could identification of the image help do so? The embroidered and watercolor image depicts an elegantly dressed weeping woman standing by a stream in a parkland. Easy to overlook is that she is being surreptitiously observed by a young man, whose head and shoulders appear in the branches of one of the trees. A print source has yet to be located, but the figure of the woman brings to mind “weeping” Charlotte from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was widely translated and sensationally popular after its original publication in 1774 as Die Leiden des jungen Werther. The problem is that in many prints related to Werther, Charlotte is depicting weeping at Werther’s tomb.

In the age of romanticism—the period of Hester’s embroidery—there were, however, many “Werther” adaptations, one of which was Werter and Charlotte. The Sorrows of Werter. A German Story. To which is Annexed the Letters of Charlotte to a Female Friend during Her Connection with Werter, published in Boston in 1798 and subsequently reprinted several times and in several places in the United States. In the last of her letters, Charlotte writes:

O, Werter! Why do you call to my remembrance the scenes that are past? In vain shall I look for you in the valley! What will it avail, in a summer’s evening, to walk towards the mountains, or repose me under the elms? Shall I see your spirit in the pale clouds, or hear your voice in the passing winds? . . .

We shall meet no more in the groves of Walheim [river]! No more shall we see thee musing by the river in the valley. . . .

At the corner of the church yard, which looks towards the field, there are two lime-trees. There rest thy remains, O Werter! My father lays thee in the appointed place. There will Albert build thy tomb. 

Is that, then, Werther’s spirit among the tree leaves, and weeping Charlotte recalling his presence “by the river in the valley”?

Since Hester married in 1816 when she was twenty, the embroidery was framed before then, given that the inscription on the mat specifies “Hester Leavenworth.” Thus, it can probably be dated to between 1810 and 1815, when she was between fourteen and nineteen years of age. It seems more likely that an older teen would have read Werter and Charlotte, whichsupports the later date.

Other than the name of the embroiderer, her “school,” subject, and date of her work cannot be definitely established, only suggested. Hinesburg, Vermont, however, was not so isolated, and in the case of Hester Leavenworth, was linked to Litchfield, Connecticut, by family and probably through Middlebury—by its Female Seminary and thus, indirectly, to the Pierce school—and to contemporary romanticism, likely, even to Goethe’s Germany. Many, many French knots and satin stiches in silk threads on silk tie Hester’s “Vermont” embroidery to an even broader world—Goethe’s “Werther” was translated into Chinese, where some of Hester’s silk and silk thread could well have originated.

1 Glee Krueger, New England Samplers to 1840 (Sturbridge, MA: Old Sturbridge Village, 1978), p. 39 and Fig. 83. Krueger does list (p. 105) three schools in Vermont—in Newbury, Norwich, and Windsor—but not the Middlebury Female Seminary, the first, founded in 1800.2 [Possibly William James], Werter and Charlotte. The Sorrows of Werter. A German Story. To which is Annexed the Letters of Charlotte to a Female Friend during Her Connection with Werter. The Whole of both works in one Volume (Boston: Thomas and Andrews, 1798) pp. 283–284.

Gene R. Garthwaite, a collector who lives in Hartland, Vermont, is an emeritus professor of history at Dartmouth College.

Editor’s Letter–July/August 2020

Gregory Cerio Opinion

Detail of The Park Bench by Horace Pippin (1888–1946), 1946. Philadelphia Museum of Art, bequest of Daniel W. Dietrich II.

A new name has been added to the list of people I admire greatly: Azie Dungey. She is a television producer and writer who a few years ago made an appearance on the National Public Radio program This American Life. That episode was rebroadcast recently, and I heard it for the first time. Dungey made  a deep impression. 

On the show, she recounted some of her experiences while working as a historical re-enactor at Mount Vernon. Shortly after she graduated from New York University with a double major in drama and anthropology, Dungey returned to her hometown in the Washington, DC, suburbs to perform in the area’s fine regional theater companies. Those pay very little, so she took the Mount Vernon gig as a way to earn some extra money. Dungey portrayed Caroline Branham, an enslaved woman who served as a housemaid for the Washingtons. 

Dungey’s job was to memorize the facts of Branham’s life and interact—in character—with visitors. But she realized that there were more than three hundred enslaved people working at Mount Vernon in the late eighteenth century. “Who was there to tell their story?” she asked. “Me.” So Dungey studied the lives of laborers on the estate. She learned, for example, that horse urine was used to polish silver, and that when an enslaved person was whipped, and the wounds were doused with saltwater as a disinfectant, the process was known as pickling. “Pickling,”  Dungey said. “I hate that I know that.”

As for her encounters with visitors, quite a few were unfortunate, in ways that ranged from the cringe making to the unconscionable. Some tourists were dunces, like the person who asked why Branham didn’t just travel up to Massachusetts and go to school. Some were willfully ignorant, and obstinate about it, such as the woman who kept insisting “George Washington had no slaves!” until her son sheepishly led her away. Or those that told Dungey that “slavery was a good, industrious life where you got room and board for your work.” Then there were the men—several of them—who sidled up to Dungey and for some reason thought she’d like to know that they’d had a thing for black women when they were younger. And one day there was the man from the deeper South, who took Dungey by the arm and demanded to see where she’d been branded. When, as Branham, Dungey explained that she had not been branded, the man laughed and said: “You got it good up here!”  Yet perhaps the most obnoxious words that Dungey heard are these: “Why don’t you just get over it? It’s all in the past.” Her reply: “You’re not over the past.”

And this is true. There are the holiday celebrations, the monuments, and the thousands of us who visit places like Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and James Madison’s Montpelier every year. To judge by Dungey’s experience, many who go are interested only in the myth and not the actual man. The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd have prompted an astounding national reckoning on issues of race and justice, and part of that is to assess how we engage with American history. Certainly over the decades our magazine has contributed to the mythmaking, at least by sins of omission—publishing articles about great houses that spare not a thought for the enslaved who toiled in and around them, and in many cases built them. This kind of soul-searching is going on among stewards of history and art around the nation. The leadership of American museums, which is overwhelmingly white, is struggling to find ways to use their collections to promote genuine inclusiveness. 

There has been progress. Mount Vernon does creditable work to illuminate the lives of the estate’s enslaved. Later on in these pages, you’ll read about the archaeological efforts the Historic Charleston Foundation has made to shed light on daily life among the enslaved who worked in the mansions it maintains. Recently, the Winter Show—the famed art and antiques fair held annually in New York—announced a long-overdue decision to ban racist paraphernalia. 

But introspection is called for from every one of us. For some that will be difficult. Myths are hard to part with. But, as Americans, if we are secure in our pride for the country’s greatest achievements, we should be secure enough to take a hard look at its failings. And if we are confident in our strength of character, we should be confident enough to look in the mirror and ponder what we may have done, and continue to do, to perpetuate inequalities. 

