EVENTS > SYMPOSIA
In Review: The Decorative Arts Trust Spring Symposium, 2013
by Maura McCarthy, Registrar
After every symposium we seem to say, “This was the best yet!” Can that always be true? Fortunately, yes, they all really excel in their own way. The lectures alone were worth the entire weekend, to say nothing of the outstanding houses and hosts who welcomed us.
The Thursday trip to Washington and Lee University’s Reeves Center of Chinese Export Porcelain necessitated a drive along the James River and its tributaries. The lush spring Virginia countryside with shadblow, dogwood and redbud blooming was delightful.
At lectures that morning on the campus, Ron Fuchs, curator of the Reeves Center, explained that W&L was originally Liberty Academy. In 1796 George Washington gave stock to support the school, which then became Washington College. In 1865, R.E. Lee became president and rebuilt the damaged school, which became known as Washington and Lee. Fuchs then explained the origins of the Reeves Center and showed highlights of the collection which are much more than Chinese Export. Angela Howard of Heirloom & Howard in England, specializing in Chinese export armorial china, gave a rousing tutorial on understanding armorials. It is like a secret language, a complicated secret language! Trust members were thrilled with this breakthrough information and got to put it to immediate use at the Reeves Center’s newest addition, The David Sanctuary Howard coffee cup collection that covered an entire wall and offered maximum heraldry in a minimum space. It was extremely special to have Angela there as we explored the beautiful designs of the early armorial cups.
The all-star cast of scholars continued with the symposium lectures and gave us an exciting insight into the lives of the people who inhabited Southside Virginia. We began with Clifton Ellis’ intriguing story of the Bruce family at Berry Hill. Much of the original plan for the house was altered by Eliza Bruce when husband James was away. She made careful changes that reflect how she used the space and the division of the house between slaves and the Bruce family. The servants’ wing was moved to extend out the right rear end of the house rather than directly down the middle; this allowed for a clear view out the dining room window. The new side wing allowed Eliza to have a passage between the nursery, the pantry and valuables closets in the wing, but still provided the security of being able to close and lock each door between the spaces. This was an especially important concern for Eliza as she was alone in the house for long periods of time with 27 house slaves who were growing increasingly defiant before the Civil War.
Daniel Ackermann, our John A.H. Sweeney Lecturer and Associate Curator at MESDA, spoke about Frank Horton’s early efforts to study and catalog regional furniture. Frank Horton hired young, attractive single Southern women from good colleges. After giving them a crash course in decorative arts, he sent them to communities like Southside Virginia where they were told to be “Catholic on Sunday, Baptist on Wednesday and Jewish on Friday” in order to gain access to as many houses as possible to see the furniture. When they thought they had something worthy of the MESDA collection, they called Frank to tell him about it.
Some pieces that were found in Southside VA were the ubiquitous Johnson chairs from Mecklenburg County, characterized by a trapezoid finial with a ball on top and cinch turning on back posts. Mecklenburg also produced the Mecklenburg (or Halifax) chest of drawers whose foot construction featured a nail driven vertically into the base molding. Thomas Day, a free man of color, had the largest cabinet shop in North Carolina in 1850. He made the pews in the church in Milton, NC, where he worshipped. And, there he sat with the white members. He was so well respected and successful that when Day made plans to marry Aquilla Wilson of Virginia, the law prevented her, a free black woman, from entering North Carolina. The North Carolina legislature passed an act allowing her to move to the state. We saw examples of his furniture and woodwork throughout the weekend. An exhibit of Day’s work is currently on view at the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery.
A real gem of the weekend was the opportunity to visit Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. Travis McDonald and Jack Gary revealed how the lesser known of Jefferson’s estates shows his experimentation with form and convention because it was a private home that he didn’t expect others to see. When Thomas Jefferson left “the splendid misery of the presidency” to Madison, he retreated to the countryside to build Poplar Forest during the last 14 years of his life. Although we often hear of Jefferson dying in debt, Poplar Forest was a happy ending for him. He derived much pleasure from designing and building the retreat and enjoyed sharing it with his granddaughters who often stayed at the house with him. Next to Monticello, Poplar Forest is the most well-documented American House. Every inch of the house is documented with letters between Jefferson and his workers. Jefferson showed his workers the geometry of an octagon and how to lay bricks for it. Travis McDonald mentioned that a wing on the right side of the house was probably to be built by Jefferson’s son-in-law when he inherited Poplar Forest. But they did not stay long enough to accomplish that.
