A Brand New “Antique”

I saw a friend recently who was eager to hear about my trip to the Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum. “So…” he said curiously, “Tell me what you bought at the antique show!”

“Ah, it wasn’t an antique show, it was a conference,” I clarified.  “There wasn’t actually anything for sale—we went to lectures and toured exhibits.” I think he was disappointed. And I suppose it was funny in a way, for me to be gone for two weeks on an antique-themed trip and come home without any antiques to show for it.

When I was in DC, I prioritized seeing exhibits over shopping. With limited time, I figured the free national museums were a better bet than trekking out to the high-end design district in Georgetown, where all I was likely to come home with was sticker shock. And in Williamsburg, there are (oddly enough) no antique shops nearby, and certainly none in the historic area. Lacking both the car and the time needed to explore neighboring towns, I was content to stay put.

But despite the apparent lack of antiques for sale at Colonial Williamsburg, one finds instead a time-traveling portal to the places where our beloved objects were once purchased by their original owners: the cabinetmaker, the silversmith, the milliner, the foundry, etc. These Colonial Williamsburg historic trades are working shops, run by masters of the crafts and populated by journeymen and apprentices much as they would have been in the 18th century. As they create new works of functional and decorative art, the pieces that are not needed by the Foundation are put up for sale in the Prentis Store (or in the case of the silversmith, the Golden Ball shop)…


The Prentis Store, selling items handmade by the Historic Trades

…which is where I picked out these little pewter beauties:


The advantage of buying these brand new pewter candlesticks as opposed to period ones is that I was able to meet the man who made them! After leaving the Prentis Store, I headed down to the Geddy Foundry to seek out “MN,” as the sticks were signed. “That would be me!” said the journeyman working near the back of the shop. “MN” is for Mike Noftsger. Pleased to meet you, Mike. I just bought your candlesticks!


Apprentice Suzanne Dye and journeyman Mike Noftsger work in the Geddy Foundry

They were working on something else by now, but the foundry master very kindly got out the candlestick molds to show me. He explained the whole process from melting the pewter to burnishing the finished product—everything done by hand with carefully researched period techniques and materials.


Separate molds are used for the shaft of the candlestick…


…and for the base. Because pewter has such a low melting point, metal molds can be used. To make bronze or brass objects, sand molds must be made.


The two pieces are them trimmed of excess pewter, and fitted together to make the candlestick. At the end, the piece is burnished to bring out a beautiful shine.

In going to the foundry to meet the craftsmen and understand the process by which they work, my experience of buying these candlesticks was in a way more true to the 18th century than if I bought the “real thing” in an antique shop, separated from its maker and its origin story by over two hundred years.

I was reminded of this experience during a lecture on contemporary art that I recently attended with an artist friend. The debate rages on over the merits of current artists working in historical styles or techniques (many modernists contend that if it’s not avant-garde, it’s not really art). But there is something uniquely frustrating about the fact that we can never talk to the people who created the great works of art of the past. A collector of Albert Bierstadt can never ask him what he was thinking or why he made the choices he did. But the collector could talk to Erik Koeppel, a living artist working in a similar style. The same could be said of the great cabinetmakers (or foundrymen!) of early America versus those making high-quality reproductions in the same manner today.

A consideration of the merits of my brand new candlesticks thus brings up larger issues that deserve a discussion all their own: What is an antique? What are the important qualities of an antique/what makes one more desirable than another? Certainly the word “antique” implies a certain age to the item, but I assure you that even those in the field argue over the right time cutoff for what “counts” and what doesn’t. And, even if we can agree that age is a requirement to make something an antique, is it sufficient? Or do we also want to require a certain threshold of quality craftsmanship before bestowing the hallowed word? These questions compel a more involved discussion that will have to wait for a future post.

For now, I’ll contend that my candlesticks are not, in a conservative definition of the term, really antiques. But in a way, I’d be hard-pressed to find a more fitting souvenir of my first trip to the Forum.


The White House, Part II (State Floor)

If you missed Part I of my White House tour, check it out here. We are now heading upstairs to the State Rooms.

