Update June 18, 2009

June 18, 2009

Read about us in the Times!

The New York Times, that is. Last Friday’s paper featured a column in the Art and Design section about historic sites interpreting slaves and servants in addition to the homeowners. We are mentioned and there are audio links to an actor speaking the words of Paul Jennings; this is the same audio which you can hear during tours of the house. The first recording, “I was always with Mr. Madison,” can be heard in Mr. Madison’s study (M104), the room in which Madison died.

Jennings was a slave of the Madisons who worked in the White House during Madison’s presidency and later returned to Washington, DC, with Dolley Madison after James’ death. It was in Washington that Jennings earned his freedom. At the end of his life, an interview with him was turned into a short book, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison. Our own Beth Taylor is currently conducting extensive research into the life of Paul Jennings; you can buy a copy of A Colored Man’s Reminiscences in our gift shop to help support her research.

M104

Mr. Madison's Study

Shutters

All of the shutters have now been fitted, hung, and stamped with their location information. However, before we can hang them permanently, they need a little more work. We are sending them off to have all newly cut and fitted edges primed and top-coated and for all shutters to receive a copper cap, to get a final coat of paint, and then dry over the next couple of weeks. We will let you know when they come back and are hung again.

In Brief: Court Records

Another area of research we are investigating is court records. These can be helpful in a number of ways: to find lists of Madison property; track family inheritance and land ownership; and trace social and business connections by looking at who was involved in suits with, or against, the Madisons.

We started by looking at the records for the county in which Montpelier is located – Orange County, Virginia. The county courthouse has copies of the original deed and will books, which recorded the wills, inventories, and deeds of sale for the whole county. However, we are also searching through court proceedings to find mentions of the Madisons, some of which were moved to Richmond during the 20th century. There is a lot of material to sift through, complicated by the fact that how courts were organized changed more than once during James Madison’s lifetime. So far we have found some good leads, which are followed up by even more research in the court records!

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Update June 4, 2009

June 4, 2009

Recently we were fortunate to have four furniture experts from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation come on-site to consult with us on furnishings at Montpelier, both from our permanent collection and items on loan. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff who came were Ron Hurst, vice president for collections and museums; Tara Gleason Chicirda, curator of furniture; Christopher Swan, conservator of furniture; and Albert Skutans, conservator of furniture.

Staff from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Montpelier Foundation discussing and taking notes

Staff from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Montpelier Foundation discussing and taking notes

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Chris Swan examining one end of a daybed.

Their expertise helped to further confirm much of the research that we have already done on several of our pieces, and led us as well to many new avenues of research. They identified the types of woods used in the construction of many objects, and hypothesized about their likely dates and regions of origin. This information has allowed us to do even more pointed research, and has already helped us begin to decide which pieces are most suitable to represent the furnishings at Montpelier during James and Dolley Madisons’ residence.

Albert Skutans examines the construction of a drawer.

Albert Skutans examines the construction of a drawer.

Some of the details that Ron, Tara, Chris, and Albert looked for in determining the origin of pieces such as beds and tables included the types of joints holding pieces of wood together, the patterns of detailing such as turnings and inlay, and nearly-microscopic evidence of paint residue or upholstery on stripped pieces.

Many times their expert opinions helped to prove the possibility that James and Dolley could have owned a piece based on the period of construction. However, there were also a few objectswhich were judged to have been of a style or form that did not come into being until after James died and Dolley left Montpelier, therefore making them inappropriate for display at Montpelier.

Albert Skutans and Tara Gleason Chicirda examine drawers of a desk-bookcase

Albert Skutans and Tara Gleason Chicirda examine drawers of a desk-bookcase

Chris and Albert, whose specialty is furniture conservation, spoke with us about the condition of many of the pieces, and advised us on what kinds of treatment to consider for objects which need to be stabilized and conserved before they can be safely put on display.

The day that we spent with our colleagues from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation could not have been more productive and valuable for the Montpelier furnishings project. It was also a reminder of the importance of collaboration between museums and historic sites, and the exciting theories and advances in research that can be made when we get together to learn about each others’ collections.
 
Ron Hurst explains to Cheryl Brush that the depth of the case, plus the short shelves, means this might be a china press.

Ron Hurst explains to Cheryl Brush that the depth of the case, plus the short shelves, means this might be a china press.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff wore these headset magnifying glasses

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff wore these headset magnifying glasses