Gorgeous Georgian Piles, Portraits and Prose Filled Five July Days at Washington and Lee

The Colonnade, Washington and Lee UniversityA dreary January Saturday brightened considerably when my mailman delivered the brochure describing Washington and Lee University’s Alumni College and W&L Traveller programs for 2013. Organized and managed by W&L’s Office of Special Programs, these educational travel opportunities have been a hit with W&L alumni, parents, and friends since their inception in 1982.

After spending my junior year at W&L in 1989-1990, returning to this historic and beautiful Virginia campus is always a treat. It didn’t take me long to decide that from July 14 to 19, I would spend the first week of my summer vacation at W&L, joining 51 other lifelong learners to revel in the history, architecture, music, art and literature of the Georgian Era.

Each morning, we convened in the classroom for a series of lectures. Lamar Cecil, former William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of History at W&L, provided a historical overview of the Georgian Era (1714-1830), named for the reigns of the Hanoverian monarchs known as George I, George II, George III and George IV. He also acquainted us with Capability Brown’s unforgettable landscapes and the magnificent Georgian “piles,” or country homes, created during this time, such as Houghton Hall, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, Hatfield House, Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth and Holkham Hall. After learning about how important India was to making English artistic and cultural achievements possible, I vowed to reread E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India when I got home. Click here to listen to one of Dr. Cecil’s lectures from the week.

Ever-popular Marc Conner, the Jo M. and James Ballengee Professor of English and the Associate Provost at W&L, described how Georgian-Era writers such as Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe developed and refined the English novel. Moreover, he introduced us to The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope’s elegant parody of classic epics; Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded; Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard; and the development of Gothic novels like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He saved his best lecture for last, on the lyric Romantic poetry of William Wordsworth.

Photo by Patrick Hinely, Washington and Lee University Photographer

Photo by Patrick Hinely, Washington and Lee University Photographer

Art historian Lucinda Hawksley, the great-great-great granddaughter of Charles Dickens, flew in from London to tell us how the Hanoverian monarchs shaped the remarkable achievements of British artists of the day. We studied works by Thomas Gainsborough, the renowned portrait painter who enjoyed the patronage of George III; his rival, Joshua Reynolds, the creator of the Grand Manner style of portraiture; and William Hogarth, who not only created best-selling series of story-telling engravings like Marriage a la Mode, but also introduced the concept of the line of beauty, or the serpentine curve, which is immortalized in the “Hogarth curve” in flower arranging. Lucinda introduced us to the conversation piece, an informal depiction of groups of people enjoying daily life, and Bashaw, The Faithful Friend of Man, Trampling Underfoot His Most Insidious Enemy, Matthew Cotes Wyatt’s sculpture of Lord Dudley’s favorite dog. We also discussed Jonathan Tyers and his Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a collection of Gothic buildings, classical colonnades and statues that Londoners enjoyed strolling by while listening to benefit concerts directed by George Friedrich Handel. And we learned more about the London Foundling Hospital, founded by royal charter in 1739 to care for deserted young children who could be reclaimed by their parents if their circumstances changed.

Serving a fine meal and behaving in the right manner was important in Georgian England. Ron Fuchs, curator of the Reeves Collection of Ceramics at W&L, described the evolution of Georgian dining customs, including new dishes like soups, ketchups, salads and grand desserts, and the advent of the dinner service, with matched dinner plates on which to eat multiple courses.

Washington and Lee University's Clementi pianoW&L Music Professor Timothy Gaylard not only lectured on Handel and the memorable pieces he composed for the Royal Family, but also teamed with colleague Shuko Watanabe for a special performance on one of only seven Clementi grand fortepianos known to exist today. Muzio Clementi, a composer, teacher and music publisher during the Georgian era, bought a London piano factory in 1798 and began producing these popular instruments. In 1995, Dr. Lawrence Smith, a 1958 graduate of W&L and a fellow Georgian Era Alumni Collegian, purchased a Clementi piano that was built in 1813-1814, had it restored the following year, and then donated it to W&L. Watanabe and Gaylard played selections from Handel’s Water Music Suite in F; Johann Christian Bach’s Sonata for piano duet in A major, Op. 18, No. 5; Mozart’s Sonata for piano duet in B-flat major, K. 358; and Clementi’s Sonata for piano duet in C major, Op. 3, No. 1. It was magnificent to hear.

During two other evenings, we watched “The Madness of King George” and “The Duchess,” based on Amanda Foreman’s biography of Lady Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire.

Waffle with Washington and Lee University's tridentAlumni College meals are as bounteous and tasty as the intellectual feast participants experience. Two breakfasts included my favorite Belgian waffles adorned with the W&L trident. Lunches of sandwiches, quiches, soups and dessert parfaits sustained us throughout the afternoons. And dinners were extraordinary – our farewell dinner featured roast pork tenderloin on mushroom risotto with Brussels sprouts and julienned strips of apple; a salad of mixed greens with slices of yellow beets, goat cheese and candied pecans; and a summer fruit trifle for dessert.

