Woven Through Time
By Maxine Carter-Lome
Last year I had the opportunity to visit the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Delaware and get a behind-the-scenes tour of floors not open to the public. The scale and detail of this premier museum of American decorative arts is awe-inspiring, and the ultimate homage to a collector with a vision.
Winterthur was the childhood home of collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969). A 1923 visit with his wife to the Vermont farmhouse of friends ignited du Pont’s interest in Americana. “I had always thought of American furniture as just kitchen furniture,” he recalled. “I didn’t dream it had so much richness and variety.” He soon purchased his first American piece, a 1737 Pennsylvania chest now in the Tappahannock Room at Winterthur, which led to a period of active acquisition of everything from furniture to fabrics. He also began saving the interiors of old houses that were about to be razed, eventually incorporating them into Winterthur as authentic settings for his antiques. Du Pont’s vision was to turn his home into a museum, using his burgeoning collection of American antiques to re-create period rooms (he began to more than double the size of the house in 1929 for this purpose), each of which had to be a perfect entity in itself, with wallpaper, carpets, furniture, lamps, brackets, paintings, sculpture, porcelains and curtains in perfect historical, and tasteful, harmony. The Winterthur Museum opened to the public in 1951.
Du Pont was a hands-on collector, connoisseur, and curator. He was personally involved in the selection of everything from the plantings in his garden (it is said that he met with his Master Gardener daily to discuss the day’s activities) to the furnishings, decorative objects, and window curtains that hung in every public and private room in his house museum. One of his many passions was the use of textiles in the design and decoration of window curtains. “I feel very strongly that the curtains, bed hangings, etc. will make all the difference in the house,” said du Pont in 1941. “If you knew the many hours I spent trying to get just the right folds etc. in the different curtains in my house, I think you would appreciate that they can only be made by the best upholsterer and even then need supervision in their making.”
Another major collector of textiles was George Hewitt Myers (1875-1957). When Myers first purchased a few rugs in the 1890s – a group of late 19th-century Turkish and Caucasian village rugs – he did not anticipate buying several thousand textiles. As the years passed and his finances allowed, however, his interests grew to include other types of non-Western textiles along with examples from earlier periods. He began collecting classical silk textiles and carpets from the court workshops of Safavid Iran, Ottoman Turkey, and Mughal India; early Islamic textiles, including inscribed textiles called tiraz from western Asia, Egypt, and Yemen; late antique textiles from Egypt;
Indian resist-dyed cotton fabrics found in Fustat, Egypt; and archaeological textiles from Peru; as well as colonial and later pieces from South and Central America.
In 1925, Myers established The Textile Museum, today part of the George Washington University Museum in Washington, D.C., to expand public knowledge and appreciation-locally, nationally, and internationally-of the artistic merits and cultural importance of the world’s textiles through scholarship, exhibitions, and educational programs. Today, its collection of more than 20,000 textiles and related objects represent five millennia and five continents, including cultures from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
New at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, is the exhibition Printed Fashions: Textiles for Clothing and Home, which showcases a century of printed textiles from India, Great Britain, and Continental Europe dating from the early 18th to the early 19th century, and displays nearly 80 examples of printed cottons and linens from the Colonial Williamsburg collection, many of which have never been on view before.
When it comes to great textile collections and collectors, one also needs to call out Historic Deerfield’s costume and textile collection begun by the museum’s founder, Helen Geier Flynt. The collection, long considered one of the finest in America, features a vast array of costumes, needlework, and domestic textiles which are displayed on a rotating basis. Newly installed in their permanent gallery for the season (thru December 23, 2017) are 38 exciting examples of American and European clothing, accessories, textiles and needlework from the 17th century through the mid-20th century.
The museums and collectors highlighted in this issue recognize textiles as artifacts of historical and cultural significance: their collections illustrate the materials, skill, and technology mastered in the production process for that period of time; the use of color, fabric, and design as a reflection of the maker’s cultural origins. It is, however, the care and preservation of these textiles in their finished form that drives demand and value for textiles in all its forms at auction, be it quilts, wall hangings, carpets, clothing, tapestries, cloth, or other forms of produced and crafted items of woven fabric.
Woven Through Time