Prior to the American Revolution, and during the first several decades of the new Republic, the city of London was the style center of the British-Atlantic World. During the 17th and 18th centuries, an incredibly rich mixture of styles in British furniture, textiles, and decorative objects routinely crossed the Atlantic destined for eager customers along America’s eastern seaboard. George and Martha Washington were certainly savvy connoisseurs of the latest decorating trends, and they carefully chose an array of goods to convey their wealth, taste, and social standing. Join leading curators, historians, and art historians as they examine a wide variety of styles, objects, methods, and techniques which crisscrossed the Atlantic between Britain and America.

The Mount Vernon Symposium is endowed by the generous support of The Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, Lucy S. Rhame, The Felicia Fund, The Sachem Foundation, and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Mauran IV.


“Let them be … fashionable or send none”: Decorative Arts in the British Atlantic World

The newly restored Blue Room at Mount Vernon.

Friday, June 1

All Friday lectures take place in the David M. Rubenstein Leadership Hall in the Washington Library.

12:30-6:00 pm Symposium Registration, Bookout Reception Hall
1:00 pm Welcome and Introductions
1:15  pm A House Hold of Goods: The Washington Family and Conspicuous Consumption

Luke J. Pecoraro

George Washington and his elder half-brother Lawrence carefully constructed their identities through imported objects obtained through the consignment system which developed into a distinct American colonial market by about 1750. This presentation will illustrate the shifts in the family’s style and taste as revealed through archaeological investigations at Mount Vernon, providing a window into the Washingtons’ colonial world on the eve of Revolution.

Luke J. Pecoraro is the Director of Archaeology at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and has worked in cultural resource management archaeology in the mid-Atlantic, the Chesapeake and New England on a variety of sites. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in history from Virginia Commonwealth University, and a Master’s and PhD in archaeology from Boston University.

2:00 pm The Dangers of the Dressing Table in the British Atlantic World

Jennifer Van Horn 

As women around the Atlantic Ocean peered into looking glasses and opened the drawers of dressing tables they employed the brushes, pomades, and powders kept inside to refine and polish. Smoothing away moral imperfections by disguising bodily ones they painted new and better faces. Examining the elaborate dressing furniture used by elites in South Carolina, Virginia, and New York City, we will explore how Anglo-American women interacted with these unique pieces of furniture and discover the range of material goods they stored within them. The toilette conjured fears that a woman’s exterior appearance bore no relationship to her inner virtue. Dressing furniture played a critical part in concealment. With their hidden drawers and secret cavities dressing tables participated in a larger debate over women’s potential for deception.

Jennifer Van Horn is the author of The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America recently published by the University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute. She holds a joint appointment as an assistant professor in the Departments of Art History and History at the University of Delaware. Her current research focuses on slavery and American portraiture and was recently featured in The Art Bulletin.

2:45 pm Break
3:15 pm Above the Stairs: Rethinking the Bedchambers at Mount Vernon

Amanda Isaac 

Over the years, the second-floor bedchambers at Mount Vernon have been some of the most challenging spaces to interpret, at times appearing as non-descript, generic colonial rooms. Now, new discoveries regarding their furnishings are revealing the rich, unique, and layered history of the Yellow, Blue, Chintz, and Lafayette Rooms, and the passion, labor, and historic moments they hosted.  Initially defined by coordinated suites of British furniture and luxurious textiles, with vibrant pattern and color, the rooms were a statement of the successful alliance of the Custis fortune and Washington ambition. Through the next 40 years, George and Martha Washington altered and rearranged the rooms to signal their changing political and cultural orientations, and distinct individuals made their mark. Bringing these stories to the fore, through the current and forthcoming refurnishing of these rooms, will present a fresh perspective on the Washingtons’ exceptional lives and legacies.

Amanda Isaac is an associate curator at Mount Vernon, where she leads the ongoing research and development of the Mount Vernon Furnishing Plan, including the recent refurnishing of the Blue Room and the Chintz Room. She holds an M.A. from the University of Delaware’s Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, where she specialized in the study of textiles and women’s artistry in colonial America.

4:15 pm Curator-Led Tours
5:45 pm Reception
6:30 pm Gourmet Meal

Saturday, June 2

All Saturday lectures take place in the David M. Rubenstein Leadership Hall in the Washington Library.

7:30 am Continental Breakfast, Bookout Reception Hall
8:45 am Welcome and Introductions
9:00 am Patterns of Fashion: The Transatlantic Textile Trade

Linda Eaton

Textiles formed a huge proportion of the transatlantic trade, but trading across an ocean was a serious challenge for both merchants and consumers.  American merchants and their customers were looking for the most fashionable and up-to-date patterns and colors, as well as good quality for low prices, while British linen drapers and manufacturers would sometimes underestimate the sophistication of the American market by attempting to off-load less fashionable goods.  The vicissitudes of trade and financial risks of long credit bedeviled both sides.   This paper will consider the colorful trade and the colorful characters involved in it.    

