at Henry Francis du Pont’s Chestertown House
Henry Francis du Pont’s summer home in Southampton, New York, called Chestertown House, was an important precursor to his renowned Winterthur estate in Delaware. Built in 1925, Chestertown House was envisioned by du Pont to be “an American house,” which he decorated with an exceptional collection of American furniture, American art, and Americana, most notably hooked rugs.Du Pont bought the bulk of his rugs in the 1920s and displayed them throughout Chestertown House, where they could be found in every room.
Du Pont considered his collecting habits to be an expression of his creativity. In 1952, he reflected, “Each individual who collects anything of a serious nature thinks in increasingly creative terms, almost as if his growing collection were a kind of artistic medium.”Although scholars have examined the development of du Pont’s color aesthetic in his choice of other decorative arts, little attention has been paid to its expression in his rugs. But throughout Chestertown House, du Pont actively explored the expressive possibilities of color inherent in these textiles and employed them to add significantly to the color scheme of each room.
Du Pont himself explained that his early training in “colors and proportions” began with museum visits.Fig. 1).” Art historian Jay Cantor explains that when it came to du Pont’s aesthetic, from the early 1920s “it was color harmony that attracted him.” Similarly, Denise Magnani, a specialist on du Pont’s gardens, explains that he “looked very closely at the colors of individual flowers in varying light conditions, in combination with other colors, and as part of the whole landscape . . . . He fell in love with color and its exhilarating possibilities.” Magnani concludes that du Pont’s color choices for the flowers in his gardens also informed his color choices for upholstery, curtains, and other household textiles. And, the majority of rugs in his collection were floral designs that provide another connection to his gardens—bursts of color created from the wide array of flowers that define their design.A 1923 visit to Electra Havemeyer Webb’s Brick House in Shelburne, Vermont, provided him with his “first introduction to an early-American interior,” but he was specifically “fascinated by the colors of a pine dresser filled with pink Staffordshire plates (
Two individuals played significant roles in the development of du Pont’s color aesthetic. His friend Marian Coffin, who trained as a painter, worked closely with him on the development of the gardens at both Southampton and Winterthur. A research paper on Coffin explains, “The importance of color in Marian Coffin’s work cannot be overemphasized. With her painterly sensibility, she was unusually sensitive to the expressive possibilities of subtle color modulations and contrasts.”
Henry Davis Sleeper’s color experiments, particularly his extensive use of hooked rugs, at Beauport in Gloucester, Massachusetts, also profoundly influenced du Pont.Sleeper’s friend Paul Hollister explained that Sleeper expressed his creativity through interior decoration. Hollister wrote, “Someone suggested that he may have been a frustrated painter, whose craving for colour and composition finally reacted into masterpieces as rooms inside houses.” Sleeper had developed Beauport as a showcase of his style, and American hooked rugs, located throughout his house, were an important element of that style. Fundamentally, what du Pont learned from Sleeper was that creative interpretation should supersede a commitment to historical accuracy. A 1924 letter from Sleeper to du Pont expresses their shared view that rooms should be expressive, or even “eccentric,” in their design. Regrettably, surviving letters between the two men do not include any specific advice from Sleeper on hooked rugs, but their potential as tools for creative expression was evident in both homes.
