Wonders of Winterthur

I am still processing Winterthur, so this is a rather premature post, but I wanted to get my first impressions and thoughts out there and sometimes posting is processing! It was just so wonderful, in so many ways, especially as my friends and I toured its many period rooms in the company of Wendy A. Cooper, Curator Emerita of Furniture and conservator Christine Thomson. If the majesty of the rooms and their furnishings was not enough, the commentary of these two brilliant women on style, detail, condition, context, and provenance provided a soundtrack of sorts which enhanced the whole experience. And we got to go where more scheduled tours could not–which is always fun: if we did not make it through Winterthur’s 175 rooms, we came pretty close, and by the time of the closing bell we were on the top floor. While Ms. Cooper’s specialty is furniture, she seemed to have a mastery of every object in every room, as well as the history of Winterthur itself, so the takeaway was a very personal, even intimate, view of both the museum, its collections, and its founder, Henry (Harry) Francis du Pont (1880-1969). During our tour, I was so focused on absorbing every little detail that I didn’t really process, but afterwards, and all this week, I kept comparing Winterthur to another famous house museum, across the pond: Sir John Soane’s Museum. I needed context, I needed a comparison, and while I know that Winterthur is comprised of parts of many different houses and inspired more by the tradition of installing period rooms that started right here in Salem with George Francis Dow’s exhibits at the Essex Institute and Soane’s (much smaller) house is uniquely his place and collection, and fixed at a more exact point in time, the two houses seem both stuffed and the stuff of very personal passions for collecting: materialistic rather than “scientific” wunderkammers.


the_south_drawing_room_derry_moorePort Royal Parlor at Winterthur and South Drawing Room at Sir John Soane’s Museum, photograph by Derry More.

The personal was my window into Winterthur: somehow stories of Mr. du Pont entertaining antique dealers over dinner and then proceeding to invite them to help rearrange the furniture reminded me of the more eccentric Mr. Soane. As I did when I first visited the London museum, I really felt the stamp of Mr. du Pont on Winterthur: period rooms can be rather cold, detached places (as they are literally detached), but Winterthur felt warm. The big, showy parlors and dining rooms of the main floors less so than the upper stories, but still, altogether an inviting installation—impressive for a museum of such scale.










20190427_145051So many rooms—and stuff—for eating and drinking, of course, but dining rooms can be very revealing in their details. After the famous Chinese Parlor are several shots of the Du Pont Dining Room, with the Derby family’s green knives and knife boxes (+ McIntire chairs and Needham secretary, and adjacent candlestick closet. I can’t remember the name of the second, simple dining room, which is one of my favorite Winterthur rooms, but the photograph just above is of Queen Anne Dining Room, which really represents Mr. du Pont’s creative abilities (as well as his collecting efforts).

Some more observations and thoughts not yet fully developed, impressions: you really have to put your New England preferences aside and pay tribute to Philadelphia and New York furniture when you visit Winterthur (particularly the former, wow), but Mr. du Pont seems to have been just as passionate a collector of American (or should I say eastern American) folk art as high-style furniture. I knew I could get pictures of the grand rooms from the Winterthur website (plus they have a great digital database) so I took pictures of lots of little things that caught my eye (see some below). How many eagles are there in Winterthur? They seemed to be everywhere. And tea tables! Apparently Mr. du Pont’s collections started with pink transferware and he continued to assemble pottery collections with great conviction: there are several rooms devoted entirely to a variety of wares, even spatterware. And yes, parochial person that I am, I did seek out Salem items, which were not hard to find: there’s a whole room dedicated to McIntire, and other pieces scattered around. In just one room, of painted furniture pretty high up, Ms. Cooper casually pointed out a lovely silk chimneypiece embroidered by Sarah Derby Gardner and a Silsbee chair. The Du Pont Dining Room (above) featured not only knives from the Derby family, but also some McIntire side chairs, and an amazing secretary/bookcase made by Nehemiah Adams. In his own suite of rooms, Mr. du Pont worked on another Salem secretary, with a Nathaniel Gould chest of drawers nearby. An entire room is wallpapered with a mural painted by Michel Felice Corné for the Lindall-Barnard-Andrews House at 393 Essex Street in Salem.