Dungey speaks of a West African symbol, the Sankofa bird, which is depicted walking ahead while its head is turned looking behind. It is a representation of the notion that we always carry the past with us into the future. We can honor the American past and we can cherish it, but only if we are willing to examine our past unflinchingly. In that way, we can truly move forward. 

–Gregory Cerio

This Week’s Destinations for Digital Culture: July 1 to 7

Jenamarie Boots Exhibitions

Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon by Jan van Eyck, c. 1428-30. Oil on panel. 8.9 in × 6.5 inches. Brukenthal National Museum, Sibiu; photograph courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Ghent.

Museum of Fine Arts Ghent

A new virtual tour of the exhibition Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution is available. This is a rare opportunity, as eight panels of the Ghent Altarpiece are displayed together for the first time in a museum and more than half of Jan van Eyck’s twenty surviving paintings and drawings will also be shown. Learn a bit more about the exhibit before exploring by clicking here. Readers may recall the virtual tour hosted via Facebook earlier this year and will be glad that the new self-guided tour allows visitors to listen to new insights from co-curators Till-Holger Borchert and Frederica Van Dam, while exploring the stunning, high-definition photos of the collection at their own pace. The audio is transcribed for each item and can be accessed by clicking the (+) buttons next to them; be sure to click the magnifying glass icon to expand the images and take in the details.


Illustrated exhibition catalogue of Soul of a Nation: Art in The Age of Black Power. Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Hirsch Gallery.

Museum of Fine Arts Houston, online and onsite through August 30

The MFAH’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Powerexhibition has re-opened. The show focuses on Black artists in America from the 1960s and to the early 1980s, with special emphasis on works connected to the Civil Rights movement. Works made in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are particularly well represented, including the work of Betye Saar, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Roy DeCarava, David Hammons, Lorraine O’Grady, and Faith Ringgold. Visitors going in person are strongly encouraged to review all safety information before visiting and purchase tickets in advance.

For those seeking virtual programming, the MFAH is continuing to produce digital tours and panel discussions related to Soul of a Nation and other exhibitions. They will be released on a rolling basis throughout July and August, so be sure to bookmark the page and check back often! Films related to the exhibition are also being streamed for free during select dates (and available for purchase after those dates have passed). Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things is the next available, beginning July 1; tracing her life from a 1934 talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem onward. Access to the film streams requires a free account created by email registration.


Ardrossan house, Philadelphia, as it appears in the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s video series ICAA Visits.

Institute of Classical Architecture & Art

ICAA has recently completed the first collection in a new series of videos, ICAA Visits. The series is slated to consist of guided tours, featuring new architectural projects as well as public and private historic renovation and preservation projects. The first installment follows ICAA board member Barbara Eberlein through Ardrossan, a historic estate on the Philadelphia Main Line, and the inspiration for the setting of the Broadway play and film, The Philadelphia Story. Neglected for many years, Ardrossan presented unique restoration challenges. The first video consists largely of narration and historical overview of the home and its previous inhabitants. The second offers a more detailed account of the numerous restoration challenges. The third, and final, reflects on the home’s enduring legacy; the career of its architect,  Horace Trumbauer as an architect; and how historic homes offer us new ways of considering and reflecting on our own personal history.


Villa Lewaro, Estate of Madam C.J. Walker, Irvington, NY as it appears in the Google Arts and Culture virtual tour.

Villa Lewaro, Estate of Madam C.J. Walker in Irvington, NY (via Google Arts & Culture)

If your architectural cravings continue to hit hard, a virtual tour of the home of the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro, may be just what you need. The historic property is not open to the public – having been acquired in 2018 by the New Voices Foundation – but a large portion of the home is on view in this narrated tour. Walker’s great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, provides the narration, which is a combination of history about Walker and details from the home. Transcription of the audio is, unfortunately, not currently supported.


Screenshot of the Glass House webcast Fritz Horstman on Anni Albers featuring Wall Hanging by Albers, 1924.

The Glass House, New Canaan, CT

New among the video offerings from the curators of architect Philip Johnson’s revolutionary house is Fritz Horstman’s discussion of Anni Alber’s contributions to art and design. Albers’s reputation is without parallel – being one of the most important textile artists of the 20th century – and Horstman’s lecture explores her numerous achievments. Highlights from the talk include archival footage of Albers, as well as photographs her iconic and pioneering wall hangings and weavings. Emphasis is given to her time in Connecticut from the 1950s to the end of her life.

Readers may also enjoy joining Nora Wendl for a Zoom talk discussing the co-curation of Edith Farnsworth Reconsidered, a new installation that interprets the interior of Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, and looks at the way Dr. Edith Farnsworth would have lived there in the early 1950s. The online-talk will take place July 1 at 7 PM EST, and requires registration to attend. A recording will be available on the Glass House’s “Watch” page soon afterward for those who cannot watch live.

Jenamarie Boots

Superfluity & Excess: Quaker Philadelphia falls for classical splendor (From our Archives)

ALEXANDRA ALEVIZATOS KIRTLEY Furniture & Decorative Arts

From The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April 2016. |

The fruits of extensive research on Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s 1808 house and furniture for William and Mary Waln begin with their impact on the aesthetic of the city itself.

Fig. 1. Prototype chair designed for William and Mary Waln (1782–1841) by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820), made by John Aitken (d. 1839) with painted decoration by George Bridport (1783–1819), Philadelphia, 1808. Maple, tulip poplar, gilded and painted decoration, caning; height 34 ¼, width 20, depth 20 inches, seat height 17 ½ inches. Except as noted, the objects illustrated are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with the gift (by exchange) of Mrs. Alex Simpson Jr., and A. Carson Simpson and with funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. Raley and various donors. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the “greene Country Towne” founded by William Penn in 1682 was bustling with commercial and social activity. Colonists from Europe and the British Isles who spoke a variety of languages and practiced a number of religions filled the city. Although the aura of the British and European Quakers who had followed Penn to Philadelphia was still palpable, ambitious merchants had begun to create New World versions of aristocratic styles and customs quite at odds with Quaker comportment and rules against “vain Needless things.”1 The founding in 1748 of a dancing assembly designed to create for the city’s merchants a life modeled on that of Britain’s landed gentry was one of these. Assembly events were not egalitarian affairs; artisans, shopkeepers, and mechanics did not receive invitations. The Quakers’ 1762 Rules of Discipline admonished against such exclusionary social activities, and Sarah Morris was dismissed from her Quaker meeting for “frequenting Houses for dancing, musick, and other Diversions, the Evil whereof, we have been concern’d to advise & caution her against.”2

Despite this atmosphere of admonishment against hierarchical social customs and “Superfluity & Excess in Buildings and Furniture,” many Philadelphia Quaker and non-Quaker artisans and their patrons did embrace the luxury of contemporary European and Asian styles. Several families with long Quaker heritages, such as John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader, commissioned grand houses replete with elaborate furnishings made abroad but also in Philadelphia, where local artisans were well trained in the manufacture of worldly goods that mimicked—and often surpassed—those made in Edinburgh, London, France, Italy, India, and China.