An imposing central hallway leads to the East Room, the largest in the White House. Essentially a large ballroom that can be configured to host anything from banquets to concerts to ceremonies, it doesn’t have much in the way of permanent furniture. Abigail Adams, however, famously used it to hang laundry, since it remained unfinished while she and John lived there.


The Cross Hall connects the East Room with the State Dining Room at opposite ends of the White House.

Perhaps the most remarkable treasure in this room is the 8-foot-tall portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. The portrait is a contemporary copy by Stuart after his original version (called the Lansdowne portrait; now in the National Portrait Gallery). Dolley Madison famously saved this portrait as she and the last of the remaining staff finally fled the White House as the British stormed into the city during the War of 1812. Short on space and manpower, Mrs. Madison could only save so many items from destruction. She chose the portrait, the silver, Madison’s documents, some books, a clock, and…curtains. Why she placed such a high value on red velvet drapes we may never know. While reading up about this, I discovered an interesting story about a dress that belonged to Mrs. Madison. Some historians speculate that the dress, which is made of a heavyweight red velvet more appropriate for draperies than for a gown, was actually cut from her rescued curtains.


GIlbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington. Interestingly, a misspelling of “United Sates” on one of the book spines in the painting, denotes this version as Stuart’s copy of his own original.

Jackie Kennedy deserves much credit for creating the White House Historical Association and halting practices destructive to White House history. So it blew my mind to find out that the red marble mantels and baseboards were actually painted white under her watch. Who paints over beautiful marble?! More recently it was decided to reverse this, but they never could get all of the white paint off, and streaks remain to this day.


The East Room after the Kennedy Restoration. Note the red marble mantels and baseboards have been painted (?!) white. This has since been reversed. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Green Room were two of my favorite works of art at the White House. The first was a silver coffee urn owned by John and Abigail Adams. The second was a painting by Ferdinand Richardt, c.1860. Sometime in the mid-twentieth century, a collector spotted a dirty painting at a secondhand market in India. Though obscured by dirt and grime, the architecture in the street scene painting appeared to be British or American. He bought it for about seven dollars. Once restored, the painting was indeed revealed to be of an American building—in fact, it was none other than Independence Hall. Talk about an antiquer’s dream come true!!


Richardt’s painting of Independence Hall hangs above the coffee table displaying John and Abigail Adams’ coffee urn. Love the silk moiré on the walls.

In the oval-shaped Blue Room was a suite of c.1815 blue and gold upholstered furniture by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé, ordered by President Monroe during his refurnishing of the White House after the War of 1812. This set of furniture, which was originally much larger, was lost with so many other items in the periodic auctions that were held when new Presidents felt like redecorating. During Jackie Kennedy’s renovation, some of this lost furniture resurfaced and was purchased by or donated back to the White House. Among these reacquired pieces was one of the Bellangé chairs. Quality reproductions of the chair were then commissioned to fill out the set of furniture, and additional originals (there are now 8) were acquired over time. Needless to say, if you have anything from this set lying around, you might want to give the White House a call…


The Blue Room. Swags of “fabric” in wallpaper give a nod to the real draperies once installed by Jackie Kennedy.


This sofa is part of the furniture suite by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé ordered by President Monroe.

 In the Red Room hung a portrait of Angelica Singleton, one of a handful of First Ladies who were not the wife of the President. In the case of President Martin Van Buren, his wife Hannah had died many years before he took office, so his daughter-in-law Angelica served as the First Lady and mistress of the White House. I thought it was a bit comical that the artist—Henry Inman—decided to include a bust of President Van Buren in the portrait of Angelica, as if to prompt viewers who may be thinking, “Umm, who is she again?”


The Red Room


Portrait of Angelica Singleton Van Buren, daughter-in-law of President Van Buren whose bust appears in the portrait. Via Wikimedia Commons

From the Red Room you can look back down through the Blue Room, Green Room, and all the way back to Stuart’s portrait of George Washington in the East Room–although that wasn’t always the case. This alignment of the doorways providing a view through a series of rooms is an architectural feature known as “enfilade” (love it!)


