Just before the Christmas break, our clothes press returned from conservation treatment and is now back on display in the Office. As you may remember, we have chosen to place a walnut clothes press in the Office because such a piece is listed in the 1781 probate inventory as being in the room. Because the Office is the only room in Kenmore without a built-in closet, it appears the Lewis family felt it needed some extra storage space.
The clothes press in our collection is not a Lewis family piece, but it was made in Virginia, ca. 1760. It has long been attributed to Mardun Vaughan Eventon, a cabinetmaker and joiner who has an interesting story of his own. Our research into the clothes press and its maker in preparation for the conservation work revealed that this piece is a good choice for use in Fielding Lewis’s Office. Visitors might notice that in addition to looking very clean and shiny, the piece is also a bit taller than when we last saw it!
The press has two doors on the front, which open to reveal a compartment for hanging clothes, with wooden pegs mounted around the interior. On the side of the hanging compartment is another door that opens on a set of small cubby holes, probably for the storage of shoes, accessories and perhaps important papers (the door is equipped with a lock). Over the years, the original hinges for both sets of doors had worn nearly through and were barely holding the doors on to the piece. Additionally, both door locks had frozen in the locked position, so no one had seen the interior of the press in quite some time. We were particularly intrigued by references in the files to an inscription etched into the interior of one of the front doors. According to the file, it read “12 hawks, sent Mr. Smith, 1771″. Would a closer, in-person look at the inscription shed more light on its enigmatic meaning?
When the press left us for conservation treatment, we anticipated that both the locks and hinges would be repaired, and that the entire piece would get a good cleaning to remove 200 years’ worth of fireplace soot, furniture polish and grime. What we did not anticipate, however, was that the conservator would discover that the press’s feet had been sawn off at some point in its history to make the whole thing about 3 inches shorter. By comparing our clothes press to another known Mardun Eventon piece (a desk on bookcase at Colonial Williamsburg), the conservator was able to extrapolate what the original feet looked like, and how they were attached to the press. He added that work to the treatment, and now the press stands at its original height once again.
With the hardware repaired and in working condition, we were finally able to have a look at that odd inscription inside the front door. As it turned out, instead of the numeral “12″, the inscription included twelve hash marks, followed by the word “hanks” instead of “hawks”. The term hank was often used to describe the amount of a textile or thread that was being sold, such as “1 hank of silk”, so perhaps the inscription is referring to twelve parcels of a textile. The “sent Mr. Smith” portion is still open to speculation, however, as it is very nearly illegible. While “1771″ is clearly etched into the wood, its meaning is still unclear, as well. Eventon died in 1778, and was nearly out of the furniture-making business in 1771, so it most likely does not refer to the date of manufacture for the press. Altogether, the inscription remains a mystery, but one we will keep working on!
I’ve already mentioned that Eventon died in 1778. Interestingly enough, at that time he had left the furniture trade altogether and had enlisted in the 5th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line. Although he had once been a very prosperous cabinetmaker in several counties throughout Eastern Virginia, the Revolution had dried up most of his business, and he was forced to mortgage his property and to sell many of his architecture books and tools. In 1778, he was injured in combat and died shortly thereafter. It therefore seems rather appropriate that his clothes press now sits in the office of another patriot to the cause. Fielding Lewis, too, knew what it was to lose one’s livelihood and wealth to the war.
Kenmore will be closed to the public in January and February, so we will look forward to seeing you again in the spring. Please mark you calendars to come and see the clothes press, as well as the completed Office, in March!
Biographical information on Mardun Eventon came from Southern Furniture, 1680-1830, by Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown.