Monday, December 5, 2011

New Acquisitions

Clermont is a museum dedicated to the long history of the Livingston family. But the Livingstons aren't gone; many of their descendants can still be found in the Hudson Valley and beyond. In fact, hundreds of descendants have come to our family reunions held every five years or so (photographed at right in the Livingston tartan are some of our Livingston descendant friends).

Like many families, they have been the recipients of treasured family heirlooms: books from Chancellor Livingston's library, silver spoons from their table, or portraits of a great, great uncle. It just so happens that their great, great uncle was Chancellor Livingston.

It's important to remember these pieces in this light when a Livingston family member agrees to donate a Livingston artifact to Clermont. It is not just some beautiful old thing their house, it carries with it their family pride and often childhood memories. Just as I fondly remember opening presents Christmas morning while my grandfather was propped in his red leather arm chair, these Livingston descendants often have close personal ties to the upholstered arm chair that sat in the corner of the living room and they were not allowed to put their feet on.

So when a Livingston family member called to offer us a grouping of nineteenth century parlor furniture in December, we were excited. But we also needed to remember that this furniture held more than just its financial value for its owners and historic value for the museum; it also held all those family memories.

The grouping consisted of two chairs and a sofa, re-upholstered in blue to match one another in the 1960s or '70s, though the furniture itself was not a set. All three had been photographed in Clermont's Drawing Room by Alice Livingston in a set of photos taken in 1928. The furniture was given to the donor's mother by Janet Livingston just before Clermont became a museum in 1965.

To a curator, this is exciting stuff.

The sofa (pictured at left and again below) was a mid-nineteenth century transitional piece, not as bulky or Classical looking as the earlier period, but not as curvacious and ornate as the later Belter or Roccoco Revival styles that dominated American furniture after the Civil War.

The chairs were slightly later--both being simple examples of the Rococo Revival. Although they also did not match, the smaller held the exciting surprise of being a match for the curved-back chair that we currently have in the Drawing Room (photographed at right). To be honest, I'd never seen the 1928 photos, which are stored at our conservation center on Peebles Island, and had no knowledge of this furniture's existence (incidentally, those photographs also show a second floral wallpaper--different from the 1880s image--and heavy drapes on the windows. Hopefully I can get some copies scanned to share with you one of these days).

So when will you see these exciting new acquisitions? We know the sofa and two chairs were in the Drawing Room in 1928. But Alice had a tendancy to rearrange her furniture periodically (don't we all start messing with the house when the winter blues start getting us down?), and the current arrangement of the Drawing Room reflects photographs taken in the mid 1930s and 40s. Which one is correct? Both are. So in order to display the "new" trio of furniture appropriatly, we can't just combine it all but instead will have to do some thinking about which arrangement to go with, which set of pictures to go with, etc. By using the pictures, we know for sure that this is the way that Alice wanted it (not the way that we think looks right,; it's not a museum to us).

While we are thinking about that, the furniture is being conserved. The later upholstery will be removed and replaced with something similar to what we see in the photographs (or, if we are lucky, we will find more of the same damask on other furniture we already own so we can know we are really close).

But while we are recreating Alice's world, we have to remember to stop and thank the Livingston descendants who parted with it in the first place. What family memories of Christmas morning or afternoons with iced tea or bored children with their feet sticking off the edge did they part with?

I guess there's only so much musing I can do about that, and instead will just have to say a hearty "Thank you!"

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