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Nelly's World

Nelly Custis Artifacts in the Mount Vernon Collection

Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (1779–1852), called Nelly, was one of four children of Martha Washington’s son from her first marriage, John (Jack) Parke Custis, and his wife, Eleanor Calvert. After Jack’s death in 1781, George and Martha Washington brought Nelly and her brother, George Washington Parke Custis, to be raised at Mount Vernon. As a young woman, Nelly lived with the Washingtons in New York and Philadelphia. In 1799, she married George Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Lewis. The couple settled at Woodlawn Plantation, just a few miles from Mount Vernon.

Child’s Windsor High Chair
Possibly made in Philadelphia, 1780–1790
Tulip poplar, oak, maple

According to family history, Martha Washington acquired this high chair for Nelly and her brother to use when they came to Mount Vernon. As they do today, 18th-century high chairs imitated adult seating and enabled young children to sit with their families during mealtimes. Mrs. Washington gave the chair to Nelly when she had children of her own and it provided privileged seating for three generations before returning to Mount Vernon.

Gift of Mary Failing, Vice Regent for Oregon, 1912 [W-103]

Eleanor Parke Custis
Painted by Robert Edge Pine, 1785
Oil on canvas

In 1785, the English painter Robert Edge Pine arrived at Mount Vernon with the hope of taking a life portrait of George Washington. Washington was absent on business during much of his stay, but Pine took advantage of the opportunity to paint other members of the family, including six-year-old Nelly. Though Martha Washington described her as “a wild little creature,” Pine depicted Nelly with a shy smile and innocent expression, posed with a basket on her lap as if she had just returned from gathering fruit or flowers.

Bequest of Marie Worthington Conrad Lehr in memory of her brother, Charles A. Conrad, 1922 [W-78]


Harpsichord
Sold by Longman & Broderip
London, 1782–1793
Mahogany with veneers and secondary woods; ivory

Page from Twelve Pieces for the Harpsichord by Johann Franz Xaver Sterkel (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

Page from Twelve Pieces for the Harpsichord by Johann Franz Xaver Sterkel (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

Nelly’s life changed when George Washington was elected president and the family moved first to New York and then to Philadelphia, following the federal government’s headquarters. City life provided Nelly with excellent educational opportunities, including music lessons begun at age ten. Washington ordered this top-of-the-line double-manual harpsichord for her from London in 1793. Nelly was regularly called upon to entertain family, friends, and guests in the executive residence and at Mount Vernon. When the family returned to Virginia after Washington’s second term in office, Nelly wrote with enthusiasm to a friend, “When my Harpsichord comes, I shall practice a great deal, & make my Sister sing your parts of our Duetts.”

Bequest of Esther M. Lewis, 1859 [W-16]

Learn More: Washington as President

Paint Box
Made by Thomas Reeves & Son
London, ca. 1790–1797
Mahogany box with watercolor paint cakes

Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales
By John White
Watercolored by Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis
London: J. Debrett, 1790

In addition to music, Nelly’s education included lessons in embroidery, drawing, and painting. Washington purchased this paint box for her, probably in 1797. The set was the most elaborate offered by London firm Thomas Reeves & Son, containing 40 cakes of paint, ivory and ceramic mixing palettes, an ivory brush holder, and glass bowls. Nelly was admired for her artistic and musical accomplishments. When Polish nobleman Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz visited Mount Vernon in 1798, he commented that “she plays the harpsichord, sings, [and] draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.”

Nelly demonstrated her artistic skills by coloring the plates in Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, which features illustrations of animals and plants native to present-day Australia. Her impressive accomplishment is documented by a title page inscription, “The Prints in this Book were colour’d by Eleanor Parke Lewis in the year 1801.” The charming and delicately painted images of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects are a testament to Nelly’s talents.

Paint box: Gift: Jess and Grace Pavey Fund, 2013 [W-5326]
Book: Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Painting of a House
Drawn by Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, ca. 1794
Watercolor on paper

In addition to her natural history watercolors, Nelly painted compositions and scenes. This watercolor of a frame house may be a product of her lessons with British landscape artist William Groombridge, with whom she studied in Philadelphia in 1794. Nelly’s depiction of the house, with its broken chimney and irregular additions, surrounded by the overgrown yard, is characteristic of the late 18th-century fashion for the picturesque, an aesthetic style focused on landscapes with romantic subjects like ruins and untamed nature.

Gift of Lyttleton B.P. Gould, Jr. and Family, 2002 [W-4264]

Memorial Picture
Drawn by Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, ca. 1796
Watercolor, ink, and gouache on paper

Nelly’s cousin, Frances (Fanny) Bassett Washington Lear, lived with the Washingtons at the same time as the Custis grandchildren. More than a decade older than Nelly and her brother, Fanny assisted Martha with running the household, a role that Nelly later embraced. In 1796, Nelly wrote to a friend, “You must know that I am housekeeper, Nurse—(and a long train of Etcetera’s) at present. … I assure you I am quite domesticated.” At the time, she was helping to care for her older sister, Martha (Patty) Parke Custis Peter, who had recently given birth. (Nelly informed her friend, “I am become an Aunt, two or three inches taller upon the strength of it.”)

In the same letter, Nelly wrote of visiting “Cousin [Fanny] Lear who was sick, & sent for me.” Fanny died shortly thereafter, and Nelly painted this picture in her memory, using classical and Christian imagery popular in memorial art of the period. This watercolor showcases Nelly’s skill at painting as well as her devotion to her family.

Purchase, 1991 [W-3614/A-D]

Profile Portrait of Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis
Drawn by James Sharples, ca. 1796
Pastel on paper

English artist James Sharples’s portrait of Nelly captures her beauty and vivacious spirit at age 17. Family tradition attributes her “wind-blown” appearance to the fact that she ran in from the garden to sit for the artist. One year later, the Washingtons would relocate permanently to Mount Vernon after George Washington’s second term as president concluded. Of their return, Nelly wrote, “When I look at this noble river, & all the beautifull prospects around—I pity all those who are in Cities, for surely a country life, is the most rational & happy of any—& all of the refinements of art and luxury are nothing in comparison to the Beauties of Nature.”

Purchase, 1974 [W-2645/A-B]

Crib
Made in America, ca. 1799
Mahogany and oak

On George Washington’s last birthday, February 22, 1799, Nelly married Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Lewis. For a time, the couple lived at Mount Vernon, and according to family history, Martha Washington presented them with this crib when their first child, Frances Parke Lewis, was born the following November. With classical columns, the crib was fashionable as well as functional: a hinged side permits the crib to be placed adjacent to a bedstead, allowing for easy tending of the infant at night.

Bequest of Marie Conrad Lehr, 1922 [W-237]