Fig. 2. Portrait of Latrobe by Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), c. 1815. Oil on canvas, 23 by 19 inches. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.

The taste for aristocratic style persisted in the city’s public and private spheres even after the Revolution. In 1794, when Philadelphia, as capital of the United States, played host to the president, Congress, and masses of foreign emissaries, the British journalist Henry Wansey described the space where the assembly was held as “a most elegant room. . . . It was papered after the French taste, with the Pantheon figures in compartments, imitating festoons[,] pillars, and groups of antique drawings, in the same style as lately introduced in the most elegant houses in London.”3

Fig. 3. Detail of a Grecian sofa for the Walns’ suite designed by Latrobe, attributed to Aitken, with painted decoration by Bridport, Philadelphia, 1808. Tulip poplar, maple, gilded and painted decoration, caning, iron, brass; height 33 ½ inches, length overall 8 feet 7 inches, depth 24 ¾ inches. The S-shape of the ends of the sofa boasted an ornament, likely the large tassels reproduced here. Glue residue and the large expanse of open space suggested the additional upholstery ornament on the outback of the scrolls. Ashworth photograph.

By 1805 the city was no longer the nation’s capital, but it was about to witness the creation of its most innovative, resplendent, and potent interior—the work of a team of artisans commissioned by a Quaker merchant and his socially adept Episcopalian wife. British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe—known as Henry—had arrived in the city in early spring 1798 and had already completed several commissions: the Bank of Pennsylvania in the plain Greek revival style (see Fig. 4); the domed Pump House for the Centre Square Water Works (completed in 1801, demolished in 1829);4 and a Gothic-style country house in Fairmount Park for the merchant William Cramond called Sedgeley (completed in 1802, demolished around 1857). Latrobe had also established himself in Philadelphia society by marrying Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst (1771–1841), the daughter of Isaac and Johanna Purviance Hazlehurst—a prominent couple with family, commercial, and political ties in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Salem, New Jersey.

Fig. 4. The Bank of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia by Latrobe, 1798. Pencil, ink, and watercolor on paper. The simplicity of the dome, columns, and forward orientation of Latrobe’s Bank of Pennsylvania on Second Street in Philadelphia encompassed his vision for the expression of ancient architecture in America. Maryland Historical Society.

Philadelphia merchant William Waln, the son of the Quaker preacher Nicholas Waln (1742–1813), had made a bold departure from his faith when he was married by Episcopal Bishop William White to Mary Wilcocks on March 14, 1805, at Christ Church, Philadelphia. But what the couple did next in commissioning Henry Latrobe to design and oversee the building of their magnificent house and its furnishings was even bolder: they unleashed Latrobe to design for them furniture that directly imitated ancient furniture, moving once and for all beyond the restrained bounds of mere references to classical art, and transforming Philadelphia’s—and indeed America’s—interpretation of classical art. As a conspicuous display of the Walns’ wealth and worldly aspirations, the house and its interiors were meant to raise eyebrows; they did so while also placing Philadelphia in the vanguard of classical taste. The house reigned over the southeast corner of Chestnut and Seventh Streets until it was demolished in 1847. It is known today through two fire insurance surveys (1824 and 1845) and a watercolor (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. View of the William Waln house by Richard H. Kern (1821–1853), January 1847. Ink wash and watercolor on paper, 11 by 15 ½ inches. The view was painted just before the house was demolished. Library Company of Philadelphia.

Planning for the new house began within two weeks of the couple’s wedding. Latrobe’s response to the initial request is dated March 26, 1805; in it he offers floor plans and expresses his preference for American houses based more on the French model than the British: “In America our manners are English, but our climate is in almost every particular the contrary of the climate of the British Islands. Our buildings however are exact copies of those erected in Great Britain especially the dwelling houses of our cities. Their arrangement there is not badly adapted to our habits and our prejudices, but our climate renders them faulty in many most important points…in the important points of convenience and privacy the French designs are as superior to those of England, as the latter to the French in neatness, and correction of execution.”5

Fig. 5. Portrait miniature of William Waln (1775–1826) by Jean Pierre Henri Elouis (1755–1840), 1795–1799. Watercolor on ivory, gold, glass; 3 by 2 ⅝ inches. The French miniaturist Elouis worked in Philadelphia from 1795 to 1799, depicting leading Philadelphians in vibrant colors on light backgrounds. Here, a freshfaced William Waln is shown as an eager young merchant in a fashionable blue jacket. R. W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, Louisiana.

By early 1807 Waln had accepted Latrobe’s design and acquired three contiguous lots one block from the former State House and plumb in the middle of Philadelphia’s booming theater and social district. The couple asked Latrobe to create a fully integrated drawing and dining room suite—a welcome opportunity for him, as he was generally occupied with large-scale public commissions.6 The plans for these rooms suggest that they were meant to integrate a new taste in interior furnishings with a similarly novel approach to the overall plan of the house, thereby setting a standard for Philadelphia drawing rooms. The city and her people were poised for such innovation: an active port and a central location between the southern and northern United States—with connections to fashionable people in Mexico City, New Orleans, New York, Boston, Newport, Baltimore, Richmond, and Charleston—exposed Philadelphians to an international style that they would inevitably expect to see reflected in the architecture and interiors around them.

On March 3, 1807, Latrobe wrote to Waln that he was leaving his protégé Robert Mills (1781–1855) to oversee the building of the house. His letters to Mills in the summer and fall of 1807 concerning the house and other projects provide some clues about the interior finish: “the Jaumbs will be very wide and contain all the Shutters, as in Mr. Waln[’]s drawing room.”7 On September 20, 1807, Latrobe wrote to Mills that he was “glad to find Mr. Waln’s house so much advanced,” and three days later that a “Sky Light will be the best thing for Mr. Waln’s.”8

Fig. 11. Detail of the painting on the crest rail of one of the chairs.

In 1808, after avoiding the subject of the interior and its furniture for more than a year, Latrobe finally focused on the Walns’ two south-facing drawing rooms, one of which he consistently referred to as the dining room. He identified the London-trained artist George Bridport, whose talent and disposition he held in tremendous esteem, as the person who could satisfy the Walns’ wishes with respect to the interior’s decorative architecture. Latrobe wrote Bridport in August 1808: “I have resolved to decorate his [Waln’s] drawing room frieze, which is more than two feet broad with Flaxman[’]s Iliad or Odyssey in flat Etruscan color, giving only outline on a rich ground. I should propose stenciling it.”9 He and Bridport may have discussed the design or even made a draft of it based on rooms familiar to them—possibly those at Osterley in Hounslow, outside of London, and especially at Packington Hall in Warwickshire, where Joseph Bonomi (1739–1808) sourced the same Continental designers whose publications Bridport maintained in his library (see Fig. 8). Latrobe’s cursory instructions reveal that he trusted Bridport to apply his artistic sensibilities to the room’s decoration.

