While forensics, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “scientific tests or techniques used in connection with the detection of crime,” is a hot topic, not many people would think to apply this kind of detective work to determine how 17th-, 18th- and early 19th-century seating furniture was originally upholstered and what it looked like. These investigation tactics, however, are exactly what are employed in the furniture conservation labs of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation every day along with the scholarship of furniture curators. The search for evidence in historic materials and techniques is used to bring these objects back to their often surprising original appearance. In the spring of 2018, visitors to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, will learn how to look for clues like the experts in a new interactive exhibition, Upholstery CSI: Reading the Evidence, which will open on May 26 and remain on view through December 2020.
Through fourteen examples of sofas, side chairs, arm chairs, easy chairs and back stools from the Art Museums’ collection along with a selection of reproduction chairs, museum guests will learn (among other clues to notice) how the tacking patterns of earlier nails may reveal whether a seat had a stiff, vertical edge or a soft, curved one. They may also present the complex patterns of decorative brass nails that often delineated the frame. Visitors will discover how the tiniest bit of textile fluff under a stray nail may disclose the color, fiber and weave of the original outer covering. They will be able to sit in the reproduction chairs, touch examples of upholstery materials, consider x-ray evidence and learn about various upholstery techniques that can still be used today.
“Colonial Williamsburg’s extensive collection of furniture items reveals not only how early Americans lived but also—with painstaking accuracy—how the craftsmanship behind the objects evolved,” said Mitchell B. Reiss, president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “The discoveries made by our curators and conservators in their study of these objects furthers the Foundation’s educational mission of sharing America’s enduring story.”
Upholstery CSI was inspired by the book Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2015) by the Foundation’s award-winning, senior conservator of upholstery, Leroy Graves, who is renowned for his nonintrusive conservation techniques known as “The Graves Approach.” These methods were developed to restore antiques to their earliest appearance without marking or disturbing the frames, thus preserving not only original materials but also evidence. Mr. Graves’ system is considered to be the gold standard among museums around the world. In the exhibition, video footage will show Mr. Graves “reading” the evidence on an antique furniture frame in order to determine the necessary techniques to produce convincing period upholstery without causing irreparable damage to the delicate, original frame.
“Guests often assume that the antiques they see in museums have come down through time untouched by centuries of use. Upholstery CSI will expose the fascinating research and conservation work that goes on behind the scenes in order to retrieve an appearance that would have been familiar to artisans and their customers two to three centuries ago,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Foundation’s Carlisle Humelsine chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation, and museums.
According to Tara Chicirda, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of furniture, “Upholstery CSI will highlight 18th- and early 19th-century seating forms from various regions in different states of upholstery, ranging from bare frames to frames with some of their original foundation elements intact to ones with all of their original upholstery. Each seat provides clues about the techniques and/or fabrics used to create the original upholstery, as well as the makers and even some customers. A few chairs illustrate shortcuts taken by the upholsterers, some of which may have been noticed, and possibly complained about, by the original customer.”
Among the highlighted objects to be seen in Upholstery CSI is a couch attributed to furniture maker Hugh Finlay of Baltimore, Maryland. In order to know what the upholstery on this piece looked like when it was new (sometime between 1819 and 1821), Graves peeled back layers of late-19th and 20th century fabrics and revealed the original upholstery foundation and portions of the original show cloth. He attached reproduction wool show cloth and silk tape over the original damaged fabrics using nonintrusive conservation techniques in order to return the couch as close as possible to its original appearance. While the original bolster survived, evidence for the lost cushion was discovered in the soiling pattern on the back of the couch: the bolster and cushion protected an area of the back keeping it cleaner than the surrounding fabric.
Another object that is full of information about the artisans who made and altered it as well as the family that used it over the centuries to be highlighted in the exhibition is a mid-18th-century easy chair made in Eastern Virginia. Over the past 250 years, this chair was reupholstered at least seven times, often with new fabrics placed over the earlier ones. (Its original show material was costly silk woven in blue and cream. Subsequent layers include red worsted wool and silk, several 19th-century printed cottons and even a reproduction red and white stripe similar to one sold by Colonial Williamsburg.) A rare object like this one enables curators (and soon museum-goers) to learn about the textiles, upholstery techniques and choices craftsmen and families made over the years.
