“Each Room at Winterthur Is Like a Poem”

Henry Francis du Pont didn’t just collect decorative arts. He acquired architecture and woodwork from interiors from the original 13 colonies, installed them at Winterthur, and made them part of the exceptional way he arranged his collection. When you tour Winterthur, you see period rooms filled with paintings, furniture, silver, porcelain, needlework and handmade wallcoverings. There is something to discover around every corner.

Sandy Mills guided us through the first and fifth floors of the Winterthur Museum. “Each room at Winterthur is like a poem,” Mrs. Mills remarked.  It wasn’t long before I understood what she meant.

The first piece she showed us was an American pine cupboard on which antique pink Staffordshire transferware was displayed. Mr. du Pont admired this piece while visiting his friend Electra Havemeyer Webb, founder of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, in 1923. He was so taken with the color combination of this piece that he was inspired to begin collecting American decorative art. The Webb family later gave the piece and ceramics to Winterthur.

In the du Pont Dining Room, Mrs. Mills told us about how Mr. du Pont entertained his guests with meticulous attention to detail. He had 70 sets of table linens made in the Hamptons to complement his 58 sets of china.  Flower arrangements changed daily to match the table setting of china that he had chosen to use that day. We also saw two urn-shaped knife boxes and six silver tankards made in 1772 by Paul Revere atop an early classical New York sideboard; Benjamin West’s unfinished painting, American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain, hangs above it.

The Chestertown Room included architectural elements from a Maryland home, but the show-stoppers here were the Meissen porcelain sweetmeat boats on the mantel and the furniture crafted by John Townsend of Newport, Rhode Island. My Victorian Society in America Summer School experience prepared me well to appreciate what I saw.

In the China Hall, we saw some of the 60 original pieces that Mr. du Pont had acquired from George Washington’s Cincinnati dinner service and a plate from the “States” china that was especially designed as a gift for Martha Washington.

It was hard to wait patiently to get into the Chinese Parlor, a sumptuous room that’s the perfect example of Mr. du Pont’s talent for interior decoration. He purchased the hand-painted 17th century Chinese wallcovering in Paris, brought it home to Winterthur, and renovated two rooms to accommodate it, including raising the ceiling so he would not have to cut the wallcovering. The paper perfectly complements ceramics, silver, a Chinese lacquerwork folding screen, and American Chippendale furniture inspired by Chinese design elements, such as pagoda-back chairs and fretwork on teatables.

In the next room, Mrs. Mills told us that Mr. du Pont sent his family on a year-long world tour; when they returned, a new staircase awaited them. The Montmorenci Staircase was removed from an 1822 house in Shocco Springs, North Carolina and adapted for Winterthur.

I also loved the harp, with its music stand and chair, in the Empire Parlor, as well as the Marlboro Room’s Charles Willson Peale paintings and needlework executed by teenage girls.

I’m still marveling at Mr. du Pont’s gifted eye for collecting and decorating, so I’ll be doing plenty of reading to learn more about what I saw.

Cindy found “Henry Francis du Pont and the Invention of Winterthur,” a great article from the April/May 1983 issue of American Heritage.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I happened to run into “An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur Museum” at the National Gallery of Art during a 2002 visit to Washington, D.C.  Now it’s time to read Wendy A. Cooper’s catalog that accompanied the exhibit.

Next is Henry F. du Pont and Winterthur: A Daughter’s Portrait, by Ruth Lord, Mr. du Pont’s younger daughter.  During our visit, a Winterthur guide told us that Mrs. Lord wrote letters to her mother every day for 30 years.  Now, they’re in the Winterthur archives, and the guide is transcribing them.

Two books by Maggie Lidz, Winterthur’s estate historian, are on reserve and on their way to the State Library of Ohio: The Du Ponts, Houses and Gardens in the Brandywine Valley, 1900-1951, and Life at Winterthur: A Du Pont Family Album.

Other titles that OhioLINK is providing include the Guide to Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, compiled by Pauline K. Eversmann; Discover Yuletide at Winterthur, by Deborah V.R. Harper; Winterthur, by Jay E. Cantor; and A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework, by Susan Burrows Swan.

While I’m waiting on my reserves to arrive, the new Winterthur Unreserved Museum & Library Blog is another good resource that I’ve bookmarked.  What a great way to keep up with Winterthur until my next visit!

This entry was posted in Art, Books, History, Museums, Needlework, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

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