Williamsburg's decorative-arts gallery

COLONIAL Williamsburg has a new museum, one that superbly displays the 8,000 English and American decorative objects that visitors do not see as they trudge around the restored buildings of this historic area, which served as Virginia's capital from 1699 to 1780. It is called the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery, in memory of the late founder of the Reader's Digest. Mr. Wallace and his wife, the late Lila Acheson Wallace, donated $14 million toward the completion of this $17 million decorative-arts gallery, plus a generous endowment to help maintain it.

Chief curator Graham Hood explains that in the historic houses of Colonial Williamsburg, the furniture and objects are viewed primarily in their utilitarian roles.

``In the new museum, they are displayed in a more aesthetic light, where they may be viewed up close and appreciated for their intrinsic beauty, craftsmanship, scale, proportion, and design.''

The museum covers approximately 22,000 square feet, some of it underground. Designed by architect Kevin Roche, the new, modern museum was planned not only to accommodate the more casual interest of some visitors but also the far-reaching concern of antiquarians, serious collectors, students, and scholars.

The museum stands next to the reconstructed Colonial-era Public Hospital, which opened this spring. The hospital, destroyed by fire in 1885, was rebuilt on its original 1773 foundations. It represents the last major public building to be reconstructed in Williamsburg, completing the ensemble of structures that were here before the Revolution.

The visitor, in fact, enters the new two-level museum through the Public Hospital, which functions as a transition from the Williamsburg Historic area to the contemporary structure. An underground passage then serves as an introductory gallery to the museum itself. Here one gets a first glimpse of what constitutes the decorative arts, with one or two good examples of each category, including furniture, prints, textiles, ceramics, metals, and mechanical objects, as well as cutaway portions of an 18th-century Virginia dining room and an upholsterer's shop of the period.

The first experience in the museum itself is the dramatic Masterworks Gallery, rising above a tiered stone staircase to the second level through a colonnaded skylit atrium. One hundred fifty objects representing the highest achievement of English and American artisans from the 1640s to about 1800 surround the atrium, demonstrating the evolution of styles in both countries.

In addition, the visitor can proceed, at his own pace, through 10 other galleries on both levels which are especially planned for displaying furniture, ceramics, textiles, paintings, and prints, plus silver, pewter, and other objects including clocks, scientific instruments, mechanical devices, and weapons.

The print gallery alone holds more than 3,000 English and American prints and maps, organized by subject matter and mounted on sliding racks. Here one can view Paul Revere's ``Boston Massacre'' or the first edition of Mark Catesby's ``Natural History.''

Other treasures that will come before the eye as one tours the various galleries include the following items as illustrated on the previous page.

A tall case clock whose movement was made in London by the esteemed clockmaker Thomas Tompion about 1700 and set in a handsome walnut-veneered case. The clock, made for King William III and passed down to all succeeding English monarchs through Queen Victoria, is considered the most important clock in the Colonial Williamsburg collection.

An English settee and armchairs that are among the finest surviving English 18th-century chinoiserie pieces to be used in Colonial America.

A monumental ``platt menage'' made of white creamware at the Leeds Pottery in Leeds, England, about 1770, to serve as a dining table centerpiece with cruets, castors, and sweetmeat holders.

An exceptional mahogany chest-on-chest made by Philadelphia cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck in 1775, which represents the highest level of American 18th-century craftsmanship in wood. It survives in its original condition, including finial and rococo brasses.

A full-length oil-on-canvas portrait of George Washington painted in Philadelphia in 1780 by Charles Willson Peale. Peale consciously chose a pose of the Commander in Chief similar to that of King George III in his coronation portrait, indicating, both earnestly and satirically, that the New World also had its heroes and great figures.

Mr. Hood explains that the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has for many years been acquiring such major examples and whole collections of objects and artifacts from the late 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Many have been used in furnishing the buildings of the former Colonial capital. And many have been acquired (particularly over the past 15 years) specifically for eventual exhibition and use for study in the Decorative Arts Gallery.

Preservation and restoration of Williamsburg to its 18th-century setting was begun in 1926 by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin. As early as 1933, Colonial Williamsburg began to build an outstanding collection of decorative arts to complement the historic architecture.

The new museum brings to fruition a dream long held not only by Mr. Rockefeller but by successive presidents and curators of Colonial Williamsburg, including Mr. Hood and the current president, Charles Longsworth.

The entire curatorial staff has not only helped plan and coordinate the displays in the new museum but also oversees the 60,000 items of furniture, art, china, glass, silver, textiles, and other functional and decorative objects that furnish the 225 period rooms in the buildings.

About 60 percent of the museum's collection will be on display at a time. The rest will be rotated into the museum through special exhibitions and into the exhibition buildings as a means of giving objects displayed there a rest from light, dust, and general wear and tear.

``When you think that over a million people a year are now going through the buildings, the hard usage does exact a toll,'' Mr. Hood says.

Although the continuing acquisition of such examples gives the foundation additional responsibilities in curatorship, conservation, and fund raising, he says, ``our educational program will be served and enriched by the Wallace Gallery, and it will extend what we teach in the historic area.''

The museum has existed as an idea for at least 20 years, although it was in 1971 that Carlisle H. Humelsine, who was then president, asked the board of trustees to approve the idea of a decorative-arts museum, provided the funds could be found to help pay for it. Mr. Wallace's gift, some years later, enabled the project to go forward.

Another important gift of $1 million from Joseph H. and June S. Hennage of Alexandria, Va., provided for the 4,000-square-foot, 240-seat Hennage Auditorium, which can be used for audiovisual presentations, lectures, demonstrations, conferences, and concerts.

The late 17th- and early 18th-century American furniture collection given by Miodrag and Elizabeth Ridgely Blagojevich form the core of the Blagojevich Furniture Gallery in the museum.

Here regional differences are classified in four distinct styles: English, Northeastern, Middle Atlantic, and Southern. The furniture collection includes a Philadelphia high chest of drawers made by Henry Cliffton in 1753 and a Williamsburg clothes press made by Peter Scott in 1775.

Other objects never shown before include a rare 17th-century English delft figure, a silver gilt candelabrum made by Digby Scott and Benjamin Smith in London in 1805-06, and fine porcelain, including pieces made by Delft, Chelsea, Whieldon, and Wedgwood.

Admission to the Wallace Gallery is included in the overall Patriot's Pass ($19 for adults), but tickets to the museum alone are $5. The museum includes a small garden caf'e and a museum shop for the purchase of books, cards, slides, posters, and authorized reproduction products and is open every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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