In this architectural feature called “enfilade” you can see through all the state rooms back to the portrait of George Washington in the East Room

Finally, we entered the State Dining Room with its famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln by George Healy. Interestingly, the White House chose a different portrait of Lincoln for its official commission, despite having been sent this work for consideration by a hopeful George Healy. Lincoln’s son instead bought Healy’s portrait, declaring that it was an unparalleled likeness. His widow later donated it to the White House.

Abraham Lincoln by George Healy. Lincoln's son declared this the best painting of his father.

Abraham Lincoln by George Healy. Lincoln’s son Robert declared this the best painting of his father.

Another hallmark of the dining room is the set of French gilt bronze décor purchased by President Monroe. Some of the candelabras were displayed on the sideboard and mantel, but I was disappointed that the 14-foot-long plateau centerpiece, often laid out on the dining table, was not on view during our visit. The mantel is a reproduction of the one created during the major 1902 renovation by the firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The original 1902 mantel was flanked with lions, which President Teddy Roosevelt decided wasn’t American enough. He had the lions changed out for two American Buffalo (incidentally, he also decided to outfit the dining room with wild game trophy heads!). Franklin Roosevelt further embellished the mantel by engraving a quote from a letter John Adams wrote to Abigail upon arriving at the White House: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.” This 1902 mantel was removed during Truman’s renovations (begun in 1948), and sent to his Presidential Library where it remains today. When the Kennedys were in the midst of their renovations, they asked for the mantel to be returned to the White House, but this request was denied, and a copy was installed in its place.


Abraham Lincoln presides over the State Dining Room

These stories are seriously just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to White House history. For further reading, check out:

The White House Historical Association


The White House Museum

The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families by Betty Monkman

Inside the White House: Stories from the World’s Most Famous Residence by Noel Grove

Designing Camelot: The Kennedy Restoration of the White House by James Abbott

Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House by William Allman and Melissa Naulin

Antiques Forum Lecture Highlights, Part I

I just arrived home this weekend from my first Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum, and I’m starting to recover from the sensory overload. It just happened to be the most beautiful weekend here in Southern California. It’s almost as if the weather gods were making a conscious effort to highlight the benefits of living here, knowing that I’d return home from Virginia with a partial desire to drop everything and move back east where the antiques are.

The conference did seem at times to be an eerily on-the-mark sales pitch, tailor-made to talk me into relocation. I met people from all up and down the east coast, around the south, and even a few from the midwest—several of whom had recently retired in and around Williamsburg to be closer to the historic area. Well doesn’t that sound like a fabulous plan? Sign me up. As for the lectures, they were all wonderful (and quite varied in topics), but I thought I’d share with you some thoughts on a few particular favorites, in no particular order.

Carolyn J. Weekley, Painters and Paintings in the Early American South. This lecture accompanied a relatively new exhibition in the DeWitt Wallace galleries (Colonial Williamsburg’s decorative arts museum). Having read Carolyn’s book of the same title in preparation for my trip, I got a lot more out of both the exhibit and the lecture. In the book, she discusses a wide range of paintings, from early European depictions of native towns, to pre-Audubon natural history studies, to portraits of the growing upper and middling classes in the early south. Portraits (the focus of her lecture) were by far the most popular and abundant type of painting in early America, as in England. Southern clients made use of a wide array of portrait painters, from local talent (those trained as portrait artists as well as those trained in sign/coach/house painting looking to broaden their offerings), to itinerant painters in search of new commissions, to foreign masters working abroad or their students arriving back in the colonies.