Fig. 12. Detail of one of the chairs, showing Bridport’s virtuosity in his manipulation of paint and glazes on the gilding to create changes in value of the light, making the decoration appear three dimensional.

These directives to Bridport provide our primary understanding of how the drawing rooms were painted: no detailed descriptions of the finished rooms survive, and the 1824 and 1845 insurance surveys of the house summarily note only that the “ornamental Paint work in the Drawing Rooms is excepted from the Insurance.”10 The directives specify a string of painted panels running along the frieze above the windows, doors, fireplaces, and mirrors, similar to those found in a perspective drawing by Latrobe dating from 1797–1798 for a proposed (but unexecuted) “assembly room” in Richmond (Fig. 7). The linear “stenciling” was a direct reference to the decoration of ancient Greek pottery, and the source for the images, as indicated by Latrobe’s letter, was John Flaxman’s illustrations of the Iliad and Odyssey, which had been published in London ten years earlier.11 Latrobe specified that the ground was to be painted in a rich, presumably dark, color—evoking the hue used for figures on Greek red-figured pottery.

For the furniture, twenty-one pieces of which survive,12 the tastes of Latrobe and the Walns merged to produce the most spectacular and original set Philadelphians had yet seen. Mary Waln, whom Latrobe consistently acknowledged as leading the charge for the house and its furnishings, preferred French taste, which would have brought her to New York to see the work of French designers and cabinetmakers. Latrobe joined her, her husband, and other family members there in late August 1808. Exactly what they were doing is not fully documented, but Latrobe’s correspondence immediately upon his return and the resulting furniture suggest they were scouting out furniture in the French classical style for the drawing room. Latrobe wrote to his wife in Washington on August 21 that he had completed his business with the Walns in New York, but that her friend Mary Waln had “been seized with a fever and ague. . . and I fear not likely to enjoy much health in her new house, in which she interests herself most eagerly.”13 The latter remark was an accurate foreshadowing of the ill health partially associated with childbearing that long afflicted Mary Waln.

Fig. 13. Armchair from a suite of drawing room furniture made by Ephraim Haines (1775–1837) for Stephen Girard (1750–1831), 1807. Ebony, ash, eastern white pine; height 35 ¾, width 20 ⅞, depth 18 inches. Stephen Girard Collection, Girard College, Philadelphia; photograph by Graydon Wood.

Later that same week, Latrobe wrote to the Walns, who were still in New York, about his progress with the furniture: “I shall see a pattern chair tomorrow morning. I have ordered the cushions to be takable off as I proposed….The drawing of the sideboard goes to Aiken’s tomorrow morning.”14 Here, Latrobe names Scottish émigré John Aitken—one of Philadelphia’s leading furniture makers, whose shop was on the same block as the Walns’ house—as the maker of the chairs and sideboard, and he most likely made or oversaw the creation of the card tables, sofa, and smaller settee as well.15 The correspondence documents that Aitken worked directly with Latrobe on the prototype chair—probably the one in Figure 1, which stands out from the rest of the set in dimensions, woods, and precision of construction and painted decoration. He almost certainly had a bevy of journeymen and specialists to execute the remainder of the set under his supervision.

Figs. 14, 14a. Card table from the Waln suite. Mahogany, tulip poplar, brass, gilded and painted decoration, iron, cotton velvet; height 29 ½, width 36 (open), 18 (closed), depth 17 ⅞ inches. Ashworth photograph.

The furniture that Latrobe designed and Aitken made was influenced by contemporary French designs that closely imitated classical furniture and drew on the designs of English architect Charles Heathcote Tatham. Its impact came from its departure from the familiar interpretation of neoclassicism with which Philadelphia patrons and artisans had become accustomed—such as the restrained elegance of the ebony drawing room furniture Ephraim Haines had made for merchant Stephen Girard less than a year earlier (see Fig. 13).

From all accounts, Bridport arrived in late October and executed the wall painting and the complex and sophisticated arrangements of ornament on the furniture. Given the relatively short time it took to complete the work—evidently less than three months—and the variations in the lines and framing features, he must have led a team of artists who assisted with certain parts.16 But for the main events on each piece, Bridport showed off his skill in masterful freehand work. As Latrobe had for such elements as the turned columns on the sideboard, Bridport derived his inspiration from Charles Heathcote Tatham’s Etchings Representing the Best Examples of Ancient Ornamental Architecture, Drawn from the Originals in Rome and Other Parts of Italy (1799), a copy of which was listed in his estate inventory.17 Bridport painted the central elements of the chairs’ crest rails with an especially deft hand, displaying a keen eye and a delicate touch with his materials, including generous amounts of gold, and an equally sure sense of the effects of light on the surfaces (see Fig. 11). Now, after a comprehensive five-year treatment undertaken by conservator Peggy A. Olley on the ten pieces of furniture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the clarity and crispness of the lines, the quality and skill of the execution, and the individuality of the painted ornament can be seen. Along with a great deal of new research we now have a deeper understanding of this groundbreaking furniture.

Figs. 14, 14a. Card table from the Waln suite. Mahogany, tulip poplar, brass, gilded and painted decoration, iron, cotton velvet; height 29 ½, width 36 (open), 18 (closed), depth 17 ⅞ inches. Ashworth photograph.

The sleek lines of the klismos designs revolutionized furniture-making in Philadelphia: the Walns’ seating furniture, card tables, and sideboard stepped outside of the box in every way—form, ornament, and upholstery—and embraced a new type of classical revival. The Walns’ klismos chairs mimicked ancient bronze furniture, and the brilliant decorative painting and gilding suggested gilt mounts also seen on ancient furniture.

William and Mary Waln’s selection for their drawing room furniture was soon underscored by Latrobe’s choice of the same style for his 1809 designs for James and Dolley Madison’s oval drawing room furniture at the President’s House in Washington (made in Baltimore at the manufactory of John and Hugh Finlay).18 After the Walns’ 1808 commission, the delicate references to classical style vanished, and Philadelphia—and indeed America—ushered in a new fashion in classical revival interiors.

Fig. 7. Drawing for a “Theatre, Assembly Rooms and a hotel” in Richmond, Virginia, by Latrobe, 1797–1798. Watercolor, wash, and ink on paper. The design was never executed, but it shows Latrobe’s early ideas for the placement of frieze panels in public rooms where elite members of society socialized. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

By 1821 the winds of fortune had shifted and William Waln found himself overextended in what had long been a lucrative trade with China. They remained dignified through their financial troubles, but William and Mary Waln were forced to sell their household furnishings to pay creditors. A recently discovered advertisement describing the sale in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser for Saturday November 3, 1821, offers a glimpse into how the Latrobe furniture was viewed thirteen years after it was made.19 It reads: “SPLENDID FURNITURE at AUCTION/At the late residence of Mr. Waln, Corner of Chestnut & Seventh Streets….The furniture is of the richest kind, amongst which is the following—elegant French Carpets with medallion Centre pieces, elegant Bronze and Gilt Chairs, covered with Satin, Sofas to match, Window Curtains, elegant Pier Tables, with Chifanurs, elegant Pier Tables, with marble tops and Mermaids below, elegant Lustres for middle of rooms, Sideboards to match, large Mirrors very elegant, a set of French Porcelaine.”20

Fig. 8. Pompeian Room at Packington Hall, Warwickshire, England. Photograph Bildarchiv Monheim GmbH/Alamy.

