Last weekend I visited Winterthur for the first time. This place is up all my alleys: history, gardens, an insanely wealthy, and possibly just insane, 19th-century American family (has anyone seen Foxcatcher? I might have to check it out soon). Plus, it is one of the United States’ foremost research libraries that focuses on material objects– especially, furniture and textiles–as a source of historical knowledge. Could it be any more perfect?
For starters, check out these soup tureens. They have a whole gallery devoted to soup tureens, sponsored by– who else? Campbell’s.
Right now, they have a great exhibit on needlework, The Diligent Needle: Instrument of Profit, Pleasure, and Ornament. Needlework, as the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers have shown so poignantly, were a way for women, especially those who lacked access to literate forms of expression, to display their creativity as well as actually communicate their ideas. In a way, quilts, embroidery, and even clothing can thus be read as texts–but unfortunately, most of us now lack the ability to read them. Here was a cool early 19c coverlet through which the maker (author?) showed not only her skill in embroidery, but the value she placed on traditional literacy:
The man and the woman, in fact, are holding tiny books; the woman also appears to be holding her sewing basket toward her daughter.
But most amazing had to be this quilt, which had this embroidered medallion at its center:
How weird to have a bloody pelican in the center of your bed to greet you at bedtime. But perhaps, given how frequently women gave their lives in the service of procreation, apropos.
My friend Laura, who was visiting me that weekend, had the presence of mind to get us tickets for the house tour. We spent an hour exploring a single floor of the house– the fifth floor, which I think was the third major addition to be put on the house, in the early twentieth century. The house has 172 rooms or something like that and at its grandest, was a sort of cruise-ship-on-land, with indoor squash court, bowling alley, and billiards room, several parlors and other entertainment spaces, both grand and intimate, a beautiful dining room, swimming pool, outdoor terraces, bathhouses– you get the idea.
One can imagine Jay Gatsby getting ideas from a visit here. Or maybe, Henry Francis DuPont got ideas from someone like Jay Gatsby. The tour guide didn’t say, one way or another. Here’s one of the rooms, where the family and guests would “retire” after dinner, for drinks and conversation:
And the gardens are spectacular, too. To get to the house and museum, we had to stroll through acres of meticulously cared for– yet still a little wild-looking– woodlands, with some of the most gorgeous, huge oak and beech trees I’ve ever seen in my life. I never thought I’d say a tree was gorgeous, but this is the word that kept coming to my lips as we strolled down the carefully groomed paths.
Near the house, the gardens take on a more formal character. Here’s the old swimming pool, now converted into a reflecting pool with lily pads, papyrus, and other water plants:
And the koi pond. I guess it’s still a “pond,” but quite a grand habitat for bottom feeders!
So why is it called Winterthur? It originated as one of the DuPont family mansions– they’re scattered all around the countryside surrounding Wilmington, Delaware. This house apparently is named after the Swiss family home of someone who married into the family. You pronounce it “Winter-ter”– the name looks more distinguished than it sounds– though perhaps I just lack the patrician accent that would mark me as “belonging.” Anyway, it’s ok. I’m willing to pay admission to enter.
Winterthur is apparently supposed to be much more impressive in spring and fall, when the azaleas and rhododendrons are blooming (spring) and when the leaves turn (fall). I don’t know if I could stand it! But I’ll figure out a way. Certainly research will need to be done on some of that needlework!