| Jura Koncius |
WASHINGTON (WP-BLOOM) – A recently discovered document shows that George and Martha Washington were the proud owners of a vibrant blue serpentine-back sofa – the very first sofa, in fact, in Virginia.
A re-creation of this 18th-Century sofa is now a showpiece of Mount Vernon’s front parlour, a room that reopened February 16 after being closed for more than a year of restoration.
“It was a real novelty back then,” says Susan Schoelwer, Mount Vernon’s senior curator, of the fancy silk and worsted wool sofa with scrolled arms and rows of brass tacks. “In today’s terms, you would say it was trending.”
The Washingtons’ friend and neighbour George William Fairfax was moving to England in 1774 and wasn’t able to take his very fashionable blue damask sofa and eight matching chairs.
Without Craigslist, what was Fairfax to do?
He gifted the elegant furnishings to the Washingtons. The suite arrived at Mount Vernon during the Revolutionary War, Schoelwer says, and Martha Washington put the sofa, chairs and the matching draperies in the front parlour, dressing up the room where they entertained such big-name guests as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.
Over the years, this furniture disappeared, as did any idea of what it looked like – until now. Thanks to new forensic techniques and historical document discoveries, the room will now more closely resemble its 1799 appearance, including being painted cream and featuring re-creations of the stylish “Saxon blue” camelback Chippendale-style sofa, chairs extravagantly upholstered on both seat and back, and fancy fringed and tasseled draperies. The description of the Fairfax suite came from a ledger the Fairfax family kept that Mount Vernon bought at auction in 2013. It detailed the Fairfax purchase of the furniture in London and its shipment to Virginia in 1763. Although Mount Vernon curators knew a suite of furniture had been gifted to Washington, the ledger provided the first description of what it looked like.
Sofas were a big deal in the colonies. Although in England, sofa use dates to the 1600s, it was only around 1750 that they showed up in wealthier homes in South Carolina, Maryland and Philadelphia, Schoelwer says. In Virginia back then, more prosperous residents were probably still using daybeds. The luxurious fabric and stylish British workmanship on the Fairfax sofa made the Washingtons’ parlour a very stylish space.
Curators at Mount Vernon, on the Potomac about 17 miles south of here, worked with decorative arts experts and top historic textile, upholstery and cabinet makers in the United States and England to re-create the Fairfax furniture.
The front parlour has undergone four major renovations throughout the years, each time being changed to reflect the latest historical findings. At the last major restoration in 1981, the walls were painted Prussian blue and it was furnished with a pale blue sofa and a Chippendale-style gaming table and chairs.
“We find layers of family history here, and each room comes alive in a more dynamic way each time it’s redone,” Schoelwer says. “It’s not just a generic period room. Each room is a chapter of the Washingtons’ biography.”
The 10 family portraits in the room were conserved or digitally reproduced and put into period-appropriate reproduction frames.