While the advertisement for the sale of the Walns’ furniture lists the most extravagant pieces, Philadelphia educator and philanthropist Rebecca Gratz (1781–1869) offered her more personal observations following a stroll on Chestnut Street on November 7, 1821, the day before the sale was to take place:

Fig. 9. Sideboard (or console table) from the Waln suite. Tulip poplar, softwood (probably pine), gold, paint, metal rosettes, cotton velvet, mirror (replacement); height 41 ¼, width 65 ½, depth 23 ½ inches. Inscriptions (“Thos Wetherill” on the inside of the proper left backing board and “49 ¾ x 29” on the outside of the proper right backing board) indicate that the rear panel was framed by Thomas Wetherill (c. 1765–1824). This piece has long been called a pier table, a term that describes a form usually between 36 and 40 inches wide; at 65 ½ inches wide it should be considered what the British called a sideboard and continental Europeans called a console table. Such elements as the volutes and bundled fasces on the columns are derived from Charles Heathcote Tatham’s Etchings Representing the Best Examples of Ancient Ornamental Architecture…. Ashworth photograph.

Today Chestnut Street has been a scene of gaiety— on an occasion which would make a moralist, or an observer of human affairs quite sad—the splendid furniture of a ruined gentleman, was exhibited for sale, and tomorrow will be distributed under the auctioneers hammer to the four corners of the city—the luxuries which wealth and ambition & taste had combined to render the most beautiful I ever saw, Mrs. Waln’s drawing-room was certainly more like an apartment in an eastern fairy tale, than a Phila parlour—I wish you could have seen it for I confess I had no idea of its grandeur—and cannot compare any furniture I had ever before seen with it—alas alas! her French carpets were this day trodden by many a clownish foot—and her mirrors reflected objects, which it would have shocked her nerves to witness in the retirement of her dressing room—but “fallen from her high estate,” she will I believe acknowledge that happiness does not always dwell with riches—she is more sensible of her powers to make comforts, than she formerly was, to enjoy them—activity has restored health, and adversity produced an energy she never called into action before.21 

Clearly, Gratz, herself a member of a prominent and wealthy family, was impressed by the Walns’ furnishings and what they symbolized for the city of Philadelphia. Latrobe may have expressed this best in his 1811 oration when he declared that “the days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western World.”22 PMA’s ten pieces of Waln furniture remind us of a high-water moment in the city’s aspirations as well as the contradictions—and potential pitfalls—inherent in those aspirations, something Latrobe understood quite well. In 1809 he remarked to the Walns’ neighbor George Harrison that in America’s elegantly appointed drawing rooms, “we were jammed between our republican principles & our aristocratic wishes.”23

Fig. 10. Detail of four of the side chairs from the Waln suite. All are tulip poplar and oak with gilded and painted decoration and caning; overall height (of each) 34 ¼, width 19 ½, depth 22 inches; seat height 17 inches. Latrobe designed the exaggerated proportion of the seat height to rail and the inward sweep of the legs to frame the elaborate fringed upholstery, here reproduced based on fragments of yellow-gold cording underneath the seat rails, tack marks, and contemporary sources Latrobe referenced, including correspondence with Philadelphia upholsterer John Rea (1774–1871). The choice of yellow for the seat cushion was selected to complement the original yellow-painted caned seats and backs, which survive intact, and a yellow line painted on the top edge of the seat rails, at the perimeter of the caning. Two chairs, gift of Marie Josephine Rozet and Rebecca Mandeville Rozet Hunt. Ashworth photograph.

This article draws on research for Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House, which will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from September 3 to January 1, 2017. The show will be accompanied by a catalogue by Alexandra A. Kirtley and Peggy A. Olley with an essay by Latrobe scholar Jeffrey A. Cohen, and architectural renderings and conjectural floor plans by James B. Garrison.

ALEXANDRA ALEVIZATOS KIRTLEY is the Montgomery Garvan Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

1Thomas Story, Discourses Delivered in the Publick Assemblies of the People called Quakers (London, 1738), p. 70. 2 See Sarah Fatherly, Gentlewomen and Learned Ladies: Women and Elite Formation in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia (Lehigh University Press, Bethlehem, Penn., 2008), p. 99; and Henry Wansey, The Journal of an Excursion to the United States of North America in the Summer of 1794 (London, 1796), p. 132 (entry for June 6, 1794). Emphasis is also given to the role of the Dancing Assembly in colonial Philadelphia in Recollections of Joshua Francis Fisher Written in 1864, arr. Sophia Cadwalader (1929), such as on pp. 47–48, 69. Subscribers to the Dancing Assembly included members of the Bond, Burd, Chew, Duché, Hamilton, Inglis, Lardner, McCall, Mifflin, Penn, Peters, Plumsted, Powel, Shippen, Swift, Tilghman, Wallace, and Willing families, as well as two prominent Jewish families, the Franks and Levys. Noticeably absent from the subscription were Quakers who maintained their simplicity, such as the Emlens, Logans, Morrises, Norrises, Pembertons, and the family of Nicholas Waln. See the Morris entry cited in Fatherly, Gentlewomen and Learned Ladies, p. 99. 3 Wansey, The Journal of an Excursion, entry for June 6, 1794. For more on the culture of Philadelphia’s dance assemblies, see Lynn Matluck Brooks, “Emblem of Gaiety, Love, and Legislation: Dance in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 115, no. 1 (January, 1991), pp. 64–87. Frenchman Moreau de St. Méry’s journal describes the “snobbery in Philadelphia, where classes are sharply divided…particularly noticeable at balls…where no one is admitted unless his professional standing is up to a certain mark” (Moreau de St. Méry’s American Journey, 1793–1798, trans. and ed. Kenneth Roberts and Anna M. Roberts [Doubleday & Company, New York, 1947], pp. 290–291, 333). See also a blog entry by Bob Skiba for July 7, 2014, philadance historyjournal.wordpress.com 4 For more on this building, see philadelphiaencyclopedia.org 5 Latrobe to Waln, March 26, 1805, in Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, ed. John C. Van Horne and Lee W. Formwalt, vol. 2 (Maryland Historical Society and Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986), pp. 25–36 [hereafter, Corr.]. 6 For a comprehensive catalogue of Latrobe’s domestic commissions, see Michael W. Fazio and Patrick A. Snadon, The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2006). The research of this author, Jeffrey A. Cohen, Peggy A. Olley, and James B. Garrison produced a different floor plan for the Walns’ house than the one proposed by Snadon and Fazio. See forthcoming PMA exhibition catalogue. 7 Latrobe to Robert Mills, July 23, 1807, in Corr. vol. 2, p. 455. 8 Latrobe to Mills, September 20, 1807, ibid., p. 487; and September 23, 1807, in The Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe: The Microtext Edition, ed. Edward C. Carter II (James T. White, Clifton, NJ 1976), 59/G7 [hereafter Papers]. 9 Latrobe to George Bridport, August 7, 1808, in Corr., vol. 2, p. 647. 10 Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of House from Loss by Fire, Policy Number 6381, October 14, 1845. A similar exception is also included in the 1824 survey, Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of House from Loss by Fire, Policy No. 4325, September 30, 1824. For images of the originals, go to philadelphiabuildings .org/pab. 11 When Bridport died, in 1819, his library included “Flaxman’s Historical Designs from The Iliad, Odyssey, and 3 Tragedy of Aeschylus,” although it is not known when he acquired the volumes. Inventory no. 60, April 26, 1819, examined and valued by John Cliffton and John Haviland, April 30, 1819, Philadelphia City Archives. 12 In addition to the ten pieces at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which have recently been conserved, another nine chairs, a settee, and a card table survive elsewhere—not recently conserved. 13 Latrobe to Mary Elizabeth Latrobe, August 21, 1808, in Corr., vol. 2, p. 652. 14 Latrobe to Waln, August 21, 1808, in Papers, 65/F8. Latrobe consistently misspelled names: Aitken as Aiken; Rae as Rea or Ray; Finlay as Findley or Findlay. 15 Joinery and materials are consistent across the set and typical of contemporary Philadelphia furniture. 16 Latrobe wrote Waln on May 30, 1811, outlining payments for work completed on the house, declaring that “I have paid 200$ to Mr. Bridport who then was in my office at 2.50 pr day, & who made all the final drawings at least 50.” This calculates into 80 days of work. Latrobe to Waln, May 30, 1811, in Papers, 85/E12. 17 Inventory no. 60, April 26, 1819, Philadelphia City Archives. Tatham and Latrobe both worked for London architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell, overlapping in his office for a time. 18 Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, “Contriving the Madisons’ drawing room: Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the furniture of John and Hugh Finlay,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 176, no. 6 (December 2009), pp. 56–63. 19 An advertisement on March 7, 1821, in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser has been cited for years as possibly describing the sale of the Walns’ furniture, but it was actually for the sale of furniture belonging to Samuel Boyer Davis (1766 –1854), a native of Lewes, Delaware, and hero of the War of 1812, and his wife, Sally Jones Davis. Philadelphia city directories of 1819, 1820, and 1821 and the advertisement give their address as “no. 178 Chestnut Street, opposite the Masonic Lodge,” which was located between Seventh and Eighth Streets; the Walns lived at number 156 Chestnut, between Sixth and Seventh, which was one block east of the Masonic Lodge. Furthermore, the Walns were liquidating their furnishings because they were bankrupt, while the furniture at number 178 was being sold because the owners were “going to Europe.” The letter in n. 21 gives the same sale date. 20 In addition to the Aitken furniture, the advertisement refers to furniture acquired in two redecorations, which can now be documented to the eight-year hiatus between December 1810 and 1818 when Mary Waln did not give birth, perhaps as a result of her continually weak state of health. 21 Rebecca Gratz to Maria Gist Gratz, November 7, 1821, in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, ed. David Philipson (Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1929), p. 48. The author thanks Judith M. Guston of the Rosenbach Museum and Library for suggesting Gratz’s letters as a possible source for references to the Walns. 22 Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Anniversary Oration: Pronounced before the Society of Artists of the United States… (Philadelphia, 1811), p. 17. 23 Latrobe to George Harrison, June 20, 1809, in Papers, 69/E5.

Curious Objects: An Armchair’s Astonishing Provenance, with Tiffany Momon

Benjamin Miller Curious Objects

This month, Ben speaks with Tiffany Momon, visiting assistant professor at Sewanee in Tennessee, where she assists with the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, and founder of the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive, a scholarly resource that explores the contributions that African Americans have made to the material culture of the United States. Tiffany and Ben focus their attention on a chair made by enslaved craftsmen at Leonidas Polk’s Leighton Plantation in Louisiana, and Tiffany offers tips on what institutions and researchers can do to ensure they’re telling the full story of the decorative arts.

Cypress armchair made by enslaved craftsmen at Leonidas Polk’s Leighton Plantation, Thibodaux, Louisiana, 1840–1850s. Sewanee, The University of the South, Tennessee, William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections; photograph courtesy of Tiffany Momon.

Tiffany Momon is a scholar, Mellow Fellow, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Southern Studies at Sewanee, The University of the South. Momon earned a PhD in public history from Middle Tennessee State University, where she held positions with the Center for Historic Preservation. As a public historian, Momon’s work focuses on exploring African American placemaking throughout the southeast, documenting cemeteries, churches, schools, and lodges. Her most recent scholarship centers the experiences of enslaved and free African American craftspeople through the digital humanities project the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive (blackcraftspeople.org).

Melting pot modern (From our Archives)

Sarah D. Coffin Art

From The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April, 2017. |

Fig. 1. Screen by Donald Deskey (1894–1989), c. 1928. Lacquered wood, silver leaf, cast-metal hinges. Left panel, 60 ¼ by 18 ¼ inches; center panel, 66 ¼ by 24 inches; right panel, 78 by 18 ¼ inches. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, promised gift of George R. Kravis II.

The 1920s was a creatively explosive period in the realm of design. In the United States, what emerged was a distinctive American style achieved in a distinctively American way—through a blend of cultural sources from overseas, changing social mores, and the introduction of new technology and industrial design into the home. Many hesitated to adopt the new. Americans had limited exposure to modern European design during World War I and in its immediate aftermath. “Good taste” continued to be defined by traditional designs, be they colonial revival styles or imported antiques. But a restored American enthusiasm for travel abroad—particularly to Paris, long held as the leading center of fashion, art, and design—led to a burst of artistic innovation. At the same time, the country saw the arrival of a wave of talented designers, primarily from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, who fled the postwar social upheavals and economic uncertainties in Europe. Their beacon was that American architectural innovation, the skyscraper, a symbol of thriving innovation (see Fig. 8).

Fig. 2. Headboard with attached light and reading table for a bed by Frederick Kiesler (1890–1965), 1933–1935. Birch-faced plywood, tulip poplar, nickel-plated steel; height 38, width 46, depth 50 inches. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, gift of Virginia Bayer.

