In 1784, George Washington wrote to family and friends in search of a marble surround suitable for his "New Room". In response, Samuel Vaughan, a recent émigré, presented this mantelpiece depicting pastoral life that originated from his home in Essex, England. Although Washington was humbled by Vaughan's generosity, he was hesitant to accept the gift, concerned that it was "too elegant & costly I fear for my own room, & republican stile of living." Despite his initial doubts, it was installed in 1786, becoming the centerpiece of Washington's most public room and perhaps inspiring the agricultural motifs decorating the room's ceilings and walls.
Marble chimney piece with broken-front shelf and three recessed friezes, supported by two ionic columns set in front of a fireplace surround and on top of an inlaid hearth; the upper molding is carved with canted leaves in low relief and terminates in a band of offset flower buds; stepped below is a border of egg and dart set above a simple ogee molding; each end of the mantel is thrust forward by a plinth of red colored marble, a high relief carving of a flower decorates each face; between the plinths are three chimney piece reliefs depicting domestic life in the county: the left hand tablet illustrates a young girl and child drawing water from a well in front of a quaint cottage, in the right tablet a young boy stands before two harnessed draft horses ready to draw the plow in the foreground, the frieze in the center depicts a farmer, his wife, and child herding sheep and oxen in a pastoral scene; an additional band of offset flower buds encloses the entablature and is followed by vertical step, a small border of acanthus leaves, and a final vertical step to meet the top edge of the columns; the two reeded ionic columns feature red colored marble and white caps and bases; the inner lip of the fireplace surround is adorned with a repeating pattern of four lobed flowers set within a crisscrossing ribbon; the white hearth is inlaid with a red colored marble; strap-work extends from the columns to the front edge, a line of red marble also extends across the hearth face, an angular figure eight is set in each front corner; a red diamond of marble edged in two dots is centered at the front edge; in the center of the hearth is an open Greek cross, quatrefoils are laid at each end of the cross, an additional quatrefoil and four small circles rests inside the cross.
Overall: 67 3/4 in. x 82 5/8 in. (172.09 cm x 209.87 cm)
Transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association through the generosity of John Augustine Washington III, 1860
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