Fairfax Family Ledger
This ledger contains the financial records of William and George William Fairfax. Including the furniture acquisitions that George Washington eventually purchased from the 1774 Fairfax sale at Belvoir.
Since the start of the Front Parlor restoration project, visitors have asked a variety of questions about the project and the history of the room. Below are the answers from Mount Vernon’s Historic Preservation & Collections team to some of the frequently asked questions.
The current restoration was inspired by the discovery of new information – an 18th-century document that dramatically changed our understanding of the front parlor’s furnishings at the time of George Washington’s death in 1799.
In 2013, Mount Vernon acquired a previously unknown ledger kept by George William Fairfax, the Washingtons’ friend and owner of the nearby Belvoir plantation. This ledger provided detailed information on a suite of furniture that Fairfax acquired in London for Belvoir’s “blue dressing chamber.” We knew that when Fairfax moved to England in 1774, he gave Washington the dressing room furniture, but prior to the appearance of the ledger, we had no idea what this furniture looked like.
As luck would have it, the ledger details an expensive suite of seating furniture, including a sofa and eight backstools, or chairs upholstered on the seat and the back. The entire suite was covered in “Saxon blue” silk and worsted wool damask. Although Mount Vernon did not have a dressing room, these same types of furniture were often used in parlors, where Washington installed the suite, as documented by correspondence and the room inventory taken after his death. The conclusive identification of the parlor furniture as a matched suite of high-end, London-made upholstered seating necessitated a replacement of the previous assemblage of American-made side chairs. While none of the original Fairfax-Washington furniture has been located, there are enough details in the ledger entry to enable us to reconstruct its appearance.
During the first phase of the project, the architecture team will strip the woodwork and ceiling of consolidants and excess paint; temporarily remove the chair rail, mopboard and some panels for repair; repair and conserve the woodwork and ceiling ornament; restore the floorboards; reinstall the woodwork; perform necessary ceiling ornament replacement; and repaint the woodwork and ceiling.
At each step of the process, the architecture team will perform forensic investigation and carefully document findings. Concurrently, the collections conservator will assess and conserve the Washington-era fireback inside the firebox.
To investigate the room, we are utilizing a variety of methods and instruments, some as basic as raking light from hand-held flashlights to identify early tool marks or repairs, or magnets to find metal fasteners hidden underneath paint and putty.
In other instances, we are using more advanced technology, such as a thermal imaging camera or an endoscope attached to a tablet computer, to non-destructively examine cavities behind the paneling. We have also undertaken microscopic analysis of paint, plaster, and wood to determine the material composition and generations of change. All of this information helps determine the most appropriate processes for intervening and interpreting the architecture in the space.
This room has already undergone paint analysis in order to determine the 1799 wall color, which was a neutral shade of cream instead of the bright blue applied in the previous restoration and still visible in parts of the space. After paint analysis and in-depth research were performed, a comparison was done between the resulting paint stratigraphy and documentary evidence to narrow down when the room would have been repainted and with what colors.
On the paint stratigraphy, the earliest layers were all variations of cream and corresponded with Washington’s improvement campaigns. Research also isolated the period when the room was painted blue, which was after the Washingtons. For example, an 1877 magazine article confirmed that the room was blue at that time, just before being repainted in a lighter shade in 1879. Upon completion of the restoration, the room’s woodwork will be returned to its 1799 cream color.
In addition, the temporary removal of the chair rail and mopboard has given us the opportunity to reach protected areas where early paint survived the aggressive stripping carried out in the late 19th century; additional paint analysis will be done around those elements to refine the information we obtained in the first round of analysis.
Dozens of people will work on the front parlor space, including staff on Mount Vernon’s Architecture, Curatorial, and Collections teams as well as specialist conservators and craftspeople.
Mount Vernon’s Architecture and Curatorial teams will lead the charge, researching the space and its furnishings, performing preliminary investigation, and coordinating with specialists. During the first phase of the project, physical work and documentation will be performed by the Architecture team, assisted by additional conservators and specialists. At the same time, the Curatorial team will coordinate conservation of artwork and acquisition and fabrication of textiles and furnishings to accurately represent the room’s 1799 contents.
During the initial phase of the project, many discoveries have been made (or additional light has been shed on previous discoveries):
The estimated duration of the project is one year. Of course, during an in-depth restoration project, the schedule may expand or contract depending on conditions and unforeseeable variables.
The front parlor displays some of the most striking architectural features of any room in the Mansion. On top of an earlier plaster-and-lath wall surface, George Washington installed floor-to-ceiling wood paneling, classical door surrounds, and an intricately carved mantel, overmantel, cornice, and chair rail, which were complemented by plaster and composition ceiling ornament.
The two doorways are framed by classical surrounds, and the mantel and overmantel feature lively naturalistic carving. Enframed above the firebox is an original landscape painting ordered by Washington from London in 1757, and a carved cartouche of George Washington’s coat of arms is set in a broken pediment.
The ceiling was embellished in the late 1780s with high-relief plaster and composition ornament, in the neo-classical style popularized by British architect Robert Adam, with rays of husks radiating out from a center medallion of acanthus leaves, and encircled by a garland of husks.
The last full-scale restoration of the front parlor was completed in 1981. Since that time, targeted restoration work has occurred, including replacement of the carpet, restoration of the windows, and repair work on the ceiling.
The current dimensions of the room are approximately 17 feet square with a ceiling approximately 11 feet high.
Historically, George Washington described the room as being 18 feet square. These dimensions likely represent the slightly larger size of the room before he installed wood paneling over the pre-existing wall surfaces, in the early 1760s.