Although the influence of modernist European designers had reached U.S. shores before the 1920s, it took the power of Paris—both before and as a result of the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes—to convince consumers to try something new. Many Americans attended the exposition, including artists, designers—Donald Deskey, Gilbert Rohde, Ruth Reeves, Kem Weber, Eugene Schoen to name a few—and their future patrons, including the Solomon Guggenheims (see Fig. 16). Some Americans also studied abroad—Reeves, Deskey, Joseph Stella, and Marion Dorn among them. At home the effects of these influences were manifested in gallery displays, department store shows, and museum exhibitions—all eagerly covered by journalists.

Fig 3. Skyscraper bookcase desk by Paul T. Frankl (1886–1958), c. 1928. California redwood and black lacquer; height 86 ½, width 64 ½, depth 33 ½ inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan, gift of Dr. and Mrs. John Halick.

Americans first encountered new styles in the colorful exoticism and fantasy of the productions of the Ballets Russes, which first toured the United States in 1916, and Vienna-trained Joseph Urban’s stage designs. Urban arrived in 1912 as an architect-designer, and began his American career designing opera sets, first for the Boston Opera and later for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He then transferred his talents to the blossoming film industry, including William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions, for which he designed sets and directed numerous films. Several starred actress Marion Davies, including Enchantment (1921), which featured the first modern interiors seen in cinema. Urban would go on to design for theaters and commercial spaces, devising panels for the Ziegfeld Theatre (painted by Lillian Gaertner) in 1927 (Fig. 4) and the roof garden restaurant of the Hotel Gibson in Cincinnati, 1928 (Fig. 12).

Fig 4. The Joy of Life, two mural panels for the Ziegfeld Theatre, designed by Joseph Urban (1872–1933), painted by Lillian Gaertner (born 1906), 1927. Oil on canvas, 17 feet ⅛ inch by 23 feet 11 inches overall. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus, Chicago; photograph by John Faier.

After a visit to Vienna in 1921, Urban also hoped to advance the cause of modern design in the United States by promoting the Wiener Werkstätte. He underwrote and designed what turned out to be a short-lived store that opened in New York in June 1922, offering the sleek products of the progressive Viennese workshops. Among the pieces Urban commissioned for the store was a silver tea set in a low rectangular format by Joseph Hoffmann (Fig. 6). It may well have inspired German-born silversmith Peter Müller-Munk about a decade later. The architect Ely Jacques Kahn purchased a silver bowl by Hoffmann and a silver vase by Dagobert Peche (Fig. 9)—but that was one of the few times the cash register rang at the shop, which closed by the beginning of 1924. One of the first female screenwriters, Frances Marion, later acquired the tea set from Urban.

Fig. 5. Wastebasket by Deskey, 1928. Painted wood; height 13 ¾, width 13 ¾, depth 8 ⅞ inches. Collection of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler.

The designer Paul T. Frankl also arrived in New York from Vienna before World War I, and struggled similarly to find acceptance for contemporary designs when he opened a store in the city. There was a larger audience for his offerings of Asian pieces collected on his travels than for his own and others’ designs.1 Frankl’s star rose when he started thinking about truly original American forms. He did not attend the 1925 Paris exposition. Instead he worked in a studio near Woodstock, New York, manipulating a series of wood boxes to hold books, massing them in ways that suggested the great American design contribution of the day—the skyscraper. He emerged with the basics of what became his Skyscraper furniture, and started to sell the desks and bookcases in his New York gallery in 1926 (Fig. 3).

Fig. 6. Four-piece tea set designed by Josef Hoffmann (1870–1956), 1922, manufactured by the Wiener Werkstätte, Vienna, 1923. Silver, ivory; height of teapot 9 ¼ inches; tray 24 by 4 ¾ inches. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the 2007 Collectors Committee.
Fig. 7. Floor lamp designed by Walter von Nessen (1889– 1943), 1928, manufactured by Nessen Studios, Inc., New York, c. 1938. Chrome-plated metal; height 68 ¼ inches. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, gift of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Originally conceived in natural and stained woods, the furniture evolved when Frankl met Donald Deskey soon after introducing his first Skyscraper designs. Deskey, recently back from France, where he had seen lacquered screens by Jean Dunand and others, was producing his own. Some had graced the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue (see Fig. 13). Frankl asked Deskey to create some screens and other accessories (Fig. 5) for his gallery, which may have led to Frankl’s addition of the shinier and more colorful surfaces favored by Deskey to his Skyscraper forms. Thus, the most American of 1920s avant-garde American furniture design came at the hand of an Austrian-born designer who updated the look of his original conceptions after contact with an American-born designer who found inspiration in Paris—a true example of what might be called “melting pot modern.”

Fig. 8. Study for Maximum Mass Permitted by the 1916 New York Zoning Law, Stage 4 by Hugh Ferriss (1889–1962), 1922. Black crayon, stumped, pen and black ink, brush and black wash, varnish on illustration board, 26 ¼ by 20 inches. Ferriss’s groundbreaking and influential studies delineating the effect of the building setback law of 1916, published in the New York Times Magazine in 1922, impressed Americans and Europeans alike. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, gift of Mrs. Hugh Ferriss.

A cosmopolitan class of American modern design enthusiasts began to grow. Typical members were the theatrical and film publicity agent, playwright, and movie producer Glendon Allvine and his wife, Louise, who had discovered the modern movement in Paris and Los Angeles. They acquired a stepped screen with zigzag design by Deskey for the starkly white International Style modern house they built on Long Island completed in 1929. The example in Figure 1, with stepped tops going in the opposite direction, may have been conceived as a mate. The Allvines also had a coverlet made from Ruth Reeves’s thunderbolt-patterned Electric textile, which was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1930 and available for purchase at the W & J Sloane department store. Reeves envisioned the fabric being used to decorate a room devoted to radio listening; the Allvines put it on a steel bed Reeves designed.2

Fig. 9. Vase designed by Dagobert Peche (1887–1923), produced by the Wiener Werkstätte, 1923. Silver with chased, raised, cast, and applied decoration; height 9 3/8 inches. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, gift of Ely Jacques Kahn.

Vienna-trained Frederick Kiesler, an architect and theater and ballet set designer, immigrated to New York in 1926. He had joined the De Stijl artistic movement, and Hoffmann asked him to design the Austrian Pavilion at the Paris exposition of 1925. In Manhattan, Kiesler put his background in theater to use styling shop windows, including some for Saks Fifth Avenue. His first domestic furniture commission—a pair of beds—came in 1933 from fellow Austrian émigré, textile designer Marguerite Mergentime. The wood and metal beds, with their built-in storage and reading lamp attachment, were an early example of the functionalism that made modern design attractive to apartment dwellers (Fig. 2).

Fig. 10. Dressing table and bench after a design by Léon Jallot (1874–1967), retailed by Lord & Taylor, c. 1929. Lacquered joined wood, mirrored glass, metal; height of dressing table 31 ¼, width 41 ½, depth 23 ¾ inches; height of bench 19 ½, width 21 5/8, depth 12 3/8 inches. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, gift of James M. Osborn.

