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53rd Washington Antique Show: Inspirations from the Garden by Gretchen M. Bulova
53rd Washington Antique Show: Inspirations from the Garden by Gretchen M. Bulova
by Gretchen M. Bulova

Fig. 1: This watering can from the collection of Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens is thought to have been made in France in the late 18th century. George Washington's 1799 inventory lists "2 watering pots" valued at $1 each. Courtesy, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, Gift of Thomas Blagden in 1916.

The Washington D.C. area is rich in garden history and an appreciation of all things botanical. In memory of First Lady and conservationist Lady Bird Johnson (1912-2007), "Inspirations from the Garden" is the theme of the 53rd Washington Antique Show. The show's loan exhibition will feature the belongings of avid gardeners and the things with which the area's prominent families have surrounded themselves to bring nature indoors and create an illusion of permanence of the often fleeting beauty of the natural world.

Many of the nation's Founding Fathers were themselves gentlemen farmers. An eighteenth-century watering can thought to have been imported from France for the garden at Mount Vernon (Fig. 1) is a reminder of the importance placed upon gardening by men like George Washington. The names of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are prominent among the list of original subscribers who supported the 1804 Washington, D.C. publication of The American Gardener, which gave detailed directions for the cultivation of kitchen and flower gardens (Fig. 2).

LEFT: Fig. 2: The American Gardener, was written by John Gardiner and David Hepburn and published by Samuel H. Smith in the City of Washington in 1804. This leather-bound copy was owned by Joseph Nourse (1754-1841), first Register of the Treasury, and was later presented as a gift to his grand-daughter, Caroline Rebecca Nourse Dulany (1819-1893), whose name appears on the title page. One of the earliest garden manuals published in America, The American Gardener was supported by its subscribers, who included Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, James Madison, Albert Gallatin, John Tayloe, Joseph Nourse, John Mason, and other prominent political and social leaders in the Federal City. Courtesy, Dumbarton House/The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, Gift of Mrs. Richard C. Williams, Maryland Society. RIGHT: Fig. 3: This porcelain urn, presented to noted early Washington gardeners Thomas and Martha Peters, was produced by Tucker and Hemphill in Philadelphia in 1835. Courtesy, Tudor Place Historic House & Garden, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Louise Krafft.

Fig. 4: Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969) records his thoughts and notes about his gardens. His notebook and pencil are featured in the loan exhibition, along with his 1956 Garden Club of America award. Courtesy, Winterthur Museum and Country Estate.

Future generations of Americans continued their passion for gardening. Martha Peter, a granddaughter of Martha Washington, and her husband Thomas were recognized for the extraordinary gardens of their Georgetown home, Tudor Place. An elegant porcelain presentation urn was awarded to them in June of 1835 by the Columbia Horticultural Society in honor or their achievement (Fig. 3).

Two famous twentieth-century collectors were also known for their love of gardens. Washington heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post created the first Japanese-style garden on the East Coast in 1957 at her Hillwood Estate. In 1956, the Garden Club of America honored Henry Francis du Pont, once a resident of Georgetown, but best known for his spectacular gardens at Winterthur, noting, "In the estimation of fellow horticulturalists Mr. du Pont is granted to be one of the best, even the best gardener this country has ever produced" (Fig. 4).

The universal appeal of floral designs have fixed them among the most popular motifs in household dêcor. Ceramics provided an ideal medium through which to express "all things floral" and were enjoyed with a range of designs, from realistic to abstract. Costly tablewares and humble kitchenwares alike became canvases for depicting flowers, leaves, animals, and insects (Figs. 5).

LEFT: Fig. 5: Produced by the Wedgwood Factory ca. 1880, this shell-shaped plate features flowers, butterflies and a hummingbird. These motifs have been used in decorative elements throughout this year's Washington Antique Show. Courtesy, Alan V. Barnett. Photograph by Louise Krafft. RIGHT: Fig. 6: It was important for young girls of every social and economic level to learn how to sew as a preparation for taking on adult responsibilities. Girls from more well-to-do households were expected to create decorative needlework pieces, such as this one, suitable for framing and display. At the time this piece was created in 1818, Mary Muir of Alexandria, Virginia, was twelve years old. Courtesy, The Lyceum, Alexandria's History Museum; museum purchase in tribute of Mr. & Mrs. Harry A. Councilor. Photograph by Louise Krafft.

Developing an appreciation of nature through art has long been an important part of childhood education. Often imbued with symbolic meaning, floral motifs were considered among the most appropriate for girls to depict as part of their creative efforts with a needle and a paint brush. The creation of a fancy needlework sampler, for example, provided young girls a chance to show off their skills, stitching needlework flowers and gardens in amazing detail (Fig. 6).

These are just a few examples of garden imagery that will inspire the exhibitors, lectures, and loan exhibition. The 53rd Washington Antique Show will take place January 11 through 13, 2008 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert Street, NW, Washington, DC. The show will feature 45 dealers from the U.S., Canada, and Europe specializing in American and European antique furniture, Chinese porcelains, silver, ceramics, jewelry, fine art, books, and other antique collectibles. The Washington Antique Show benefits children and families through The Thrift Shop Charities. For more information about the Loan Exhibition or the Washington Antique Show, please visit www.washingtonantiques.com.

Gretchen M. Bulova is guest curator for the loan exhibition. She is director of Gadsby's Tavern Museum in Alexandria, Virginia.

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