Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Furnishing Arryl House: Digging Deeper into the Chancellor's Villa

Anyone who's read back through my Arryl House blogs might be starting to get a feel for my fascination with this lost Clermont residence.  Chancellor Livingston's stunning home was once even called a "palace" ("Under Their Vine and Fig Tree," Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz).

Sadly, little is known about the interior of this house beyond what can be gleaned from travelers accounts since it burned in 1909.  Two photos do exist, but they weren't taken until long after the Chancellor had died at the beginning of the 19th century, and they show only one corner of the southwest wing (at right).  At least in a close up you can see the great dentil molding that most likely dates from the house's construction.

There is a plan of the first floor (below, right), drawn up sometime in the late 19th century, "when there was talk of modernizing it," according to a tag included in the file (at left).  I had used a digital copy of this plan when I did my initial research on Arryl House back in 2014, but I was lucky enough to discover the actual drawings while doing further research later in the archives.
This floorplan yielded some valuable information while I was sorting out the room functions, and I was even happier when I flipped the page of the original booklet and found the plan of the second floor as well (below left).  Four bedrooms for guests--one is conspicuously without a fireplace--and the southernmost room for a breakfast room, at one point overlooking the splendid greenhouse that once ran the entire 75 foot length of the building.


 So you can imagine my excitement as the story unfolded a little more when I discovered a copy of the probate inventory that was taken when the Chancellor died in 1813.  

The inventory isn't nearly as complete as some.  While his son-in-law Edward Philip Livingston's  1844 inventory listed individual valuations for each item in each room, the Chancellor's only totals everything by location or material, eliminating any hope of comparing the individual values to figure out where the nicest stuff was kept.  Not only that, but either the rooms were particularly spartan or relatives has already visited the house and taken the things that were destined for them.  Still though, it is the next small step to filling in the secrets of one of Clermont's greatest lost treasures.

There it is--scrawled in the handwriting of William Wilson or his secretary.  And my Adventures in Reading Historic Handwriting begin again.


So what did I find?  For starters, I found a few things I recognized.  There is "A Gold Box set with Diamonds.....Value unknown."  This item brought a smile to my face since I have held it in my own (gloved) hands when it was exhibited at Clermont in 2007.  It was a snuff box, ornamented with a portrait of Napoleon and about the size of a deck of cards if I remember correctly.  It's not set with diamonds, but rather large paste jewels (an 18th century term for cut glass), and it's one gaudy little trinket!



Also, the "1 Telescope" in the library (circled above) is still in Clermont's collections and is scheduled for exhibition starting this spring.  Also, don't miss "The number of Books are estimated at 2700"--tha's a lotta books!  Just for a point of reference, this image from Edith Warton's home The Mount shows approximately 350 books.  The value of the books is not separated from the rest of the furniture (grrr), but for comparison Edward Philip Livingston's 2231 books were valued at $1760 about 30 years later.  This was the second largest private library in the country in 1813; the only bigger one was down at Jefferson's Monticello.

So all together in the shady Arrly House library, we find listed:
"Books, 12 chairs, 1 table, 1 clock, 1 telescope, barometer, 1 lamp, 1 pair andirons," all together valued at $5,000.  While I can't give you an equivalent in "today's money," I can tell you that the Chancellor's entire kitchen--equipped with all the necessities of fine cooking--was only valued at $150.

The chairs in the Library were most likely side chairs similar to those still at Clermont today.  Since the house was furnished starting in the 1790s, I tend to expect these were spindly, Federal-style furniture with Neoclassical influences, which was popular at the time.  Soft, comfy easy chairs were still relegated to the bedroom, where they were largely used by the elderly and infirm.

In all Wilson recorded 74 chairs in the house, and that was just in the main rooms.  Old or rough chairs used by servants and individual bedroom furnishings were totally excluded.  Twenty-four of them were in the Drawing Room, potentially making that where Chancellor Livingston hosted the Court of Chancery at his home, as he is known to have done for a short time.