Linda Eaton is the John L. & Marjorie P. McGraw Director of Collections and Senior Curator of Textiles at Winterthur Museum and teaches in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.  Her most recent book, Printed Textiles: British and American Printed Cottons and Linens 1750-1850, was published in September 2014.  Her most recent exhibition, “Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes” closed in January 2018 but is available online. 

10:00 am Break
10:15 am Fashioning the Botanical Landscape of Empire: Women Makers and Wearers of Silk - (Pauline C. Metcalf Lecture on Women in the Decorative Arts)

Zara Anishanslin 

One of the most popular silk designers in the 18th-century British Empire was a woman. Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763) was a clergyman’s daughter turned designer, a woman whose intimate family ties to global natural history networks found aesthetic expression in her silk patterns. Garthwaite’s designs blended English flora with exotic imported botanicals, including plants from Africa, North America, and the Caribbean. Her popular designs both mirrored the larger cultural fascination with things botanical and helped foster a craze for wearing botanical landscapes in silk around the British Empire. Her textile designs embodied important intersections between fashion and science. This talk considers how women who made and wore silk on both sides of the Atlantic, including Martha Washington, used flowered silk to fashion the botanical landscape of empire.

Zara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. Outside the classroom, she can be found talking history on the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum” show. Her first book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World was released by Yale University Press in 2016 and a Finalist for the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Best Book Prize.

11:00 am A Call to Arms: Chinese Armorial Porcelain in the Chesapeake

Ron Fuchs

Coats of arms and other heraldic devices have been used to show identity, family pride, and status from the very founding of Jamestown in 1607.  They were especially important to 18th and early-19th century gentry like the Washingtons, who used them to decorate a wide range of their possessions.  Among these were Chinese export porcelain tea and table wares.  Customized with their owner’s armorial shields, crests, or monograms, these highly personalized objects were about the most expensive, exotic, and status-laden ceramics one could own.  This talk will demonstrate how to decipher a coat of arms, provide a survey of armorial porcelain made for Virginians and Marylanders, and put these objects into the broader context of the material world of the 18th- and 19th-century Chesapeake.

Ron Fuchs is the curator of the Reeves Collection of Ceramics at Washington and Lee University.  He oversees, among other ceramics, one of the largest collections of armorial porcelain on display at a public museum, and teaches several classes, including George Washington and the Arts of Leadership, which studies how Washington used material culture to craft his public image. 

12:00 pm Lunch, Founders' Terrace
1:30 pm The Rise of the West End: London, the Season and Shopping

Amanda Vickery, Keynote Speaker 

The history of consumerism has been driven by the desires of the middling. Aristocratic tastes shine in a different discipline – the history of decorative art.  This lecture bridges these two fields, charting the explosion of London’s West End. Fashion’s capital was created by a culture of patrician politics rather than bourgeois spending, a direct response to the emergence of a new political timetable after 1689.  For the first time, political families made London their seasonal home, clustered in a small segment of the capital. Purveyors of fashionable goods targeted elite traffic between visits, court, and parliament.  Gunshops, wine merchants, and hatters opened next to the clubs and townhouses of leading ministers.  Shopping en route became routine, making the streets, squares, and parks of St. James’ a fashion runway.

Amanda Vickery is the prize-winning author of The Gentleman's Daughter (1998) and Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (2009). She is Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London and currently Eleanor Searle Visiting Professor at Caltech/Huntington Library, California.

2:30 pm Break
3:00 pm 'My New Apartment will be Very Handsome': Women and the Decorative Arts in Irish Georgian Houses - (Pauline C. Metcalf Lecture on Women in the Decorative Arts)

Robert O'Byrne

Social and political upheaval during the 16th and 17th centuries meant that by the time calm settled over Ireland from 1690 onwards few significant domestic interiors had survived. Subsequent peace and prosperity led to the widespread building of country houses, together with their appropriate furnishing. ‘My new apartment will be very handsome,’ wrote Mary Delany in July 1744, describing the rooms she was then decorating at Delville, County Dublin. Mrs Delany was not unique: during the Georgian era many chatelaines across Ireland embarked on a similar task. Drawing on contemporary inventories, letters and journals, Robert O’Byrne will explore the role of women in the evolution of Ireland’s decorative arts and the accompanying development of a consumer culture servicing the Irish country house.