Reading up before my trip: Painters and Paintings in the Early American South by Carolyn Weekley

A longtime fan of northern portrait artists John Singleton Copley and Ralph Earl, I enjoyed learning some new names I hadn’t previously been exposed to. My favorite was Henry Benbridge, whose striking portrait of Charlotte Pepper Gignilliat was understandably chosen as the cover art for both the exhibit and the book. (Side note: check out this story of someone finding a portrait miniature by Benbridge in the dirt on her property!) However, it never ceases to amaze me how even modern photographic and printing technology simply cannot replicate the experience of seeing a painting in person. While reading Carolyn’s book, I didn’t pick up on Benbridge as a particular favorite. It wasn’t until I saw the exhibit for myself that his paintings jumped out at me as beautifully realistic, sensitive, and vibrant—despite the awkward and unexplained head proportions of Mr. and Mrs. William Boswell Lamb. In the end though, I hope southern art enthusiasts won’t begrudge me this confession: the highlight of the exhibit for me was seeing John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Henry Laurens, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. It was painted just after Laurens’s release from imprisonment in the Tower of London during the American Revolution (he was exchanged for General Lord Cornwallis). I’m not sure if it’s just me projecting, but I feel a sense of discomfort and unease in the picture. No doubt it took some time for Laurens to readjust after spending 15 months in prison. The portrait, like most by Copley, is beyond magnificent.


Henry Laurens, by John Singleton Copley, via Wikimedia Commons

Shelley Svoboda, Behind the Scenes, Beneath the Layers: Conservation of Southern Paintings. This lecture was enthralling. Who doesn’t love a great before-and-after comparison? Whether it’s the makeover of a boring living room on HGTV, or the professional restoration of a precious 18th century portrait, we love to bear witness to a dazzling transformation. Even better is a glimpse behind the scenes to see how it’s done. Shelley Svoboda shared some captivating stories of how she and her team salvage antique paintings from the ravages of time, environment, and less careful or talented restoration “experts” that have come before them.

Shelley worked on many of the paintings now installed in Painters and Paintings in the Early American South. She shared some particular examples with us, including the astonishing restoration of Robert Feke’s portraits of William and Elizabeth Nelson, which had suffered from poorly done overpainting in an earlier restoration. In particular, Mrs. Nelson’s face and right hand had been overpainted so crudely that they masked Feke’s skill, obscuring completely his original artwork. With careful removal of the overpainted areas, Shelley and her team were able to get down to what was left of the original paint. Using this remaining paint as a guide—as well as careful comparison with other related portraits by the artist—they were able to fill in only the areas where color was actually missing, and not over any of Feke’s original paint. In another example, an early game of lawn bowling was uncovered in the background of a portrait! It had been completely painted over during a previous “restoration.” Who knows what other details like this have been lost to the over-zealous or uninformed “restorations” of the past? With the use of reversible techniques, copious documentation, and a minimalist approach to restoration, modern conservators like Shelley are on a mission to make sure that the art of the past will be well-preserved for the future. (For more on the chemistry of conservation, check out this article on Shelley and her chemist colleague from the College of William and Mary)

Stay tuned for more lecture highlights in Part II…

And check out my new Pinterest board on 18th c. portraits

The White House, Part I (First Floor)

As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to be part of a special study group of Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum attendees that went to Washington DC before the conference for a couple of extraordinary tours–including the White House!

With sunny skies, a blanket of snow on the ground, and the promise of fine furniture, we arrived in Washington with high hopes for a grand day. Despite the fact that the storm spoiled much of our would-be visit to the District, I must admit that seeing the White House in the white snow was quite stunning.


North face of the White House, taken as we entered the East Wing

Upon clearing security and entering the East Wing, we were ushered into a little reception room, where we waited for our curator escort. In this room hangs a portrait of First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler. Apparently, Mrs. Tyler was appalled that the White House was not collecting portraits of the First Ladies alongside those of the Presidents, and promptly gifted a recent picture of herself to nudge them in the right direction!


First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler By Francesco Anelli, via Wikimedia Commons

We then proceeded to the end of the East Wing, where the Garden Room provided a beautiful view of the south portico. Gardens on this side have always done well in the shelter of the south-facing White House, with the sun’s rays bouncing off the massive white structure and onto the plants below. Interestingly, an old story I had heard before turned out to be a myth: the White House did not get its name for the white paint job done after the British burned the house to a char during the War of 1812. It’s a nice story, but the White House had apparently been painted white before the war, and was already being referred to as such in the early years.