Sleeper’s Octagon Room (Fig. 2), a dining room named for its shape that was completed in 1921, exemplifies his use of hooked rugs. He called it his “souvenir de France,” because he had worked there for the American Field Service during World War I. A watercolor of the room painted in 1928 documents its appearance around the time that du Pont saw it. In recognition of the ties between America and France, Sleeper hung portraits of both the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington within and boldly added a red lacquer Chinese screen to the cultural mix. The paneled walls and all the other woodwork are painted a plum color so deep as to appear almost black. Dark paneling provided a particular challenge for Sleeper in livening up his rooms, a challenge also faced by du Pont since many of the rooms at Chestertown House also had dark paneling. Sleeper infused the Octagon Room with color through a variety of objects, including Chinese red and gold toleware, gilt book bindings, and, as Hollister describes in his book on Beauport, “the amber glow of tiger maple furniture.” The Octagon Room included three hooked rugs that brought significant color to the room, most notably the vibrant array coming from the geometric starburst design of the octagonal rug in the center of the room. Sleeper was not averse to mixing rug designs; two floral rugs are juxtaposed here with the geometric one. Hollister concludes that the Octagon Room is “perhaps one of the most highly stylized, colorful rooms in America,” defined by the “controlled audacity of its color scheme.” He concludes that overall, Beauport is “a symphony of subtle colours.” But, while taking careful note of the important role of paint, fabric, wallpaper, and even furniture in developing color in the rooms of Beauport, Hollister makes no mention of rugs to the creation of that symphony.
Henry du Pont was collecting hooked rugs at a time when they were a highly fashionable form of home decoration. In a 1928 article for House Beautiful, author Margaret Lathrop Law wrote of a “hooked rug mania” to describe their widespread popularity among “antique dealers, decorators and summer cottagers.”Hooked rugs attracted a broad range of middle- and upper-class urban consumers, who scavenged antique shops, estate sales, and craft shows searching for appealing examples. Wealthy collectors like du Pont and his sister preferred antique rugs, which were often pulled out of attics and other storage areas to be sold. Recently made rugs inspired by antique designs satisfied middle-class Americans; to the untrained eye, they were largely indistinguishable from their antique counterparts and far less expensive. Du Pont’s wealth and connections enabled him to amass an outstanding collection of antique rugs, although they became more and more difficult to find as the craze continued.
Bills and letters in the Winterthur archives document antique shops and other venues from which du Pont purchased rugs. As early as 1923, he was buying from the popular R.W. Burnham Antiques and Hooked Rugs in Ipswich, Massachusetts, which advertised itself as the “headquarters of the hooked rug industry in America.”A 1928 letter from Burnham to du Pont describes the difficulty of finding the high-quality antique rugs that du Pont desired. In evaluating some rugs that he was sending to du Pont, he explained, “The writer considers these rare hooked rugs much more difficult to obtain than block front pieces of furniture or savory highboys . . . .” Du Pont relied on a host of antique dealers and collectors who searched for rugs for him, all of them very much aware of his taste. Rug sellers often sent pieces to him “on approval,” giving him an opportunity to examine a rug, usually sent directly to one of his homes, before he made a commitment to purchase it. The rugs he bought typically ranged between $25 and $650.
Smaller and lesser known shops accessed by du Pont included Lenore Wheeler Williams in New York, Rosenbach Company in Philadelphia, Wales-Stanier Antique Shop in Wilmington, and Little Shop Around the Corner in York, Pennsylvania. He also purchased rugs at auction; in 1924, for example, he bought some from a large collection of antiques owned by George F. Ives of Danbury, Connecticut, a friend of the influential authority on early American furniture, Wallace Nutting.Perhaps after seeing rugs in an auction at the Anderson Galleries that were collected in Nova Scotia by Caswell Barrie, du Pont reached out to him about purchasing directly. In addition, du Pont relied on esteemed art and antique collectors such as Charles Woolsey Lyons, a highly regarded antiquarian with a gallery in Manhattan. Lyons was also a consultant to Henry Ford and national museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Records indicate that du Pont bought rugs from Lyons from 1924 to 1929.
