By 1799, the Blue Room acted as a bedchamber for visiting family and guests.

The Blue Room after the 2017 restoration project. (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)In order to furnish the Blue Room as it would have appeared during the Washingtons’ second retirement, c. 1797-1799, the curators used the rich documentary descriptions from account books, letters, and probate inventories, plus the physical evidence from the room itself to select period and reproduction furnishings similar to those known to have been owned by George and Martha Washington. To date, no original furnishings from this space have been located.

The evidence suggests the Washingtons furnished it extensively, but not ostentatiously, for the comfort of their guests, gathering together a distinctive mix of furnishings – old and new, his and hers, British and American, French and Chinese. Acquired over the course of the Washingtons’ forty-year marriage, in the midst of dramatic personal and cultural changes, each of the objects had a unique story.

 

Bedstead and Curtains

A detail of the reproduction cornice, valance, and bed curtains. (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)

A detail of the reproduction cornice, valance, and bed curtains. (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)

The Blue Room cornice is based on the original cornice of this bedstead, believed to have been made for the household of merchant Thomas Belden (1732-1782) and Abigail Porter (1737-1798), married in 
1753, of Wethersfield, Connecticut. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Blue Room cornice is based on the original cornice of this bedstead, believed to have been made for the household of merchant Thomas Belden (1732-1782) and Abigail Porter (1737-1798), married in 1753, of Wethersfield, Connecticut. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The draped bedstead in the Blue Room was the costly and dramatic focal point of the room. While the original bed and hangings no longer survive, documentary evidence suggested that the bed ensemble in the Blue Room in 1799 may have been one acquired by the Washingtons in the early days of their marriage. George Washington had requested a bed with “fashionable blew or blew and white Curtains” in a May 1, 1759 order to his London agents, shortly after introducing his new bride to Mount Vernon for the first time after their January wedding. Given the date of the request, it was likely Mrs. Washington who initiated it, seeking to fashionably furnish their new home together.

The detailed description of the ensemble in the August 6, 1759, invoice from London upholsterer Philip Bell enabled curators and artisans to produce a painstaking re-creation of one of the Washingtons’ earliest forays into contemporary fashion. According to the invoice, a fabric covered “neat cut” cornice crowned a four-post beech frame with “neat plain” mahogany foot posts. A significant technological feature of the bed was the “compass rod,” a continuous iron rod suspended from the cornice that ran in a U-shape around the sides and foot, allowing the occupants to be fully encompassed when the curtains were drawn together along its length. The most distinctive aspect of the order was the 70 yards of “Blew plate Cotton” fabric for the bed hangings and additional upholstery. Plate-printed cotton had only recently been introduced to the market in 1752. Using the ingenious method of copperplate-printing, the new printed cottons sported vivid, sophisticated designs with the precise lines and subtle shading usually found only in fine engravings.

For the reproduction bed ensemble, curators and artisans based each element on well documented eighteenth-century examples. For the fabric, Brunschwig & Fils reproduced the c. 1760 English “Ducks” pattern by the firm of Bromley Hall in a custom color way, a dark indigo blue characteristic of the early copperplate prints. Its lively, almost life-size, ducks, roosters, hens, and pheasants are set amid fantastic frames of pears, pomegranates, and grapes joined with tulips, roses, anemones, and a myriad of other blooms — a joyous celebration of nature’s beauty and abundance. The compass rod was forged at Colonial Williamsburg’s Anderson blacksmith shop, based on a surviving English example in Williamsburg’s furniture collection. Topping it all off, the cornice is adapted from a c. 1760 cut and pierced cornice in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from the household of merchant Thomas Belden and Abigail Porter of Wethersfield, Connecticut. Its shells and scrolls repeat favored motifs of the rococo age.

Dressing Table Ensemble

Receipt from Williamsburg cabinetmaker Peter Scott to Daniel Parke Custis for “2 mahogany Dressing tables.” Martha Dandridge Custis Washington later brought these to Mount Vernon. (Courtesy, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; photo, Hans Lorenz)

Receipt from Williamsburg cabinetmaker Peter Scott to Daniel Parke Custis for “2 mahogany Dressing tables.” Martha Dandridge Custis Washington later brought these to Mount Vernon. (Courtesy, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; photo, Hans Lorenz)

The original dressing table brought by Martha Dandridge Custis Washington to Mount Vernon in 1759. 
In order to represent its mate (which has not been located), a reproduction was made for the Blue Room. 
(MVLA)

The original dressing table brought by Martha Dandridge Custis Washington to Mount Vernon in 1759. In order to represent its mate (which has not been located), a reproduction was made for the Blue Room. (MVLA)

To prepare for the day, eighteenth-century century guests would have sat at a dressing table such as this, using the small mirror, known as a dressing glass, to guide their preparations. The Chinese porcelain water bottle and wash basin were used to wash face and hands. (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)

To prepare for the day, eighteenth-century century guests would have sat at a dressing table such as this, using the small mirror, known as a dressing glass, to guide their preparations. The Chinese porcelain water bottle and wash basin were used to wash face and hands. (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)

The dressing table in the room may have been one of the two that Mrs. Washington brought to Mount Vernon in 1759 as part of the Custis property from her first marriage. In 1754, Martha Dandridge and her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, had commissioned Peter Scott, a cabinetmaker in Williamsburg, Virginia, to create two mahogany dressing tables.

Only one of the pair survives today. With its recessed, kneehole compartment flanked by two banks of drawers, it was a multifunctional piece designed to be used as either a writing desk or dressing table as needed. Its clean lines and solid craftsmanship exemplified the “neat plain” style of British furniture in the mid-eighteenth century. Curators commissioned an exact reproduction of the surviving original to represent the second dressing table in the Blue Room.