The Drawing Room was one of two centers of 18th century entertaining (the other being the Dining Room), a prime place for showing off.  It was hung with green silk curtains, decorated with French wallpaper, and carpeted.  I can only assume that with the continuing fashion for monochrome decoration that the wallpaper and carpet mimicked the curtains' green color.  In addition to a ton of chairs, it had 2 "Sophas", 2 clocks (I wonder if they kept time together very well), 2 looking glasses, a pair of "China vases," 2 tables, cup and saucers (probably stored in the small inset cabinet), and "3 consols."  I wonder if perhaps one of these clocks was the "musical clock in the shape of a ruined column," that was described in 1877.  Another may have been our much-heralded balloon clock at left.

The consoles (a French example from around the same time period at right) were the only things in the entire inventory that were individually valued--and they must have been quite splendid.  "R.L.L." is marked beside them in the margin so I can only assume that the Chancellor's son-in-law Robert L. wanted those for himself.  One was valued at $165 and the other pair at $125 together.  Gilded perhaps?  Or perhaps these were the tables topped with "marble and lava" that he brought back from France.  I don't know for sure.

The Dining Room by contrast was decorated with red and white curtains, "2 carpets," "1 rug", 3 looking glasses, 2 tables, "1 sopha," 1 clock, and an assortment of "ornaments."    There were also "2 portraits" and "3 pictures."  There were only 4 portraits in the house all together.  Assuming that at least two of these were known portraits of the Chancellor himself (1 by Gilbert Stuart and the other by Vanderlyn), the other two may have included Margaret Maria (at left) and perhaps the portrait of the Chancellor's mother-in-law Mrs. John Stevens by Stuart.  I can't seem to find an image of this painting online, but Eugene Livingston records buying it some decades later.  Eugene also gives us some hints about what the "3 pictures" were.  Perhaps the "Copy of  marine scene from __  ___ painting in the Louvre by Mrs. R.L.L Livingston" and "Dog and Game supposed to be by ____ brought back from Europe about 1804 by RR Livingston the Chancellor."  Given the Chancellor's known affection for hunting game birds, I think the latter painting a very good bet.  His great granddaughter also remembered a "full-length likeness of the Henry the Fourth," which was likely among these.

The impressive entry hall of the house was said to have been decorated with rich Gobelin tapestries, illustrating Aesop's fables, but they aren't on the inventory--which may be further evidence that some things were deliberately left off.  This sofa, currently in the collections of the New York Historical Society, is supposedly made from those Gobelin tapestries.  The colors would have been quite brilliant as the afternoon sun poured in the west-facing windows of the hall.

Eight more paintings and prints were in the hall as well, along with 4 mahogany tables, 3 lamps, and 6 chairs, all told worth $200.  Note that there were no curtains needed for the hall.

The other room that is particularly interesting is the Billiards Room, with "1 Billiards Table, 2 tables, 1 marble bust, 12 chairs, 7 prints, 1 looking glass, 2 white curtains & drapery, 4 lamps, and 1 pr andirons."  The presence of 2 sets of curtains in the billiards room throws me for a loop, since I can't find a room with two windows to indicate for sure where the room was.  I've always assumed it was the room still marked "Billiards Room" in the late 19th century, but that one only has one window.  Now I'm just not sure.

Sadly the bedrooms and servants' furnishings are not detailed.  China, Silver, and linen are each totaled ($1,000, $5,000, and $804 respectively).  There are $300 worth of ornaments just for the dining table (including knives).  The bedding is all valued at $2,500.  All kitchen wares are valued at $150--an entire household worth of fancy cooking materials still doesn't compete with one of those console tables!  Cash on hand was $11,088.80 (and 1/2 cents).

Amusingly, the "Green House Plants," including orange, lemon, and myrtle trees, were included but not valued.  They appear to have been moved out into the front courtyard during the warm months.  For truly grand occasions, there were tables cut to fit around the citrus tress (and likely special tablecloths too) so that the trees seemed to grow up out of the dinner.  There are at least two descriptions of these tables, but I don't know for sure when they were built--only that they were already there in time for the Marquis de Lafayette's visit in 1825.

Many of the Chancellor's belongings have made their way to the New York Historical Society and can be seen online.  Others require more imagination as I piece together his house in all its glory.  I'm getting closer; it just takes time.




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