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.

tureen3
A traditional tureen, with a lemon and twig for the lid handle and shell pieces for the side handles. Beautiful and charming.
tureen2
A more whimsical example, a pewter tureen shaped like a ship. Check out the cannon ports along the sides and the fish supporting the base. Chowder, anyone?
And for something really over-the-top, here's a silver tureen with an elaborate base and a Barye-esque tableau atop the lid. I guess this was intended for some kind of crazy game-based stew? Certainly something more substantial than chicken noodle.
And for something really over-the-top, here’s a silver tureen with an elaborate base and a Barye-esque tableau atop the lid. I guess this was intended for some kind of crazy game-based stew? Certainly something more substantial than chicken noodle.

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:

This enormous coverlet would have easily fit a queen-size bed, I'd say. Embroidered with an almost yarnlike navy-blue wool.
This enormous coverlet would have easily fit a queen-size bed, I’d say. Embroidered with an almost yarnlike navy-blue wool. Make note of the figures running along the bottom of the coverlet, which I assume would have appeared running along the foot of the bed.

The man and the woman, in fact, are holding tiny books; the woman also appears to be holding her sewing basket toward her daughter.

Curious that there are birds included near both of these figures. Perhaps indicating song or music?
Curious that there are birds included near both of these figures. Perhaps indicating song or music?
Note the bird, released from its cage. Is that meant to figure the liberating nature of reading?
Note the bird, released from its cage. Is that meant to figure the liberating nature of reading?

But most amazing had to be this quilt, which had this embroidered medallion at its center:

The medallion is a full 14 inches across. The motif, apparently, was known as
The medallion is a full 14 inches across. The motif, apparently, was known as “the pelican in her piety.”

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:

The Chinese Parlor at Winterthur. The orientalist images on the wall were actually wallpaper, not painting-- though apparently Mr. DuPont hired a painter to fill in the gaps caused by doorways and suchlike.
The Chinese Parlor at Winterthur. The orientalist images on the wall were actually wallpaper, not painting– though apparently Mr. DuPont hired a painter to fill in the gaps caused by doorways and suchlike.

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:

One end of the former swimming pool, with cool horse sculpture leaping in with wild abandon.
One end of the former swimming pool, with cool horse sculpture leaping in with wild abandon.
View across the reflecting pool. See--there's a reflection!
View across the reflecting pool. See–there’s a reflection!

And the koi pond. I guess it’s still a “pond,” but quite a grand habitat for bottom feeders!

pond2

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!

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11 thoughts on “Winterthur– how did I miss you?

  1. Wonderful pictures, Jean! Maybe you’ve already toured the Hagley Museum in the Brandywine, where I believe the early DuPont fortune was founded on the production of gun powder. It’s a much smaller place than Winterthur but doesn’t require advanced reservations and is especially lovely in the fall when the leaves are changing. You see the remains of the powder mills, with a rail track running alongside–all downhill from the DuPont house, which was somewhat protected from the occasional mill explosion by distance and elevation. Workers, unfortunately, were not as well protected. I remember the detail that the men had to wear special shoes made with wooden pegs instead of nails because a shoe nail struck on stone might spark an explosion.

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    1. I have been to the Hagley– in some ways, I like it even better than Winterthur–for the reasons you mention, plus the fact that it preserves such a large structure in its original setting, with lots of cool machinery to boot (I am such a techie at heart!). What a wonderful description you’ve given. I especially love that detail about the wooden pegs in the shoes– though it points to the disregard for human life that lies at the basis of the DuPont fortune.

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  2. Thanks for this post! I’ll probably never get there, and I was quite boggled by your pictures. The daft tureens, the fantastic needlework – I’m glad you included several pictures of the blue and white quilt because it’s enchanting. The pattern looks like a variant of the ver popular blue onion pattern (how old was the quilt, do you recall?) but I’ve never seen one with figures on it, and they have such 18th century charm! Well, well. I don’t think I can bring myself to call it Winter-ter, though!

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    1. If you ever come visit me in Baltimore, we will have to make an excursion! Thanks for the detail on the coverlet. I believe it comes out of New England, early 19c. (I have added this info to the post– it is, as you indicate, important to know.) Would that have been early or late for this pattern? Late, I assume.

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      1. Blue Onion originated in China in the Ming dynasty and was adapted by Meissen in the 1700s. It became vastly popular and was imitated and altered by many other companies. (The “onions” are really peaches and pomegranates, apparently!) I know about it because my first set of china was the 20th century Japanese adaptation called Blue Danube, which is one of the 100 most popular tableware patterns in the world. The Winterthur quilt isn’t either Blue Onion or Blue Danube at all, but simply a beautiful blue and white Asian inspired textile, perhaps stitched by an 19th century American woman? (I’m guessing!) – I wish I could read about it but online search has proved fruitless and I can’t find a thing about this fascinating piece.

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      2. Hi Diana–I will send you a pic of the placard by email when I have a chance. I can’t figure out if there’s a way to upload it to a comment on this dang blog platform. Long story short: made int the early 19c, in New England, by a woman.

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  3. Wow. Very cool! That black & white embroidery reminds me of a very good Kara Walker show here in town in 2007. It (well, the reference) may have been intentional on Walker’s part. That pelican bedspread is fantastic, though I have a particular fondness for pelicans.

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