Object Lessons at Gunston Hall

By Kelly Fu, ’22

One of the delights of attending a Winterthur field trip is the opportunity to go behind the scenes to see things that the average museum visitor would not get to experience. Yet oftentimes, the most fascinating of these experiences involve objects that are out of the public view precisely because they are not awe-inspiring at first glance.

One such object that we saw at Gunston Hall was the wooden frame of a side chair. The historic home of George Mason, a Virginia plantation owner and enslaver, Gunston Hall was an impressive structure that housed one of the most prominent families in eighteenth-century Virginia. Given this association, seeing the low chair frame worn and stripped of its upholstery was initially an underwhelming experience. While the legs of the chair featured geometric, chinoiserie-inspired decorations, compared to the many finely carved Rococo chairs at Winterthur’s home collection, the barebones frame did not immediately inspire wonder.

Visiting the interior of Gunston Hall, however, gave some perspective into the context in which these chairs would have been received and interpreted. The chinoiserie-style carvings on the chair’s legs exactly matched the ceiling moldings of the parlor of Gunston Hall, one of the most elaborately furnished rooms in the house, designed to entertain guests and to signal Mason’s social status. The coordination of the unusual border decoration, repeated in the architecture and in the wooden furnishings of the house, would have worked in concert to signal the highly customized nature of Mason’s home, with its architecture and furnishing as one cohesive whole. The newly constructed house, which Mason had built to accommodate a young and growing family, replaced an out-of-date house that he inherited. The house can be understood as a highly elaborate iteration of Mason’s unique aesthetic vision.

Further insights into the making of Gunston Hall suggest the extent of Mason’s efforts to exactly execute his vision. Records show that Mason sponsored the immigration of London craftspeople William Buckland, an indentured joiner, and William Sears, an indentured carver, to execute the design. The design itself, imported from London in the newest fashion, was in turn inspired by objects that arrived through the trade with China. The bricks, laid in a materially complex and labor-intensive Flemish bond pattern, were likely made in part by enslaved labor. Mason’s pursuit of style came through the movement of people and objects across the Atlantic and was manifested through the proliferation of objects as well as architecture.

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