Knowledge of du Pont’s interest in hooked rugs was widespread enough that individuals outside the antique and auction markets contacted him directly. During 1929 and 1930, he was in correspondence with Frederick Wellington Ayer,who made his fortune in lumber and paper production. Ayer explained he was not in the business of collecting rugs or antiques, writing, “I have never sold but one rug, and have no opportunity for retailing.” Yet, somehow Ayer had amassed some 250 hooked rugs and claimed that up to a hundred of them were over a hundred years old, though he did not disclose their origins. He was, however, quick to point out their high quality, stating, “I have the best collection of New England hooked rugs that is or ever has been in the state of Maine,” which he estimated were valued at $80,000. Intrigued, du Pont requested that Ayer send the rugs to him on approval. Ayer chose to personally deliver the collection to Winterthur, and du Pont’s purchases totaled at least $10,000.
Correspondence relating to du Pont’s rug purchases affirms his choices were informed by color. In 1925, for example, he sent rugs back to Stephen Van Rensselaer, who ran an antique shop in Peterborough, New Hampshire, because, as du Pont explained, “I do not like their color.”Du Pont returned another rug to Van Rensselaer in 1928 for the same reason. Van Rensselaer was asking $1200 for the rug, but its high price was not the deciding factor. In a letter with the return, du Pont wrote, “I think the hooked rug which you were good enough to send me on approval is beautiful and I have kept it for several days trying to see if I could work out a place to use it but unfortunately I cannot seem to make the red color fit in, and therefore I have decided to return it to you.” Decisions like these reveal du Pont’s recognition of the important role rugs played in the color scheme of a room. Not surprisingly, then, dealers approached du Pont based on their knowledge of his interest in uniquely colored pieces. For example, Robert Hall, owner of Authentic Antiques in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, wrote to du Pont of a rug he was sending him for review, “I have taken the liberty to include a rug in the rough on account of its unusual coloring. I think it has possibilities.” The design of the rug was a pictorial scene of a New England homestead and included initials, presumably those of its maker. Hall suggested that the initials could easily be removed “if one so desired.” Du Pont purchased the rug after the alteration was made, apparently more interested in the rug for its color than in leaving evidence of the original artisan.
When du Pont inherited Winterthur after his father’s death in 1926, he began to rethink his plans for Chestertown House. As museum director Leslie Greene Bowman summarizes, “Chestertown House had been a successful experiment, and du Pont was ready to repeat it on a grander scale.”Fig. 15) and the Pine Hall (Fig. 16) (now the Kershner Parlor and Kitchen). Jay Cantor observed, “Both these rooms, with their concentrations of rural furniture and strongly patterned hooked rugs, recall the interiors of Chestertown House.” Similarly, the Dancing Room (Fig. 17) (now Tappahannock Room) at Winterthur was decorated with four hooked rugs, all from the Entrance Hall (Fig. 18) at Chestertown House. But the rugs that Cantor now connected with “rural furniture” were once viewed by du Pont as appropriate for any room at Chestertown House, including formal rooms like the living and dining rooms. By 1951, the year that Winterthur opened to the public, a museum publication revealed a codification of the hooked rugs as “folk art,” unfit for formal parts of the house. A brief chapter titled “folk art” explained, “At Winterthur there are impressive collections of this American folk art, arranged in rooms less formal than those with mahogany and satinwood, but rich in vigorous color and vital design.” While appreciated for their color and design, these rugs, nonetheless, were now viewed as appropriate only for the informal rooms in the new Winterthur museum.As he began to shift his focus to Winterthur, objects from Chestertown House were transferred to Delaware, including some, but not all, of the hooked rugs. Some of the Southampton rugs were immediately put on display at Winterthur. For example, hooked rugs were placed in both the Pine Kitchen (
Although du Pont may have shifted his focus away from hooked rugs in decorating the formal rooms at Winterthur, the intrinsic value of his rug collection remained constant. Whether his rugs were on display or relegated to storage, he amassed an outstanding collection that holds historical significance, represents the stylistic diversity of the medium, and demonstrates outstanding craftsmanship. Their origins, often from rural communities, document a complex relationship between country artisans and cosmopolitan collectors like du Pont.The burgeoning market for hooked rugs that emerged in the 1920s was a welcome source of income for individuals living in the economically distressed areas where most of the rugs were made. By the 1920s, rug making industries were also in place to supply the market, some of which had working conditions no better than factory work. While du Pont had the means to purchase only the best antique rugs, his collection was so large that some of his rugs in all likelihood came from this expanded market. The hooked rugs that remain in the Winterthur collection serve as a reminder of the labor required to make them, but even more, of the creativity of the individual rug makers.