South face of the White House. Note Truman’s second-floor balcony within the columns of the portico.

In 1948, President Truman added the second-floor balcony to the portico, to be accessible by the family’s private living quarters. The propriety of this addition was debated at the time, but it has since been accepted as a tasteful and natural evolution of the building. Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that the whole White House was potentially on the verge of collapse (yikes!). With the addition of a third level and other accumulated “improvements” over the years, the original wooden structure was strained to its limits. The whole thing needed to undergo a major renovation. At great expense, the outside shell of the house was fully preserved while the inside was gutted and rebuilt. The first of several steam shovels (needed to dig out the foundation and basement) wouldn’t fit through any of the doors. So, after disassembling the whole thing on site, each piece was brought separately into the house and put back together. The reassembled steam shovel was then used to dig out a tunnel by which all the other equipment could be brought inside to the job site. Much to the dismay of many (especially in light of how differently we view conservation today), most of that original interior was completely lost.

Connecting the East Wing to the main house is the East Colonnade, which was built as part of a smaller original East Wing (conceived as a guest entrance) in 1902. Behind that long wall with all the picture frames is a long, narrow room that originally served as a giant coat closet for the many guests coming through the White House. In the mid-20th century I guess it was decided that guests could take care of their own coats because it was transformed into a private family theater, which we unfortunately did not get to see.


Sunlight streams in from the gardens to the East Colonnade

The White House library was created at the request of President and First Lady Fillmore in the 1850s. More recently, a collection of books was carefully selected to represent a broad range of important topics. I’m not sure how often the books actually get used, though. Sometimes the library hosts media events. Much of the fine furniture is cleared out for these, since cameramen and journalists don’t necessarily come in with the same awe and respect for it that we antique nerds do!


I didn’t get a good picture of the library. This one is courtesy of Peter Gene via Creative Commons.

Among the most significant of the White House furnishings are the large number of pieces that President Monroe acquired to refurnish the house after it was burnt to a crisp during the War of 1812. Man would I have loved to help him with that authorized shopping spree! Unfortunately, these and hordes of additional White House furniture and decorative arts were never valued as historical artifacts of much import. They were sold off in droves at public auctions through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as new Presidents re-decorated to suit their own tastes (or in the case of Mary Todd Lincoln, to raise some much-needed cash!). It wasn’t until First Lady Jackie Kennedy arrived that this practice was officially discontinued. She created the White House Historical Association to help her renovate and then preserve the house’s interior in an effort to reclaim some of its history. A new regulation was put in place so that anything acquired by the White House could never be de-accessioned.

Miraculously, many important White House furnishings lost to those auctions have been reacquired over the years, starting with Mrs. Kennedy’s efforts. These two armchairs in the library were part of a larger set ordered by President Monroe in his post-war shopping spree. Many of the goods Monroe acquired were French (he developed a taste for French décor while ambassador to that country) but I believe these chairs were actually made in Washington.

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Red armchairs ordered by President Monroe to re-furnish the White House after the War of 1812

The Vermeil Room was originally chock full of built-in cabinets to display a large collection of mostly French gilded silver gifted to the White House during the Eisenhower administration. Though beautiful, the relevance of the collection to the story of American decorative arts is limited at best, so today only two of the cabinets are still displaying the gilded silver.  The others have been closed up to provide extra wall space for the display of several First Lady portraits. With an ever-growing number of portraits in the collection, wall space at the White House is a hotter commodity than Manhattan real estate.


First Lady Johnson presides over Federal lolling chairs and a selection of French gilt silver in the Vermeil Room

After seeing mostly Empire furniture up to this point in the tour, my eyes were immediately drawn to the earlier Federal lolling chairs flanking the fireplace in the Vermeil Room (I’m also a sucker for yellow upholstery). I inquired about them to the curators. “Oh, they’re just standard 1790s lolling chairs,” they said, much to my embarrassment (I guess everyone in DC has a pair of these just lying about the living room!) They kindly and diplomatically directed my attention to the piece I should have been impressed with in that room: a large Empire mahogany center table (from Philadelphia, I think). It was clearly a high-quality and high-style piece. But call me crazy—I’d still take the “standard” lolling chairs. I guess I’m a cheap date!

