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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Charleston: Sotheby's in the South Day 2

If day one was supposed to relax and acclimate the students, then day 2 was supposed to give them a total Charleston Experience.  We had a rather ambitious schedule to follow with the following events planned:

  1. City Hall Portrait Collection
  2. Drayton Hall
  3. Lunch
  4. Gibbes Museum of Art
  5. Heyward Washington House
  6. Charleston Silver Vault reception
We started early, and arrived at City Hall right about 9:00 AM.  Once we made it through the security check and metal detector (there was a wand at this one in addition to the walk through) we took the elevator up to the second floor to see the portraits.  This might be one of the hidden gems in Charleston: I have only been twice but each time there were few people.  Considering the collection boasts important portraits by John Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale, John Vanderlyn, Samuel F. B. Morse, and GPA Healy, it is a wonder this is not on more people's radar.  We were met by the tour guide, who is an eager and lively student of history.  She knows the figures in the painting well, is versed in Charleston history, and has a dramatic flair to her presentation that is often amusing.  She appears to be quite taken with Healy's portrait General Beauregard (seen in the image below), who apparently was regarded throughout Charleston as quite handsome.

 Just below the painting is a case containing Beauregard's sword--the very one seen in the image. 

The centerpiece of collection is the portrait of Washington by John Trumbull, and the story associated with its commission.  Originally, the portrait of Washington at the Battle of Trenton (presently at Yale) was delivered to the city but refused.  Why?  Well, the rumor is that Charleston wanted a picture of Washington with some connection to Charleston, and that the Battle of Trenton (as important as it was) just didn't appeal to them.  David Bjelajac, in American Art: A Cultural History states that the town thought Washington looked too severe--not approachable or welcoming enough--but the guide tells a different story.  According to this version, the positioning of the rear facing horse (its most notable attribute above the skyline and the mayor and councilmen pictured in the middle ground of the painting) was Trumbull's revenge (as the painting is sometimes referred to in Charleston).  

We made it through the galleries and then were on our way back to the hotel to catch the bus that would take us to Drayton Hall.

Drayton Hall is the finest piece of Palladian architecture built in the United States, and it is difficult to imagine the impact this would have made upon visitors arriving in the 18th century.  Situated along the Ashley River about 15 miles outside of Charleston, it was built for John Drayton from 1738-42.  We arrived a bit early, and after a quick jaunt through the gift shop met up with Carter Hudgins, the Director of Preservation and Education.  Carter's work at Drayton Hall is exceptional and the discoveries that they have made there--from fine pottery the likes of which are not seen anywhere else in the colonies, to remains of the original porticoes that flanked the house originally--will force a dramatic reevaluation about life and culture in the southern colonies.  Although the house has no furniture, he brought with him photographs of what is known from the family and let us know where it could be seen in Charleston.

From there, we joined up with Debbi Zimmerman, Drayton Hall's Group Tour Coordinator who took us through the house.  It's quite difficult to describe the impression the house makes upon you when you enter: it is at once majestic and tragic.  The majesty of the rooms and the intricacy and expense of the carving are overwhelming.  I suppose it is the home's emptiness, the quietness, and the realization that people do not build with this degree of elegance anymore that accounts for the tragic side of it.  In fact, the house is so beautiful unfurnished, so elegantly planned and realized, that it is difficult to imagine it furnished.  The effect must gave been overwhelming when it was occupied.

Although the rooms can be generally divided, by the amount of decoration and their location in the plan, into private and public spaces, the attention to detailing, the carvings, and the ceilings make each space individual and quite special.  

The carvings in the great room on the first floor are impressive and original to the house's construction.  The alternating floral motif used in the frieze of triglyphs and metopes creates a pleasing rhythm that carries throughout the room.

This ceiling is later plaster work and a good example of Drayton Hall's mission to preserve and stabilize the structure and its many layers of history rather than attempting to strip it back to a single interpreted point in time.  The result is a complex and woven history that allows interpreters to discuss the building as an original structure without ignoring its one history of use and even modification.    

