Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Situated on the bluffs high above the point where the Dan and Stanton Rivers converge in Southside, Virginia, is the family house of English-born Sir Peyton Skipwith (1740-1805). Built by slave labor in 1794 in a post-revolutionary Georgian style, Prestwould Plantation prospered to become one of the wealthiest properties in America and today remains the most complete gentry home in Virginia. When the house was built, the countryside (now Mecklenburg County) surrounding it was practically a frontier. There are original stone walls and metal gates surrounding the lawn, and a huge oak tree still stands watch over the river banks. Many of the original outbuildings and Lady Jean's Garden remain, and the original two-family slave house still stands on the manor house property. The site has one of the largest collections of slave writings in the country. Detailing life from the plantation from the slave perspective, it has attracted much scholarly attention.
Orchestrated by Dr. Julian Hudson, the Executive Director of Prestwould, several leaders in the preservation movement have worked closely together to restore one of America's finest historic sites. Considered one of the most documented non-political American families, the Skipwiths left an incredible trail of paperwork including books, diaries, detailed invoices, letters, certificates, etc. After spending the majority of her life in Britain, Jean Miller returned to Virginia in 1786 in preparation for her marriage in 1788 to Sir Peyton Skipwith. With her she brought enough glass and ceramic tablewares, cooking implements, flatware, fire tools, lighting devices, and table and bed linens to admirably furnish a large house, clearly wishing to duplicate the British gentry's style of life to which she was accustomed. Lady Jean Skipwith ran the plantation after her husband died in 1805; her library was one of the largest assembled by a woman in America.
Prestwould Plantation contains over 5 generations of decorative history. The legacy began with Lady Jean's English influences as reflected in her wallpaper selections of delicate, small scale, repetitive, leaf designs such as "Angle Leaf" that was installed on the dining room walls. She was particularly fond of green colors, which included arsenic green. In sharp contrast to the light and airy fashions of the late 18th century, Humbertson Skipwith and his wife Leila Robertson, the second generation, transformed the interior decoration in 1831 to the bold, masculine neoclassical style. Richly colored, wool flocked broad borders, side papers, and three magnificent sets of block printed scenics were imported from France to grace the walls of Prestwould. One of the most spectacular rooms to view the 1831 French papers, grained walls, richly carved and painted furniture, and red moreen seat covers is the first floor family room called The Saloon, measuring 27 by 23 feet.
Among the most remarkable features of Prestwould is the large number of documented Skipwith family furnishings that survive. They offer an intimate view of the gentry's way of life in the Virginia Piedmont just after the American Revolution, and they reveal much about the trade network that supported the comfortable standard of living on comparatively remote estates such as this. When Prestwould was completed in 1795, the Skipwiths began a furnishing campaign that lasted several years. From London came wallpapers; Scotch, Brussels, and Kidderminster carpets and accompanying borders; substantial quantities of "furniture callicoe" and "Sattin hair cloth" for upholstery; and furniture that included "a Pair [of] large Pier Glasses, fitted up in handsome gilt Pillar Molding Frames." The looking glasses arrived late in 1799 and remain in the drawing room today.
Also still in the house is the pair of "new British Globes with Compasses in Standing Mahogany Frames." Made in London of plaster and papier-mache, they cost more than fifteen pounds, a substantial sum at the time. Other surviving British furnishings include an unsigned clock of about 1800, now on the parlor mantel, and a mahogany clothespress of about 1775 with the painted mark "HM" for Hugh Miller (d.c. 1761), Lady Skipwith's father, a Scottish merchant. The Skipwiths' family ties must have facilitated their access to many British goods.
Tradition has it that Sir Peyton Skipwith won the land on which Prestwould was built (5,342 acres) from William Byrd III in a marathon poker game. A manor house such as Prestwould was not easy to build in the late 1700s. Stone and wood were abundant, but all hardware, paint, wallpaper and rugs had to be ordered from England. The lime-sandstone used to build the house was quarried from the plantation, and the lumber came from the property, as well. The stone construction is unusual for a manor house of the period, when most great houses were built of brick or wood. The house has a hip roof and porches on three sides. The windows have nine over nine light sash (six over six on the upper floor). Other original buildings include a gazebo, a plantation business office, a loom house, slave house, meat house, and a spring house. The original landscape plans are intact and are illustrated in a free brochure available when touring the estate. All doors/frames and windows/frames are original, and all of the original hardware remains intact. Original to the house, an early punkah (Indian-style fan) was suspended from the ceiling of the dining room (see photograph). Slaves or servants would pull the fan back and forth by one or two ropes, providing cooling to the diners while keeping flies and other insects off the food below.
Outwardly conventional, the house is distinguished from earlier American mansions by a marked division between rooms used for entertainment, family life, and service. This was played out in the creation of distinct zones for each activity. The hall was the only true public room, and it was here that access to the different realms was regulated. The west side of the first floor housed reception rooms, along with the saloon beyond. Private family quarters were placed to the east, with additional bedrooms and a nursery on the second floor. A side door and secondary staircase provide direct service to the dining room and upper bedrooms. Servants were relegated to outbuildings and the cellar, where there is a large central room resembling an English servants' hall, along with two well-finished, heated rooms that were probably quarters for high-ranking household staff.
Photos: Octagonal garden summer house and slave house.
With all her many accomplishments, Lady Jean Skipwith is best known today as the mistress of one of the most important gardens of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The detailed records she kept of her garden at Prestwould make it one of the best-documented gardens of the period and were invaluable to the Garden Club of Virginia, which undertook an interpretive restoration in 1980. The plan, consisting of a grid of walks with garden beds in between, is quite like the kitchen gardens of James River and other southern plantations, but several elements show that it was carefully adapted to Lady Skipwith's needs as a plant collector and experimenter. A traditional garden, for instance, would have been on axis with the main hallway of the house, but at Prestwould the garden is sited along the east side of the house, visible from the entrance drive, as if to make a statement that gardening was a separate and special activity at the plantation. The north-south central walk in the garden is fifteen feet wide, to accommodate a pony cart, and extends the length of the lot, 630 feet. Three crosswalks, also fifteen feet wide, traverse the 230-foot width, dividing the garden into six beds. The central crosswalk continues through an orchard to the walled graveyard. Customarily, a summerhouse was placed at the end of one of the garden walks, but Lady Skipwith's summerhouse, complete with a cellar for the storage of roots and plants, was situated to one side of the main walk. Here she spent many hours, reading and keeping the plantation books and her garden journal.
Visitors to Prestwould Plantation, on the north side of the Roanoke River (Kerr Reservoir) opposite Clarksville in south-central Virginia, can enjoy the gardens and octagonal summer house (photo above), separate office house, loom house, slave garden and more. The house is open for tours May 1 through October 31 and is the site for various festivals and weddings. Prestwould is located three miles north of Clarksville on US15, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2003.
Call Edith at 434-374-8672.
The following photographs are of the front facing the river (the "social" facade); the first photo at the top of this post is of the land facing, or "business" facade. Note that all three porches (front, back, side) are of identical design. The black and white photograph shows the river facade of the manor house before the most recent restoration.