Among the German architect-designers who came to the United States was Walter von Nessen—whose tiered conical lamp and dramatic chair suggest building setbacks (Figs. 7, 14). Others included Kem Weber, Richard Neutra, and Jock Peters, who made their careers on the West Coast. Like their New York counterparts, Weber and Peters found success through department stores. Peters designed the interior of Bullocks Wilshire and its display accessories in 1929. Weber’s Modes and Manners shop opened in Barker Brothers in 1926. Weber designed most of the furnishings, but also included elements by Paul Frankl.3

Fig. 11. Detail of Muse with Violin, screen designed by Paul Fehér (1898–1990), made by the Rose Iron Works, Cleveland, Ohio, 1930. Wrought iron, brass, silver and gold plating; height overall 61 ½, width 61 ½, depth 11 inches. Cleveland Museum of Art, on loan from the Rose Iron Works Collections, LLC.

Before department stores, museums led the way introducing Americans to fresh design ideas. Newark Museum director Charles Cotton Dana initiated a series of exhibitions of contemporary European decorative arts in 1909 with the aim of informing museumgoers and allowing for museum acquisition. By the late 1910s the Metropolitan Museum of Art had hired a curator of industrial design, Richard Bach, and introduced new designs in annual exhibitions of “Industrial Art.” Alongside Bach, the museum had a curator of decorative arts, Joseph Breck, who acquired works for the permanent collection. In 1922 Tiffany & Co.’s chief designer and president, Edward C. Moore Jr., set up a fund with an initial endowment of ten thousand dollars to allow the Met to acquire contemporary decorative arts. This enabled Breck to buy or commission some extraordinary works of modern design by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and other leading French designers, as well as examples from the Wiener Werkstätte (see Fig. 15).

Fig. 12. Design for a roof garden, Hotel Gibson, Cincinnati, Ohio, by Urban, 1928. Pen and black ink, brush and watercolor, white gouache, gold paint, graphite on yellowish paper, laid down on tissue paper, 8 5/8 by 12 5/8 inches. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, purchase through gift of Carola Walton, in memory of her mother, Dorothy S. Teegan.

The Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Cleveland Museum of Art were among the venues for a pared-down American version of the Paris 1925 exhibition that traveled the United States beginning in 1926. When at the Met, the show was titled A Selected Collection of Objects from the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art at Paris 1925. While its chief focus was on French design, it included Scandinavian, Austrian, and Italian works seen in the Paris exposition, most of which were for sale, and sold along the way. Even as the Met’s president, Robert W. de Forest, promoted the arts of the nation’s past in the museum’s American Wing, which opened in 1924, he was an active purchaser of modern European works from the Selected exhibition.

Fig. 13. Design by Deskey for a window display at Saks Fifth Avenue, New York, c. 1927–1928. Brush and silver paint, watercolor, pastel, graphite on offwhite illustration board, ruled borders in graphite, 15 by 20 inches. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, gift of Donald Deskey.
Fig 14. Chair designed by von Nessen, 1928. Aluminum, brass, leather; height 27, width 20, depth 20 inches. Private collection.

Strong ties developed between the museums—particularly the Met—and department stores, which were not only introducing shoppers to the look of modern design, but also putting it in their homes. In New York, both Lord & Taylor and R. H. Macy & Co. presented small shows of novel furnishings in 1926 and 1927.4 They went all out the following year. In the spring Lord & Taylor staged an Exposition of Modern French Decorative Art, accompanied by a catalogue. Although Dorothy Shaver, head of fashion and decoration at Lord & Taylor, included some non-French work, the focus was on displaying French design as chic and accessible. Later that year, Macy’s mounted An International Exposition of Art in Industry, an ambitious show that included room settings by Weber as well as the von Nessen chair in Figure 14. In his foreword to the Macy’s exhibition catalogue, de Forest joined the show to the Met’s own efforts: “Every progressive museum in recent years has felt it to be an essential public duty to serve commerce by making available for study and inspiration the cultural resources in its collections. Special exhibits of industrial art are a feature of this service and have a stimulating effect, with ever widening response.”5

Fig. 15. Chandelier designed by Peche, 1922, manufactured by the Wiener Werkstätte, 1923. Silvered bronze; height 48 ½, diameter 23 ⅛ inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Edward C. Moore Jr. gift.

Both Macy’s and Lord & Taylor also offered to make special modified versions of the European originals they presented in their 1928 exhibitions. One bride-to-be, Marie-Louise Montgomery, availed herself of the opportunity to have Lord & Taylor make a vanity and bench based on Léon Jallot pieces of the same form. In place of lavish materials such as exotic hardwood veneers, ivory, and shagreen that Jallot employed in his versions, Lord & Taylor used inexpensive wood and a coat of striking red lacquer paint (Fig. 10). French designers fumed, but the concept of making good design more affordable through less expensive treatments was part of the American mission. The broadening of the consumer market for new styles, often made with new technologies and materials, enabled American consumers to feel more familiar with modern design when they made their design decisions on the cusp of the Great Depression. The democratization of design without social upheaval was an American contribution to the modern movement. The interaction of people from a variety of backgrounds, both geographic and educational, with broader design resources that complemented mass production, produced a melting-pot modernism. This new American design style was another powerful aspect of the rhythm, color, and sense of adventure of the Jazz Age.

Fig. 16. Pair of doors designed by Séraphin Soudbinine (1870–1944), executed by Jean Dunand (1877–1942), 1925–1926. Carved, joined, and lacquered wood, eggshell, mother-of-pearl, gold leaf, cast bronze; height 8 feet 10 3/4 inches, width 26 inches. The doors were commissioned by the Solomon Guggenheims while in Paris in 1925 for their music room in New York. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, gift of Mrs. Solomon R. Guggenheim.

The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s is on view at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York from April 7 to August 20 and at the Cleveland Museum of Art from September 30 to January 14, 2018.

1 The latter included wallpapers by modern Austrian, German, French, and American designers that he gave to the Cooper Hewitt Museum in the late 1920s—where they became some of the earliest examples of contemporary design accepted into the museum’s collection. 2 Both the Deskey screen owned by the Allvines and the Reeves-designed bed on which the coverlet was used are in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. 3 Christopher Long, “Kem Weber and the rise of modern design in Southern California,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 175, no. 5 (May 2009), pp. 96–103. 4 The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired some large textile panels from the 1926 exhibition. 5 Robert W. de Forest, “An Initial Experiment,” foreword to R. H. Macy, An International Exposition of Art in Industry (1928), p. 4.

SARAH D. COFFIN is the head of the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where she has curated numerous exhibitions. Along with Stephen Harrison, she is co-curator (and co-author of the accompanying catalogue) of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, organized by Cooper Hewitt and the Cleveland Museum of Art.