I’ve been spending a lot of time at my desk lately. There is a lot of research to be done, and a lot of writing, so it seems that my desk is my home base for the time being. In that sense, I understand a bit of what Betty Lewis’s daily routine must have been like. She, too, spent a good amount of time at a desk.
Visitors to Kenmore in recent months have had the chance to view
one of our few pieces with a Lewis family provenance – the desk on display in the Chamber. If we were going by a strict interpretation of the 1781 probate inventory, the desk would not be in the Chamber. In fact, it would not be anywhere in the house. The inventory does not mention such a desk at all, but we are fairly certain it was there somewhere.
The desk was given to the Kenmore Association in 1923 by the Old Trails Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Minneapolis, Minnesota. How did a Lewis family piece come to be in Minneapolis in the 1920’s? The desk had quite a journey. It appears that it was inherited by Fielding and Betty Lewis’s son, George, after Betty’s death in 1797 (Betty’s will stipulates that George is to receive “the mahogany desk of drawers made by George Allen”). The desk remained at Marmion through two more
generations of Lewis owners. When Marmion left the Lewis family just before the Civil War, a third generation George Lewis descendant purchased the desk at an estate sale on the property. That man, Lewis Alexander Ashton, left the desk to his daughter who sold it to an antiques dealer in Alexandria, Virginia in 1893. The Reverend Jacob Treadwell Walden, completely unrelated to the Lewis family, purchased the desk shortly thereafter, and it travelled with him to Minnesota, where he would eventually leave it to his granddaughter. She in turn gave it to the local DAR chapter, so that it might be returned to its original home. Lewis Ashton’s daughter, Alice Ashton Fitzhugh, was still living in the Fredericksburg area in 1923, and was able to verify the desk as being the one she sold to the Alexandria dealer. The label on which she had recorded the family history of the piece was still attached to the underside of the desk.
So, if the desk was at Kenmore, where was it? It makes the most sense that it was in the Chamber. We know that a desk and bookcase, most likely used by Fielding Lewis, was already situated in the Dining Room in 1781, and it may have been in Fielding’s study prior to that. Because this desk is listed specifically in Betty’s will, it was probably her own personal desk, and we have already discussed the idea that the Chamber acted as her office. This type of desk has quite a few compartments and drawers for the organizing of correspondence and ledgers, precisely the types of things Betty used to run her household on a daily basis. It also has a fall-front, which opens into a writing surface, and can be closed and locked to conceal its contents – also important for someone who keeps both money and valuable goods on hand. We have chosen to place the desk on the Chamber wall near the entrance to the slave passage, in keeping with the idea that Betty could sit at her desk and keep an eye on the comings and goings of her servants.
Although the desk was originally cataloged as being made in Pennsylvania (due to its “Philadelphia” style), there may be a chance that it was actually made here in Virginia. Betty’s reference to the desk having been made by George Allen in her will is the clue. Although little is known about who George Allen was or where he lived, short references to him pop up in the Lewis papers. In one instance, he is repairing a bed post at Kenmore, indicating that he had some skill in furniture-making. More research on the desk is necessary before a place of origin can be identified, but if it does turn out to be a Fredericksburg piece, it will further reinforce the idea that Betty and Fielding were furnishing much of their home with Virginia furniture.