For upholstery conservators, reading the evidence never ceases to amaze, and visitors to Upholstery CSI will have the opportunity to learn why. Although he has worked for more than 30 years in Colonial Williamsburg’s furniture conservation lab, Leroy Graves says, “There is always something exciting and new coming into the lab that I haven’t seen before. It’s marvelous. When I look at the evidence on a piece of furniture, I think about the original ‘upholder’ [the term for an 18th-century upholsterer] and wonder: What was he thinking when he did his work? Who was his client? You find shortcuts in the upholstery and wonder if the person was qualified to do upholstery or what was he taught? His client might have preferred edges or contours or a profile that the furniture’s frame was not meant to accommodate and that’s why a piece was upholstered the way it was. You have to know what you’re looking at to be able to read the evidence.”
An extraordinary ca. 1765 easy chair frame attributed to the Anthony Hay cabinet shop in Williamsburg will also be featured in Upholstery CSI, and it has a lot to tell experts and exhibition visitors alike. If it could talk, it would say, “I had stuffed rolls on my seat rail, crest rail and wings and a down-filled cushion on my seat. My show cloth was leather, probably black, ornamented with brass nails. My lack of tacking rails gave my upholsterer a headache!” All of this information remains in the frame today; by reading its structural and nail evidence, conservators and curators can tell how a chair was originally upholstered: what techniques the upholsterer used, what type of upholstery profile he created with those techniques and what show material covered the chair.
Upholstery CSI: Reading the Evidence is made possible through a gift from Don and Elaine Bogus.
To coincide with the exhibition, special programs are planned including “Reading the Evidence,” a discussion of 18th-century upholstery with Ms. Chicirda and Mr. Graves, on Tuesday, June 26, at 5:30 p.m. In this fascinating presentation, Ms. Chicirda will provide an overview on 18th-century upholstery and upholstery techniques. Mr. Graves will reveal how he reads the evidence on a chair frame: what his expert eye sees and what it means. The program, to be held in the Hennage Auditorium, will be included in Art Museums admission. A book signing of Mr. Graves’ book, Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence, will take place following the discussion.
Also planned are weekly “Focus on Furniture” tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2:15 and 3:30 p.m. Museum visitors will be guided on in-depth tours of the Art Museums’ 18th-century furniture galleries, which include rare examples of tables, chests and desks, and conclude by highlighting the upholstered furniture featured in Upholstery CSI. These tours are also included in Art Museums admission tickets.
For anyone interested in furniture design, decorative arts and early American material culture, the Art Museums is a must-go destination next spring, and Upholstery CSI: Reading the Evidence is certain to be one of the most fascinating and interactive exhibitions on the cultural calendar.
Colonial Williamsburg and Art Museums tickets and additional information are available online at colonialwilliamsburg.com, by calling 855-296-6627 and by following Colonial Williamsburg on Facebook and @colonialwmsburg on Twitter and Instagram.
About the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2017, is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, with more than 7,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum exhibits the best in British and American fine and decorative arts from 1670–1840. The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets in Williamsburg, Va., and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Expansion of the museum broke ground on April 27, 2017. Once completed, the museums’ expansion will provide a new entrance, improved public access, and increased exhibition space and guest services among other enhancements. Museum hours are 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily.
About The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Colonial Williamsburg operates the world’s largest living history museum, preserving Virginia’s 18th-century capital as a fully functioning city. Fun, engaging experiences transport guests back in time and highlight the relevance of America’s founding era to contemporary life. The Colonial Williamsburg experience includes more than 500 restored or reconstructed buildings, historic trade shops, renowned museums of decorative arts and folk art, extensive educational outreach programs for students and teachers, lodging, culinary options from historic taverns to casual or elegant dining, the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club featuring 45 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his son Rees Jones, a full-service spa and fitness center managed by Trilogy Spa, pools, retail stores and gardens. Philanthropic support and revenue from admissions, products and hospitality operations sustain Colonial Williamsburg’s educational programs and preservation initiatives.
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Robyn Liverant Public Relations