Following his death, Poplar Forest changed for the first time in the 1840s. The family bricked up 8 windows and took off some detailing and trim to make it look like a farm house. The interior was changed to be Greek Revival and the ornamental landscapes became farm yards. The house went through more modernizations over the next 100 years until it was rescued to be a house museum in 1983. The Foundation has since been restoring the house to Jefferson’s design. It is one of the few house museums to still use levered blinds which keep the house cool in the summer and give historic light to the rooms. The floorboards were restored to the European aesthetic per Jefferson’s instructions that they be oiled, waxed and polished. Jefferson also used triple sash windows throughout because they were easier to install than doors and gave the sense of bringing the outside landscape into the house. As Jack Gary related in his lecture, the house does not stand alone, rather, clumps of trees shading the house and flower beds and ornamental landscapes explore the house’s and man’s relationship with nature.
When studying the landscape of Lynchburg and Southside Virginia, it is impossible to leave out how so many great plantations made their livelihood. Susan Kern of William and Mary delivered a fascinating lecture about the growth of the tobacco industry. Tobacco was a new world crop. The use of tobacco spread quickly because it was not mentioned in the Koran as a banned substance. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the idea of smoking was new to Europe. Tobacco was considered a Native American crop and Native American imagery figured heavily in its marketing in Virginia. One aspect of this Native American association is through the use of a hoe, a Native American tool, to cultivate the tobacco rather than a plow. Tobacco was such an essential crop to the new world that Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed tobacco leaf capitals for the U.S. Capitol.
During the Revolution, tobacco farming declined as land was used for food crops instead. Later, tobacco rose again after the cigarette industry took hold and new methods of flue-curing in high heat and bulk curing bins, like shipping containers, were introduced, leading to the current Southside Virginia process.
After learning about the beginnings of tobacco in the South, Greg Starbuck relayed its significance in Lynchburg during the Civil War. Lynchburg was anchored by the tobacco industry and in 1860, it was the wealthiest city per capita in the south. Lynchburg’s position as a supply and transport center made it a stopping point for soldiers in 1861. In 1864, Lynchburg hospitals admitted 7,000 soldiers when the war finally hit Lynchburg. It was the only major city never captured during the war and was spared much of the burning and ransacking. By May 1865 after the April surrender at Appomattox, goods returned to pre-war prices. This allowed Lynchburg to begin reconstruction much sooner than many other southern cities.
Our afternoon collection visits were extraordinary in Lynchburg. After a round robin of tours at Poplar Forest on Friday including a look at archaeological digs and restoration inside the house, we were invited to two private collections, the first of which was Locust Grove, home of artist Anne Massie Winstead whose studio and paintings were a delight to see. Trust members then continued to a cocktail reception at the home and garden of Melanie and Lynch Christian. Exclusive tours and Southern hospitality ran throughout the weekend. On Saturday, we were honored to have Julian Hudson speak to our group about Prestwould. His lifelong dedication to this important house was shown in the newest addition to the collection, a bed that had been acquired and set up less than 24 hours before the Trust arrived!
After Prestwould, we were greeted at two more beautiful houses: Randolph Hook’s 1793 Spring Bank and Bagley Reid’s 1797 Flatrock. Bagley provided an old-fashioned country supper complete with Flatrock wine from his very own vineyard and ham biscuits cured in the back yard smokehouse. By Sunday evening, after an optional tour that included an afternoon visit to Sandy Crowther’s Blenheim where Highland cattle and Scottish deerhounds completed the pastoral setting, members were ready to relax at private dinners hosted by three gracious homeowners: Archer and Billy Hunt, Kent and Kay Van Allen and Lamar and Geri Cecil.
It is easy to see why we can say this was the best yet! The volume of objects and knowledge shared with us and the hospitality made the Lynchburg Symposium, once again, one-of-a-kind.
SAVE THE DATE
- Spring Symposium New Orleans, April, 2018
- Sweden & Denmark May/June 2018
- Fall Symposium Upper Hudson River Valley, September 2018
- Fall Study Trip Abroad Vienna, Prague & Budapest, October 2018