This timeline explores the changes made to the Front Parlor since the 1750s by George Washington and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.Learn More
We know that this space, in some form, existed before George Washington inherited Mount Vernon, and that he used this space continuously from the time he began residing at Mount Vernon in 1754 until his death in 1799. Over that period of residence, he made numerous changes to the space, elevating its form and finish each time.
During George and Martha Washingtons’ time, the front parlor served as the principal reception room in the Mansion – a social and entertaining space distinguished by its elevated architectural features, including its elaborately carved paneling, chair rail, cornice, mantel, and overmantel, and its expensive, formal furnishings. In this space, one of the most highly ornamented in the house, the Washingtons received guests and had polite conversations. Martha Washington would have presided over the tea table, surrounded by family portraits that she either commissioned or encouraged.
Socially, the parlor represented a restricted space, to which only those of the Washingtons’ social stature were admitted. One of the enslaved butler’s main jobs was to differentiate between visitors, ushering the elite into the parlor while seating others in the central passage to conduct their business with Washington.
The parlor also functioned in tandem with the dining room, located across the passage. Parlors were sometimes called “withdrawing” or “drawing rooms,” as polite ladies withdrew from the dining room to the parlor after dinner, leaving the gentlemen to continue their conversations; the men later rejoined the ladies in the parlor. In contrast to the family portraits in the parlor, the dining room features masculine imagery, with battle scenes and prints of generals hanging on the walls.
After the New Room was added to the north, the front parlor acquired an additional function, serving as an anteroom, but it did not lose its high standing in the hierarchy of the Mansion’s public spaces.
Tantalizing questions remain about the room’s exact footprint and use during its earliest years (from 1735 until George and Martha Washington took up residence in 1759), and research is ongoing by Historic Preservation & Collections staff.
The architecture of a room, particularly its form and finishes, can provide a great deal of information about the function of the space within a building.Learn More
Given the room’s use, it is likely that the many notable people who visited the Washingtons would have been entertained in the space; unfortunately, there are few specific references to individuals in the space or existing references are vague about the details associated with particular spaces.
Those who did remark on being entertained in the room included British Lieutenant John Enys in 1788, Irish writer Isaac Weld, Jr., in 1796, and Polish Count Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz in 1798, as well as the Marquis de Lafayette. Enys’s account is particularly compelling because it goes into greater detail about specific spaces and the individuals who populated those spaces; he mentions the confluence of several parties of guests in the front parlor, including Washington family members, and speaks to the flow of guests from one space to another.
Throughout the Mansion, we are trying to return the names of spaces to those used by the Washingtons. After a thorough review of the documentary evidence, we found that the Washingtons never used the term “west parlor”; rather they referred to the space as the “front parlor,” the parlor, or (specifically when ordering a new carpet in the 1790s) the “blue parlor.”
The term “front parlor” is important because it conveys the orientation of the house. The west front, or carriage circle side, was the front of the Mansion, while the east, or river side, was the back. This orientation differs from many Virginia houses, which often have two roughly equal facades with one, usually the river side, favored slightly over the other.
Until the recent discovery of new documentary evidence, the furniture that had occupied the front parlor during George Washington’s lifetime was largely a matter of speculation. His probate inventory listed a sofa, a number of chairs, a looking glass, and a tea table, but it provided very little detail about their appearances. In 2013, Mount Vernon acquired a previously unknown ledger kept by George William Fairfax, the Washingtons’ friend and owner of the nearby Belvoir plantation. Fairfax gave this furniture to Washington in 1774, and Washington brought it back to use in his front parlor.
Re-creation of the Fairfax-Washington furniture will have a dramatic effect on the overall appearance of the room. While none of the original pieces are known to survive, the curators have used the details of the ledger and period pieces in other collections to investigate what Washington’s furniture might have looked like. The suite consisted of eight backstools, chairs upholstered on the backs and the seat, and a large sofa. The entire suite was covered in “Saxon blue” silk and worsted wool damask, and there were matching curtains. The extensive use of textiles made this suite expensive and luxurious, and the sofa was likely one of the first in Virginia.
Another exciting discovery is the neoclassical looking glass that hung in the Washingtons’ front parlor. This looking glass descended in the family of Nelly Custis Lewis and has been in the Smithsonian collection for more than 100 years, but it had been disconnected from its full provenance. Curatorial research identified it as the one George Washington purchased during the presidency and brought back with him to Mount Vernon in 1797. The original survives in a fragmentary state, and curators are working to have a reproduction made, drawing on similar surviving examples for the missing elements.
The curators are also looking into the frames that will go on the portraits in the room. Most of the original paintings from this space are owned by Washington and Lee University, and have all lost their original frames. Curators are working to track down other artwork by the same artists that survive in their original frames, in order to create authentic frame profiles for the Mount Vernon portraits.
For modern Americans, the sofa is a standard element of household décor, but the Washingtons were among the first in Virginia to own one. With its extensive use of expensive textiles, a sofa represented a conspicuous display of wealth and status; it also introduced an unprecedented level of comfort and a new style of casual seating or lounging.
While elite households in New England and Pennsylvania had adopted sofas earlier in the 18th century, Virginians were slow to do so. Prior to the sofa, stiff straight-back chairs were the primary seating option. Virginians also owned couches, which had one arm, no back, were cane-bottomed or covered in leather, and were used for seating and sleeping; however, the sofa represented something new. As the century progressed, sofas became more common in Virginia, but they did not appear with any abundance in Virginia until the 1790s.