Together with the dressing tables that she brought to Mount Vernon in 1759, Mrs. Washington also brought a pair of dressing glasses, small mirrors set on diminutive cases of drawers. Such dressing glasses enabled a close-up view and scrutiny of one’s person as one dressed for the day or an event. An English dressing glass (c. 1725-2750) represents the presence of one of these in the Blue Room.

In the eighteenth century, clean hands signaled a genteel appearance and leisured lifestyle, supported by the work of others. To achieve this, a water bottle and basin would have been likely placed on or near the dressing table for hand-washing. Enslaved house servants would have filled the bottle with fresh water and removed the dirty water from the basin on a daily basis. In the Blue Room, the Chinese porcelain water bottle and wash basin (c. 1780-1800) reference the fine porcelains purchased by the Washingtons in the latter half of their lives. The presence of these goods also signaled the opening of direct trade with China and the growing economy of the newly-independent United States.

Looking Glass

The inventory described the looking glass in the Blue Room as “large,” and a review of the Washingtons’ purchasing history suggested it may have been a pediment-style looking glass acquired in the 1760s-1780s. The period American example on display here descended in the family of American painter Charles Willson Peale. Glasses of this size typically hung on the piers between the windows in a room, visually expanding the space, reflecting more light throughout, and adding drama in the sparkle and movement captured in their surfaces.

Chairs

Gothic-back side chair, similar to those likely used by the Washingtons in the Blue Room. (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)

Gothic-back side chair, similar to those likely used by the Washingtons in the Blue Room. (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)

Careful analysis of the Washingtons’ purchasing history suggested the six mahogany chairs listed in the probate inventory of the room were high-quality, but old-fashioned, English examples. These chairs had likely been acquired in the 1750s-1760s for the first-floor rooms, and were moved upstairs when new chairs were purchased in the 1770s-1790s.

A beautifully preserved set of six English chairs (c. 1755-1765) now represents those originally in the Blue Room, and are a reminder that bedchambers were once highly sociable spaces, not the private retreats we think of in modern homes. With its half dozen seats, the Washingtons’ Blue Room was ready to welcome a gathering for conversation, tea, reading, and other amusements, in a setting only slightly less formal than the rooms below.

The slipcovers on the chairs, also in the reproduction “Ducks” fabric, allude to those acquired by the Washingtons in 1759 as a part of the furnishings that accompanied the blue-and-white-draped bedstead. Below the slipcovers, the chair seats are covered in a reproduction blue wool moreen fabric, a high-quality upholstery fabric in the period that had a watered finish (appearing as wavy lines that catch the light).

Wallpaper

The reproduction wallpaper in the room came from the pattern books of Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, who operated the royal French wallpaper manufactory. (MVLA)

The reproduction wallpaper in the room came from the pattern books of Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, who operated the royal French wallpaper manufactory. (MVLA)

The view to the west, framed by a fashionable dimity curtain. (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)

The view to the west, framed by a fashionable dimity curtain. (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)

No fragments have been found of the original wallpaper used in this room, but several important pieces of evidence guided the selection of the reproduction pattern. In 1797, after eight years away, the Washingtons made substantial updates, including wallpapering throughout the house. This was likely the last time in the Washingtons’ lifetimes that the room was papered. For these renovations, Washington turned to Philadelphia suppliers William Poyntell and Georges Bertault. Both sold highly-fashionable French papers, and further support for the use of French papers at Mount Vernon came from fragments of the original wallpaper border in the New Room, the product of the royal French wallpaper manufactory started by Jean-Baptiste Réveillon and continued as Jacquemart et Bénard. Finally, the name of the room signaled that the ground color would likely have been blue and coordinated with the textiles in the room. Curators thus searched for a c. 1790s French paper with a blue ground.

The vivid blue wallpaper in the room is a custom reproduction – “Fleurettes, oiseaux, insects” or “Flowers, birds, insects” – licensed by Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, from the historic pattern books of the Réveillon/Jacquemart et Bénard firm. Adelphi Paperhangings produced the wallpaper using hand-ground pigments. The harmonious pattern dates to the 1790s, with graceful arcs of flowers accented by tiny, whimsical birds and insects, a timeless theme that complements the bold printed cotton bed hangings and slipcovers.

Curtains

The probate inventory listed window curtains in the Blue Room, but assigned them a low value, suggesting that they were of relatively simple design and a less expensive textile. Unadorned, single-panel, reproduction curtains represent these window treatments as they may have appeared in the late 1790s. They are made of dimity, a white cotton fabric woven with stripes, which rose to popularity in the 1790s, in part due to its association with the perceived aesthetics of classical Greece and Rome.

Bedside Carpets

Narrow runners on either side of the bed, known simply as bedside carpets, would have softened a guest’s entrance and exit from bed each day (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)

Narrow runners on either side of the bed, known simply as bedside carpets, would have softened a guest’s entrance and exit from bed each day (Gavin Ashworth, MVLA)

The inventory also listed carpet in the Blue Room, and both the physical evidence (the lack of holes from eighteenth-century carpet tacks) and documentary evidence indicated the use of bedside carpets in the Blue Room. In the period, carpeting remained a luxury, and even in elite homes, bedchambers typically had bedside carpets, rather than wall to wall carpeting.

Washington purchased several bedside carpets over the course of his lifetime, of a type known as Wilton, a cut-pile carpet woven in narrow strips. The reproduction carpets displayed in the Blue Room are representative of this type, with a neoclassical-style pattern in imitation of a Roman mosaic.

By: Amanda C. Isaac, Associate Curator, October 2017 

Artwork in the Blue Room

Washington chose works that showcased the contemporary artists of the day.

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