EARLY AMERICAN WALLPAPER RECOVERED FROM GEORGE WASHINGTON WAXWORK

Tudor Place Historic House & Garden conservators and curators, while engaged in the conservation of a remarkable wax and shellwork tableau once belonging to George and Martha Washington, have discovered a well-preserved sample of block-printed 18th-century wallpaper. The roughly 10-inch piece had been used on a handmade cabinet belonging to George Washington and his wife. Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Martha Custis Peter, and her husband, the founders of Tudor Place, purchased the cabinet in 1802 from Mrs. Washington’s estate. The wallpaper had covered the top of the tableau crafted by New York entrepreneur Samuel Fraunces in the 1780s. Its discovery and conservation portend other valuable insights likely to emerge from study of the Fraunces piece, which is undergoing a two-year, $37,400 conservation project involving specialists in wax, textiles, and paper. The Richard C. von Hess Foundation, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is funding the project.

“The simple, repeating floral pattern printed in pink and green is typical for late eighteenth-century American-made wallpapers,” said Erin Kyukendall. “Further research may help identify a specific American manufacturer or retailer.” Image courtesy Tudor Place Historic House & Garden. Photo by Nancy Purinton.

Wallpaper from George Washington Waxwork


 

Adding further interest to the paper’s discovery are indications that it was manufactured by a burgeoning domestic industry, rather than in England. Only a few American wallpaper manufactories were established by the end of the 1700s, and some produced papers that surpassed the quality of British or French imports, notes Curator of Collections Erin Kuykendall, a 2010 Decorative Arts Trust Summer Research Scholar. Tudor Place Executive Director, Leslie Buhler, noted the contributions of their new curator, Ms. Kuykendall, saying, “With her extensive knowledge of American decorative arts, excellent research skills, and collegial relations with other scholars, Erin is well equipped to guide this important conservation project.”

In 2010, radiologists at Georgetown University Medical Center x-rayed the wax figures, revealing their literal “underpinnings” and providing insights into a repair effort made by the work’s owner in 1954.


Decorating walls with printed papers from England, France, or America was common in elite and middling American households by the late 1700s. Samples rarely survive, however, due to paper’s inherent fragility and householders’ tendency to remove or paint it over time. And samples like this one, over 10 inches in length and bearing multiple design repeats, are particularly rare. Wallpaper samples that do survive are most commonly found sealing the backs of picture frames, covering and lining books, or lining the interior of boxes and trunks, making this an unusual find.

The waxwork paper sample bears a polychromatic floral-and-vine stripe design block printed on laid paper and appears to be torn around the edges. Conservators found it under two additional layers of paper applied over time. The middle piece was a monochromatic blue wallpaper of a lesser quality in extremely poor condition. The outermost layer consisted of a patterned wallpaper dating stylistically to the mid-19th century that had been cut into multiple pieces and attached in a sort of patchwork.

Tableau

The tableau, made by New York City tavern-keeper Samuel Fraunces in honor of Martha Washington, portrays the classical figures of the Roman warrior, Hector, his wife, Andromache, a nursemaid and the couple’s infant son, within a lush grotto.  Domestic animals surround the figures in a setting comprised of paper and seashells. Creating miniature wax figures was a popular ladies’ pastime in Georgian England and the American colonies. Samuel Fraunces was one of the few American males known to have pursued the craft for private and professional purposes. He served as steward of the Washingtons’ presidential household in Philadelphia, and operated Manhattan enterprises including the Queen Charlotte’s Head Tavern near Wall Street and the former Vauxhall pleasure gardens on the Upper East Side.

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