Looking back, du Pont observed, “During the years that I have collected, I have had many satisfactions… in the contacts I have made with a great number of interesting people, in my greater consciousness of the development of our country, and in my immensely increased appreciation of the generations that have preceded us.”Cantor recognized that du Pont became “a prime mover in the reevaluating of American arts on an aesthetic basis.” Based on the seriousness with which he used them to decorate Chestertown House, hooked rugs were a significant part of that reevaluation. His rug collection provides insight into the traditions that define American craft as it emerged in the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth century and establishes a meaningful creative link between the craft production of rural rug makers and du Pont himself as an influential tastemaker. He clearly valued that link, because, while fewer hooked rugs were on display at Winterthur than at Chestertown House, he left detailed instructions in his will concerning their display and care. Fundamentally, the hooked rug collection at Chestertown House and, to some extent, now at Winterthur reveals the outstanding potential of hooked rugs as a form of creative expression. The rugs aided du Pont in the development of his decorating aesthetic, and, because he was such an avid and discerning connoisseur, an outstanding collection of American hooked rugs has been preserved to tell an even larger story about their significance.
About the Author
1 H. F. du Pont, “Forward,” in Joseph Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods in the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum (NY: MacMillan Company, 1952), v.
5 Jay E. Cantor, Winterthur, enl. ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), 113.
6 Denise Magnani, The Winterthur Garden: Henry Francis du Pont’s Romance with the Land (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995), 78-79. See also Denise Magnani, “The Winterthur Garden: A Romantic Modern Masterpiece,” Winterthur Magazine (Winter 2002): 14-19; and Karen Kegelman, “‘Color is the thing’: Enjoying H.F. du Pont’s Landscape Design, Inside and Out,” Winterthur Magazine (Winter 2003): 8-35.
7 Jeanne Marie Teutonico, “Marian Cruger Coffin: The Long Island Estates; A Study of the Early Work of a Pioneering Woman in American Landscape Architecture” (master’s thesis, Columbia University, 1983), 40.
8 It was after seeing Sleeper’s house in Gloucester that du Pont decided to build his “American house” in Southampton. H.F. du Pont, “Forward,” v. Sleeper also assisted du Pont with Winterthur until they had a falling out because du Pont thought Sleeper was not putting in enough hours of work. But while working together into the late 1920s, the two men held a shared aesthetic vision. In a letter to Sleeper about lighting dating to 1925, du Pont describes his own taste as “conventional” when compared with the more eclectic taste of Sleeper: “I find your lights are so delightfully arranged—so cleverly placed with always some definite effect in mind—that it makes me quite desperate about my perfectly conventional arrangement of lights.” H.F. du Pont to Sleeper, H.F. du Pont Archives, Winterthur Library, Winterthur, DE, July 7, 1925. Hereafter, referred to as du Pont Archives. As late as 1928, the men still seemed to be working well together. Sleeper wrote to du Pont, “Confidently, it helps me immensely to feel that my client thinks I am doing the right thing and has confidence in my taste. I have so constantly to do things that I do not like much and would not do in my own house [for other clients] that I look forward with much excitement to helping you with your house.” Sleeper to H.F. du Pont, October 26, 1928, du Pont Archives
9 Paul Hollister, Beauport at Gloucester: The Most Fascinating House in America (New York: Hastings House, 1951), 1.
10 Philip Hayden, “Henry Davis Sleeper: A Chronology,” in Beauport: The Sleeper-McCann House (Boston: Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, 1990), 103-104.