Early risers had the opportunity to learn about Lexington on daily wake-up walks. One morning, we ventured over to the north end of the Virginia Military Institute campus, stopped on a bluff overlooking the Maury River, and saw Stono, an elegant Palladian brick home built in 1818 by and for ColonelStono, Lexington, Virginia John Jordan, a brickmason who worked at Monticello and built several structures in Lexington. The home also has other original features, such as an early summer kitchen, a circular limestone rubble icehouse with a conical roof, and a square brick office with a high stone basement.

One foggy morning found us at Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, the final resting place of the Civil War general who taught at Virginia Military Institute for whom the cemetery is named. Another led us to Liberty Hall, the picturesque ruins of the school that caught fire in JanuaryLiberty Hall ruins, Lexington, Virginia 1803, which looked as eerie as the settings of the Gothic novels Marc described. Check out The Architecture of Historic Lexington, by Royster Lyle, Jr. and Pamela Hemenway Simpson, and you’ll see many more of the Lexington homes we saw during our walks.

Each afternoon, I had free time to witness progress on the renovation of the Colonnade, spend time on the treadmill in the Doremus Gymnasium’s fancy fitness center, meet new Special Collections head Tom Camden, and catch up with Julie Campbell, for whom I wrote “Dear Young Friend: Letters from the Lees,” which ran on pages 35-37 of the Summer 2009 issue of W&L: The Washington and Lee University Alumni Magazine.

Matthew Kahle's "Old George," Special Collections, Washington and Lee UniversityLater in the week, my suggestion to bring the group to Special Collections led to a terrific viewing of artifacts like “Old George,” the eight-foot painted tulip poplar wood sculpture of George Washington in a Classical toga that Lexington cabinetmaker Matthew Kahle crafted in 1842 to stand atop what is now Washington Hall.

The crowd went crazy when we saw several significant historical documents, such as George Washington’s June 17, 1798 letter thanking the leaders of Liberty Hall Academy for changing the school’s name to Washington Academy in his honor. “To promote Literature in this rising Empire and to encourage the Arts, have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart,” Washington wrote in part. We also saw Robert E. Lee’s August 24, 1865 letter accepting the position as president of Washington College, now known as Washington and Lee. Most exciting of all George Washington's June 17, 1798 letterto the leaders of Liberty Hall Academy was Washington’s account ledger for managing the Custis family properties, which was buried with the Lee family’s silver for safekeeping during the Civil War. As Tom Camden is fond of saying, “Oh, my word.”

If you’re a fan of the Georgian Era, consider taking the W&L Traveller tour of Georgian England, taking place September 24-October 5, 2013. Led by Lamar Cecil, the tour will explore many magnificent estates built during the Georgian Era, such as Syon House, Spencer House, Holkham Hall, Houghton Hall, Kedleston, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton and Blenheim Palace. It also includes visits to Brighton, Petworth, Bath, the Cotswolds, and Oxford. An optional post-tour extension in Edinburgh is also available, which I’ll admit is very tempting. Click here for more information.

I left Lexington with plenty of homework. One task is to spend more time looking at What Jane Saw, a nifty online exhibit that recreates the retrospective exhibit of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds that Jane Austen visited on May 24, 1813. I’m looking forward to seeing if Jane Austen’s England, by Roy and Lesley Adkins, is as captivating as the embroidered designs on its jacket. Georgian London: Into the Streets, by Lucy Ingles, and her companion blog, Georgian London, are on my list of things to check out. I’ll also be rereading The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting, my much-loved catalogue from the National Gallery of Art’s 1985 exhibition.  Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, a companion publication to the British Library’s 2013-2014 exhibition, and The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy, 1714-1760, a catalogue accompanying an upcoming exhibition of works from the Royal Collection, are also on my list of books to read.

Another follow-up task involves reading some of Lucinda Hawksley’s books, including Charles Dickens’ Favorite Daughter: The Life, Loves, and Art of Katey Dickens Perugini and Charles Dickens: Dickens’ Bicentenary, 1812-2012, a biography produced in association with the Charles Dickens Museum, London, containing removable facsimiles of documents from Dickens’ personal archives.

Threads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770, by John Styles, accompanies Threads of Feeling, an exhibition first on view at the Foundling Museum in London and now at Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum through May 27, 2014. Detailed photographs and descriptive text tell the story of how mothers pinned fabric swatches, ribbons and other textiles to Foundling Hospital babies to identify them. Colonial Williamsburg’s May 6, 2013 Past & Present podcast featured an interview with John Styles, curator of the exhibit. Colonial Williamsburg will also be offering a symposium called “Threads of Feeling Unraveled: The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens,” from October 20-22, 2013. That’s tempting, too.

Illustration from Gulliver's Travels, Special Collections, Washington and Lee UniversityPainters and Paintings in the Early American South, Carolyn J. Weekley’s book accompanying another current Colonial Williamsburg exhibition, explores the stylistic trends of the period, comments on the lives of the sitters, and discusses the status and training of painters like Charles Willson Peale and John Singleton Copley. Washington and Lee loaned five paintings to the exhibition that depict members of the Washington and Custis families, all painted between the mid-to late 18th century.

And then I’ve got to finish Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, one of Marc Conner’s assignments. In my next post, you’ll see why!

This entry was posted in Architecture, Art, Books, England, Food/Restaurants, History, Movies & Television, Museums, Music, Special Collections, Washington and Lee. Bookmark the permalink.

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