Winterthur Secretery best





Winterthur eagle



Winterthur Tea Collage






20190427_160227The Montmorenci stair, taken from a North Carolina house, replaced the “baronial” staircase which Mr. du Pont’s father installed. Folk objects and images, just a few tea tables, and just one china room. Several Salem items: the chimneypiece embroidered by Sarah Derby Gardner, a Silsbee chair, Mr. du Pont’s secretary (and bed), and the Corné mural from the Lindall-Barnard-Andrews House.

I could go on and on and on, but I’m going to wrap it up with just a few more of my favorite things/rooms, in no particular order. I really loved the William and Mary Parlor, pretty much every image of George Washington (and there were many), the detail on an otherwise simple chest of drawers, two pastels by John Singleton Copley of himself and his wife (and the amazing high-style parlor which they overlook), a very early billiards table, and an elegant curved settee for which Mr. du Pont built a wall. And just to bring in a touch of a real wunderkammer, a wonderful little anatomical plate.











16 responses to “Wonders of Winterthur

  • furniturerestorer

    Great to see these images as well as your report.
    As my research into the Cadwalader family furniture of Philadelphia circ 1768 to 71 your image’s have been very interesting as sometime you can learn more that those collection images.
    Can’t wait to see and read more as it’s a place to go on my bucket list as well as talking to Wendy Copper.

  • Helen sides

    Keep it coming Donna!

  • Eilene Lyon

    Wow, what a collection! Great pictures. I liked those stairway shots. Don’t think I’d want to eat anything off that plate in the last photo. This is all stuff I know nothing about, so I really enjoy your commentary on everything.

  • carol

    WOW! There was so much to process – thank you for recording our amazing visit. We visited so many rooms that I had forgotten some of them pictured!!!!

  • Laura L Graham

    Wonderful, beautiful, and interesting! I’ve looked at these several times and always seem to see something new. Thanks!

  • Brian Bixby

    I’m a sucker for curving stairs, myself.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks (writ large) for the fabulous tour of Winterthur. Given your interest in architecture, furnishings, and material culture, you must have been thrilled.

    I too liked that “simple” little dining room with the green goblets, something like the servants’ dining room in Downton Abbey if you recall. And let’s not forget the candlestick closet – all good.

    Looking forward to more about Winterthur…

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks (writ large) for the fabulous tour of Winterthur. Given your interest in architecture, furnishings, and material culture, you must have been thrilled.

    I too liked that “simple” little dining room with the green goblets, something like the servants’ dining room in Downton Abbey if you recall. And let’s not forget the candlestick closet – all good.

    Looking forward to more about Winterthur…

  • Warren M. "Renny" Little

    There is a canopy bed on display at Cogswells Grant
    (Historic New England’s property at the end of Spring St. in Essex)
    that Harry duPont told his curator that he had failed to purchase
    for Winterthur. They were visiting with the Walpole Society and were
    sorry to find that the Littles had found it first. The duPonts and the
    Littles were good friends and had many common antiquarian interests although different tastes in their collections and ideas on “period rooms.”

    • daseger

      Thank you! I will sure to look out for it when I visit Cogswells Grant next month! Actually, I’ve heard several stories about failed duPont purchases since I wrote this post–all very interesting.

      • renlittle

        The bed is on the second floor in the master bedroom. Visitors wonder why the beds aren’t twins. This wasn’t the case at the time in history.
        Have a nice trip! As for “period rooms”, remember that the house is furnished with the Little’s collections and are just as they left it. Look for the TV set in the living room and don’t be intimidated by the “wall to wall primitives” in my old room.

      • daseger

        I have been before, but the current site manager is a friend of mine, so I’m hoping for a private tour as my Winterthur experience taught me the value of those! And thanks for your special insights too!

  • renlittle

    Give my best to Kristen. A old friend, she is doing a great job of keeping “the Farm” going. Under her leadership, I have the opportunity to visit the house without having to wear the “booties.” Look for the family comments in the desk in the upstairs hall.

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