Meticulous record-keeper Henry Francis du Pont documented each and every object he purchased in his daybook. Unfortunately for me, he recorded most of his 515 Delft fireplace tiles in his daybook and correspondence with antiques dealers as simply, “tile.” This renders research into the tiles’ provenience, or history, particularly challenging.
Previously, I discussed how I traced the actor and actress tiles in the Simsbury Room to the now demolished Berber House in Simsbury, Connecticut. My luck seems to have dried up after that initial success.
Tiles without a Fireplace: Sea Monsters in New York Bedroom
Henry Francis du Pont purchased a set of 34 Dutch sea monster tiles from New York art dealer, Edwin Jackson in 1940 for the New York Bedroom fireplace.
During 1960s renovations, the New York Bedroom was deinstalled and replaced with the Newport and Gidley Rooms. The tiles were removed and placed in storage, where they remained until 2016 when I began to treat some of them. Though I was able to find the specific dealer who sold the tiles to du Pont, I cannot find any information on where Jackson acquired the tiles. This has been the case so far with many of the tiles at Winterthur--my trail ends with dealers in 1920s-1940s New York City, Connecticut, and Philadelphia.
Even though I probably will never be able to definitively find where Winterthur's tiles actually came from, I still wondered how the tiles may have come into the collection. My search led me to the fascinating early 20th century phenomena of buying and selling architectural elements and even entire rooms from historic homes to decorate lavish mansions and create period rooms in museums like Winterthur. While this practice occurred concurrently with demolition of estates in America, the available literature is heavily focused on England.
England: The Lost Houses
Though I lived in England for three years, I never really thought about exactly how so many grand houses came to be managed by the National Trust until I watched Downton Abbey, Series 6 (I re-watched it in the name of research!). In this episode, the Granthams go to the auction of Mallerton, a neighboring country estate. Disturbed to see his friends falling on hard times, Lord Grantham is confused and worried (as usual) about the prospect of cultural change (illustrated below).
Though I primarily love it because it is soap opera set in Edwardian England, Downton Abbey does sometimes present actual historical events along the way! Some historians estimate that one in six of grand estates like the fictional Mallerton have been demolished since 1900--almost 2,000 in total. Why?
Origins of the Country Estate
Since at least the middle ages, the upper class of England included the aristocracy (dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons) and the landed gentry (baronets, knights, esquires, and gentlemen). Since only men who owned property could vote, the wealthy controlled the government of the country, especially after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 shifted power away from the monarchy towards Parliament. Many members of the peerage held seats in the House of Lords. Consequently, MPs usually owned a house in London, for while Parliament was in session, as well as one or more grand estates in the countryside. These country estates generated income by charging tenants to live and farm their land. For example, the Dukes of Devonshire, the Cavendish family, owned two lavish estates in Derbyshire: Hardwick Hall, a Tudor mansion with its own rhyme (Hardwick Hall, more window than wall) and Chatsworth (famously featured in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) as well as a mansion in Picadilly, London.
Historic estates of the Duke of Devonshire. Left: Devonshire House in Picadilly, London was demolished in 1924; Center: Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire is managed by the National Trust; Right: Chatsworth, where the present-day Duke of Devonshire, Peregrine Cavendish, lives
Depression, Death Duties, and Increasing Suffrage, 1870s - 1910s
In the 1870s, these rental incomes stagnated, due to an agricultural slump caused by cheaper grain imported from America. This period in history saw the continuation of migration from the countryside to cities and emigration to US that began with the Industrial Revolution.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the complete governmental control of large landholders began to slip. In 1894-5 suffrage increased to 60% of males--any man paying a rent of over £10 per year was now eligible to vote. This still prevented all women and the working class in major cities from voting, but represented enough of a change that a series of laws were passed to limit the power of the aristocracy.
The 1894 Estate Duty (colloquially known as "Death Duties") levied taxes on personal property bequeathed by the deceased as part of a will. This was the first significant inheritance tax in the UK. Up to this point, immediate family members had not been charged taxes on inherited income. In 1907, Liberal PM H.H. Asquith also imposed a tax on income from investments.
Along with economic depression, these new Acts of Parliament had consequences for a class unaccustomed to budgeting and paying taxes. Like the fictional Lord Grantham, English lords looked to America for brides to save them from bankruptcy. Seeking aristocratic titles, American heiresses like Consuelo Vanderbilt eagerly moved across the pond. Vanderbilt married Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough (Winston Churchill's first cousin) in a socially advantageous, but loveless marriage. Her immense fortune saved the miraculous Blenheim Palace, near Oxford, from financial ruin and demolition (below). (Fun fact: Winston Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome, was also an American heiress).