Later, on the bus ride back to Virginia, one of our Colonial Williamsburg group leaders posed a fun hypothetical: what would you take home if you could have one thing from the White House? Hmmm, unless I could loophole my way into getting two things by claiming that the portraits of John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams were actually one “pair,” I think I would claim the little John Seymour two-drawer mahogany (sewing?) table here in the Vermeil room. Awesome alert: it has its original paper label/bill of sale attached to the underside of one of the drawers!


John Seymour (sewing?) table. Bright sunlight coming in the adjacent window prevented me from getting a great picture…

The China Room was lined on three walls with built-in cabinets to display a sampling from the White House collections of Presidential tableware from George Washington to George W. Bush. Apparently, not every President ordered new china for the house (the Obamas have not yet ordered a service). The most flamboyant was the service ordered by President Hayes from the Haviland Company of Limoges, France. Each particular piece of the service was wildly different, from the three-dimensional oyster plate to the fowl-themed (salad?) plate to my personal favorite, a snowshoe-emblazoned ice cream dish that is as beautiful as it is bizarre. Hayes ordered this elaborate service before realizing he couldn’t actually afford it all, so many pieces ended up being sold to the public, without the Presidential mark on the back. I recognized the oyster plate from an episode of Antiques Roadshow, where someone had inherited several of them!


President Hayes’s three-dimensional oyster plate


Salad(?) plate with river fowl, and snowshoe ice cream dish, from Hayes service

The Diplomatic Reception Room is an oval-shaped room that bumps out to form the curved central portion of the White House south face. It was from here that President Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” were broadcast, and it now serves as the main entrance hall for the First Family. Here was more yellow-upholstered Federal furniture (yay!), and a labeled desk and bookcase by John Shaw, but even I had to admit that the star of the show in this room was the wallpaper. Printed by French manufacturer Jean Zuber et Cie in the 1830s, the wallpaper is entitled Scenes of North America, and includes several recognizable American landmarks such as Niagara Falls, West Point, and New York Harbor. Jackie Kennedy installed the paper in this room during her historic-minded renovations. There was also a custom-made rug encircled with the coats of arms of the fifty states, but I was too busy looking at furniture to be bothered to find California and snap a picture. I stand by my choice of priorities.


Diplomatic Reception Room, with 1830s French wallpaper scenes


Detail of panel showing West Point in New York

Now it was time to head upstairs to the second floor State Rooms. Stay tuned for Part II…

White House, Silver Lining

Every cloud has a silver lining, right? Apparently, it’s even the case for the snowpocalyptic southern storm clouds that forced us to abandon Day One of our DC field trip here at the Williamsburg Antiques Forum. Despite missing out on seeing the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, the National Portrait Gallery, and a few other goodies, our fearless trip leaders managed to salvage two incredible experiences for our Day Two itinerary: a behind-the-scenes look at the National Gallery of Art’s Kaufman American furniture exhibition, and a private curator-led tour of the White House!

Needless to say, it was a great privilege to have been part of this trip. As I’m pretty exhausted from the long day of travel and furniture-gawking (#firstworldproblems?), I’m going to hit the hay. But here are some teaser pictures to whet your appetite! Stay tuned for more…

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Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, 1700-1830


South portico of the White House–in the snow!


The White House Diplomatic Reception Room (not to be confused with the large series of Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the State Department, which we were unable to see due to the storm)


President Lincoln’s portrait presides over the State Dining Room

The Cabinetmaker’s Shop…in the snow

It was hard to believe as I cruised down the train tracks from DC to Williamsburg this morning, but a huge snowstorm was about to hit the entire southeast region. The forecast was so bleak that day 1 of our pre-conference DC field trip had already been cancelled, much to my extreme dismay. Still holding out hope for the Friday activities, I arrived at Williamsburg station determined to make the most of the remaining good weather.


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