11 In this letter, Sleeper advised du Pont to make a “very attractive and interesting room” by placing a flat arch at the end of a barrel-vaulted ceilings in one of his rooms. Sleeper declares, “No doubt the architect might resist this idea as not being perfectly regular, but unless you insist upon the seeming eccentricities, I think the room might look too Georgian and ordinary.” Sleeper notes in the same letter that du Pont shared this vision: “If the idea strikes your fancy, however, as you were kind enough to suggest the other day that it did, I know you will have tact and ingenuity enough to manage it.” Sleeper to Du Pont, September 2, 1924, du Pont Archives.
12 Philip Hayden, “Beauport, Gloucester, Massachusetts,” Antiques (March 1986): 623.
13 Paul Hollister, Beauport at Gloucester: The Most Fascinating House in America (New York: Hastings House, 1951), 6.
15 Paul Hollister, “The Building of Beauport, 1907-1924,” American Art Journal (Winter 1981): 86.
17 Hollister, Beauport at Gloucester, 10.
18 Margaret Lathrop Law, “The Hooked Rugs of Nova Scotia: A Rapidly Developing Industry Indigenous to North America,” House Beautiful (July 1928): 58.
19 For a summary of this hooked rug market, as well as its connection to modern art, see my book, Cynthia Fowler, Hooked Rugs: Encounters in American Modern Art, Craft and Design (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013).
20 See Burnham’s advertisement reproduced in Jessie Turbayne, Hooked Rugs: History and the Continuing Tradition (Westchester, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1991), 98.
21 R.W. Burnham to H.F. du Pont, December 1, 1928, du Pont Archives.
22 Tiffany Studios to H.F. du Pont, July 2, 1929, du Pont Archives. Du Pont also purchased rugs from Tiffany Studios and used the studios to have his rugs cleaned and repaired.
23 Antiques Magazine published an advance listing of objects on auction. See Antiques Magazine v, no. 5 (May 1924). A copy of the listing in the du Pont Archives is filled with notations on prices for rugs and other objects that du Pont was apparently interested in purchasing. For more on Nutting, see Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
24 H.F. du Pont to Caswell Barrie, October 3, 1924, du Pont Archives. Barrie apparently found the rugs du Pont was looking and had them delivered to the Tiffany Studios where du Pont was to pick them up. Barrie to H.F. du Pont, November 25, 1925, du Pont Archives.
25 Ayer’s letters to du Pont were not completely out of the blue; he had a connection to du Pont through F.W. Pickard, one of du Pont’s vice presidents.
26 Ayer was founder and president of Eastern Manufacturing Company in Brewer, Maine. See Pauleena MacDougall, “The Life and Career of Bangor’s Frederick Wellington Ayer (1855-1936),” Maine History 45, no. 1 (December 2009): 49-52.
27 F.W. Ayer to H.F. du Pont, August 9, 1930, du Pont Archives.
28 F.W. Ayer to H.F. du Pont, August 9, 1930, du Pont Archives.
29 H.F. du Pont to F.W. Ayer, August 15, 1930, du Pont Archives.
30 H.F. du Pont to F.W. Ayer, September 15, 1930, du Pont Archives. In this letter, du Pont writes that he was sending “the balance due” on the rugs. He may have paid additional monies previously.
31 H.F. du Pont to Stephen Van Rensselaer, August 11, 1925, du Pont Archives.
32 Memorandum, Stephen Van Rensselaer to H.F. du Pont, May 25, 1928, du Pont Archives. Louise Crowninshield also shopped at Van Rensselaer’s shop and is mentioned in correspondence between the two men.
33 H.F. du Pont to Stephen Van Rensselaer, June 4, 1928, du Pont Archives.
34 Robert Hall to H.F. du Pont, September 12, 1930, du Pont Archives.
35 H.F. du Pont to Robert Hall, September 19, 1930, du Pont Archives.
36 The catalog is quite extensive, so almost certainly not solely the work of du Pont, but there is no evidence of who put it together or wrote the notes.