Effects of World Wars, 1910-1950
Prior to World War I, each wealthy family employed dozens of servants and farmers to keep their massive houses running. When Britain declared war in August of 1914, thousands of male servants joined or were drafted into military service. Female servants either stayed at their jobs, became nurses, or worked in factory jobs vacated by men. Many of these men and women who did not want to take up their old jobs as servants at the end of the war. As the popular post-World War I song went, "How you gonna keep em down on the farm now that they've seen Paree?" The move from country to city was especially marked by the 1950s. As inheritance tax rates shot up to near 80%, the rate of demolition increased exponentially.
Lack of income from the rent of tenant farmers, death duties, loss of a cheap labor force after the world wars, and a redistribution of power all contributed to the decision of many wealthy landowners to sell of one if not all of their country estates as well as their houses in London. Prior to the 1970s, once the contents of these houses were auctioned off, the houses would either be left, empty or demolished. From the 1970s onward, more and more houses were donated to preservation organizations like the National Trust and English Heritage.
Architectural Salvage and Resale
Antiques dealers in the United States and England capitalized on the wholesale gutting of these luxurious country houses. Not just objects, but entire rooms were packed off to American museums and mansions. In a particularly extreme case, American millionaire, Thomas C. Williams Jr., purchased Agecroft Hall, a 15th century Tudor mansion from Agecroft, Pendlebury, in 1925 and had it shipped to Richmond, Virginia, where he rebuilt and lived in it.
America's millionaires like H.F. du Pont and William Randolph Hearst bought up these architectural elements to enhance their fabulous mansions. Hearst revitalized and restored St. Donat's Castle in Wales with interiors from homes around Britain. du Pont mainly purchased material for his period rooms from American mansions. However, many of his ceramics, including the Delft tiles were probably procured by American dealers on trips to England.
Interpreting the Past: Period Rooms
Private collectors were not the only ones in the market for architecture. At the beginning of the 20th century, some of the world's greatest museums began to acquire these interior architectural elements. While museums in Europe primarily collected material from their own countries due to a surge in nationalism, American museums often collected rooms from around the world for educational purposes and to showcase the cultures of the world. These rooms were often cut down or added to in order to fit within the measurements of a certain gallery space. The decorations were often not original and sometimes, a mixture objects from different time periods reside in the same room, for aesthetic effect.
The room above from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is an early 17th century Dutch sitting room. However, the tiles in the fireplace tell a different story. They are from completely different sets and time periods. It's as if a curator in the 1920s said, "Eh, let's put them all together. They're all tiles! Who will notice?"
The tiles in the fireplaces at Winterthur were purchased in the 1920s-1940s and installed in this time period. When any object comes into the museum it is given an accession number. That number usually contains the year the object entered the collection (ie. 1929.0004.001). Most of the 515 tiles, though, were not numbered until 1969, a full 20-40 years after their acquisition. Some tiles were not given numbers until 2005! This owes to the fact that the tiles were seen as architectural elements rather than museum objects. Though the rooms at Winterthur are made of architecture salvaged from homes around America, most of these interiors do not have accession numbers.
The tiles in Winterthur's rooms often do not match the time period being interpreted by the rest of the interiors, furniture, paintings, and objects. For example, in Readbourne Parlor (above), the tulip tiles are early 17th century Dutch, while the furniture and other decorative elements are from the Queen Anne period in early 18th century England.
While some tiles were probably removed from homes with changing fireplace fashions of the early 19th century or simply covered over with marble facades, the Winterthur tiles were presumably sold wholesale as part of the architectural elements of their original rooms. This practice ground to a halt in the 1970s and 1980s with renewed interest in the conservation of England's and America's cultural heritage. However, the architectural treasures and entire rooms can be enjoyed today by museum-goers in museums around the world (I know they're one of my favorite parts of museums).
Thanks for checking back! I enjoyed this excuse to use my history degree and revisit Downton Abbey, ha! Tune in next month for a new blogpost and be sure to follow #WeirdTileoftheDay and #WeirdTileWednesday on Twitter! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for topics, post them below!
For more information see:
Winterthur Postgraduate Fellow in Objects Conservation