Robert O’Byrne is a writer and lecturer specializing in the fine and decorative arts. A retired Vice-President of the Irish Georgian Society and trustee of the Alfred Beit Foundation, for the past nine years he has written a monthly column for Apollo magazine, and is also a contributor to The Burlington Magazine and the Irish Arts Review. Since 2012, he has written an award-winning blog,   

3:45 pm Style, Taste, and Cost: Furnishing for Gentility in the British Atlantic World

Stephen Hague 

During the eighteenth century, genteel families throughout provincial England and the American colonies adopted small classically-inspired houses as a typical choice for their dwellings. The domestic interiors of these houses displayed status and served as markers of gentility in carefully calibrated ways.  This talk will focus on the style, taste, and cost of such genteel interiors, drawing on an analysis of nearly two hundred houses and their builder-owners in the Atlantic World.  It will challenge a standard narrative of aspirational owners overstretching their means to acquire vast estates, build large country houses, and furnish them extravagantly. Instead, genteel owners made mostly measured choices about their furnishings and material acquisitions, and comfortably combined new, fashionable goods with older objects in the domestic setting. 

Stephen Hague is an historian of Britain and the British Empire at Rowan University in New Jersey. His book, The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World, 1680-1780 (2015) was short-listed for the Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion. He holds a D.Phil. from Oxford University and an M.A. from the University of Virginia. He is a Supernumerary Fellow of Linacre College, Oxford, and writes and publishes regularly on social, cultural, and architectural history.

5:30 pm Reception and Potomac River Cruise
7:00 pm Riverside Dining at the Mount Vernon Wharf

Sunday, June 3

All Sunday lectures take place in the APC Meeting Room in the Ann Pamela Cunningham Building.

9:00 am Continental Breakfast, Ann Pamela Cunningham Building
9:30 am The British and American Mahogany Trades in the Colonial Era

Adam Bowett

This presentation explores the development of the mahogany trade between the Caribbean, North America and Great Britain in the 18th century. It examines the origins of the trade in the economics of West India shipping and its subsequent growth into an essential component of the Atlantic economy. It discusses mahogany’s effect on the British and American furniture industries and demonstrates the effect of supply and demand on the way it was employed. The different sources of mahogany and their role in the market are reviewed. The presentation also examines the relationship between mahogany, British colonial policy and the wider geo-political context, particularly the effects of conflict and rivalry between the European colonial powers. Finally it considers the consequences of the American Revolution on the mahogany trade and its effects on the American market.

Adam Bowett is an independent furniture historian, Chairman of the Chippendale Society and editor of Regional Furniture. Since 1992 he has worked as an advisor on historic English furniture to public institutions and private clients in both Britain and North America. He publishes research in both popular and academic journals, and is the author of three books on English furniture and furniture-making.

10:15 am In all the Luxury of Indolence: Material Comforts in the Caribbean Climate

Louis P. Nelson

In September of 1801, only months after her arrival in Jamaica, Lady Maria Nugent, wife of an early 19th-century governor, noted of one planter’s house that it was “the usual one, of one story with a piazza.” In a journal entry a few months later, she commented on another house, which was “truly Creole” with “galleries, piazzas, porticoes, etc.”  Both of these comments speak to the emergence over the previous half century of a distinctive material culture—clothes, furniture, and buildings—that others would comment on as in the luxury of indolence. This paper is an examination of the architecture and objects of this place situated in the context of climate, culture, and slavery in the colonial British Caribbean.

Louis Nelson is a Professor of Architectural History and the Vice Provost for Academic Outreach in the Office of the Provost at the University of Virginia. He is a specialist in the built environments of the early modern Atlantic world with published work on the American South, the Caribbean, and West Africa. His current research engages the spaces of enslavement in West Africa and in the Americas, working to document and interpret the buildings and landscapes that shaped the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

11:00 am Break 
11:30 am Up From the Ashes: Rediscovering George William Fairfax's Belvoir and its London-made Furnishings

Adam T. Erby 

Belvoir is the most important 18th-century Northern Virginia house that no longer exists.  Burned in 1781, Belvoir was home to members of the aristocratic Fairfax family who controlled all of the land in Virginia between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers.  The house was legendary for its opulence and hospitality, and George Washington once recorded that he spent the “happiest moments of [his] life” in its rooms.  Until recently very little evidence of its appearance survived, however, in 2013, the Washington Library acquired a ledger recording George William and Sally Cary Fairfax’s purchases from a London upholsterer, illuminating the house’s contents in incredible detail.  This lecture will utilize this newfound documentary evidence and surviving objects to attempt to reconstruct some of the appearance of this remarkable structure and to illuminate its influence on other major houses of Fairfax County. 

Adam T. Erby is associate curator at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where he specializes in historic interiors, 18th-century furniture, and American art.  He is currently working on the restorations of Mount Vernon’s front parlor and central passage. Erby recently curated the special exhibition Gardens & Groves: George Washington’s Landscape at Mount Vernon and was the principal author of a book on the same subject.

12:30 pm Symposium Adjourns
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