37 A Brief Description of the Old Hooked Rugs in Chestertown House, Southampton, Long Island (Winterthur Museum unpublished catalog, n.p., n.d.). Each rug is catalogued with a number. This is rug number 1793.
39 Rug number 1019 in A Brief Description of the Old Hooked Rugs.
40 The accession numbers are 1964.0796 and 1964.0797.
41 Mildred Cole Péladeau, Art Underfoot: The Story of Waldoboro Hooked Rugs (Lowell, MA: American Textile History Museum, 1999), 5. I am indebted to Millie Péladeau for her willingness to share her research with me when I first began my own work on hooked rugs.
42 Rug number 813 in A Brief Description of the Old Hooked Rugs. Although described as having a “conventionalized leaf, acorn and berry design” in the catalog, the rug design is quite unusual for a hooked rug.
43 From the photograph, the central medallion looks red, but it is described as pink in the catalog.
44 A Brief Description of the Old Hooked Rugs.
45 Rug number 2657 in A Brief Description of the Old Hooked Rugs.
46 These are the colors identified in A Brief Description of the Old Hooked Rugs.
48 Ibid. Originating from Central Asia, Khiva Bokhara rugs were a popular type of Oriental rug.
49 Joshua Ruff and William Ayres, “H.F. du Pont’s Chestertown House, Southampton, New York,” The Magazine Antiques (July 2001): 103.
50 Rug number 8499 in A Brief Description of the Old Hooked Rugs. It is one of the only rugs in which no information is given on where it was displayed at Chestertown. Perhaps du Pont concluded that the rug was too precious to use.
51 A Brief Description of the Old Hooked Rugs.
52 Rug number 6415 in A Brief Description of the Old Hooked Rugs.
54 Wendy Cooper, An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur Museum (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2002), 17.
55 Cantor, Winterthur, 119.
56 I have identified three of the four rugs from A Brief Description of the Old Hooked Rugs. They are rug numbers 402, 403, and 404.
57 Joseph Downs and Alice Winchester, The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware (New York: The Magazine Antiques, 1951), 39.
58 Along the same line, Rosemary Krill and Maria Shevzou make efforts to expand the story of Winterthur by including the voices of enslaved builders, tenants, the wealthy first owners and subsequent owners of the Montmorenci House (in Warren County near Inez, North Carolina) in their consideration of the architectural elements of Montmorenci that ended up at Winterthur. See Rosemary Krill and Maria Shevzou, “The Transformation of Montmorenci,” Winterthur Portfolio 51, no. 4 (2017): 201-249.
59 See Eileen Boris, “Crafts Shop or Sweatshop? The Uses and Abuses of Craftsmanship in Twentieth-Century America,” Journal of Design History 2, nos. 2-3 (1989): 175-92.
60 Du Pont, “Forward,” vi.
61 Cantor, Winterthur, 32.
62 The Last Will and Testament of H.F. du Pont (photocopy, du Pont Archives) (first draft, July 9, 1952; final draft February 29, 1964), 69. Du Pont was quite specific about which rugs were to go to Winterthur from Southampton upon the death of Mrs. du Pont. He rejected only a few of the rugs from Chestertown House, noting, “A very few of these rugs due to their recent date might not be needed in the Museum.” In another example of his consideration of the rugs in relation to color, in his will, he identified the rugs to be moved to Winterthur from Mrs. du Pont’s bedroom and vestibule as the “hooked rugs with blue predominating.” He specifically noted that hooked rugs at Winterthur should be exhibited in the Commons Room, Red Lion Entrance Hall, Historical Blue China Room, Glass Room, fifth floor, Portsmouth Room and fourth floor rooms. Unfortunately, many of the hooked rugs that du Pont might have wanted to preserve are no longer part of the Winterthur collection.