No one seemed entirely certain what the overmantel carving was supposed to represent: a fox? a boar?  Likely taken from an English pattern book, the carving nonetheless testifies to the strong ties that rural plantations had with high style English design.

Light and sound are among the most important features of a building that virtual tours, and slides, and even books cannot convey.  One reason we make it a point to travel is because architecture, perhaps more so that any of the other arts, demands that you experience it in order to make sense of it.  Sitting in this room, the sense of balance, the proportions and the scale are not just seen, they are felt and absorbed. 

It's easy to overlook small details, or to leave a room wondering how exactly the sense of a totally designed space was conveyed to you from the moment you entered.  The carving of the volutes, the vegetal forms that spiral outward, the egg and dart molding and the central rosette--these are the types of things that, even when not remarked upon, help to define a space and aid in shaping the impression of a space from the moment you enter.  That level of detailing, whether in a carved capital or a stair riser, is essential to the building's effect.  

It was, in many respects, a perfect morning at Drayton Hall.  A bit chilly (especially for the locals) but clear skies and bright sun.  This is a view looking down towards the main entrance over a circular earth mound that was created during the dredging of ponds in the Victorian period.  These layers of history are particularly well preserved at Drayton Hall and allow for a much broader discussion of social and cultural history than in many institutions.

If there was one bad thing about Drayton Hall, it is this: we had to leave.  One could easily spend far more time there than our group did, but the day was progressing, lunch was necessary, and the Gibbes Museum of Art awaited.

The Gibbes is a lovely museum, and I say this knowing that when we visited only a part of it was open as exhibitions were changing.  Even with that in mind, their exhibition "The Charleston Story" is a beautiful and worthwhile addition to any visit to the city.  The museum has strong holdings: a beautiful portrait of Thomas Middleton by Benjamin West, some lovely works by Henry Benbridge, a delicate and charming pastel by Henrietta Derring Johnston, and a number of paintings by Charleston's Jeremiah Theus, a swiss born painter who settled in the city in the mid 18th century.  The surprise for me was the stunning portrait of Robert Gilmor, jr. by Thomas Sully after Sir Thomas Lawrence.  Even though Sully's work is a copy, he captures the sense of light, the crispness of the collar, the moisture in his subject's eye's to such a degree that it is shocking.  The figure's anatomy has more strength and structure than I usually associate with Sully's portraits of this period, and it is among the finest paintings I have seen by him.  There is a depth and clarity to the work that leaves no doubt that Sully is a masterful painter and solid technician.

From the Gibbes we made our way down to the Heyward Washington House, one of the two historic properties owned by the Charleston Museum, and as luck would have it, Grahame Long was sitting outside and eager to take us through the collection.  Built in 1772 by Daniel Heyward, the house was rented to George Washington in 1791 for a week, and has been known ever since by its dual name.  It would be unthinkable to be in Charleston and not see the house, especially since the collection includes pieces original to Drayton Hall.  

The star of the house (aside from the European pieces the Drayton's owned) is undoubtedly the Holmes-Edwards bookcase.  Much of what we know about the bookcase and its attribution to the Pfeninger Shop in Charleston is due to an article by Thomas Savage that appeared in the Chipstone Journal American Furniture.  Far from being something produced in a minor way at the periphery, the Holmes-Edwards bookcase is a testament to the skill of southern craftsmen, and also to the diverse nature of immigration in the south that helped to shape its culture.  At various points in its history, the bookcase was believed to be English which underscores the types of regional bias that permeated scholarship.  The unspoken implication, of course, was that Charleston was too rural, too southern to make a case this fine.  The evidence indicates otherwise.

We finished the day with a delightful wine and cheese reception hosted by Al and Charlotte Crabtree of the Silver Vault of Charleston.  In addition to being Charleston's premier dealers of American and Continental Silver, the Crabtrees are gracious hosts, kind with their knowledge of silver, eager to discuss business questions that students had, and allowed us to handle pieces and examine them closely.  In addition, Al is a talented silversmith and restorer, with a broad knowledge of the history of silver, the curators in the field, and the auction world too.  It was exceptionally kind of them to welcome us into their shop, and a perfect end to a long and full day.

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