Enslaved artisan aided Jefferson in Monticello designs Winterthur conference to discuss contributions of Hemings, other slaves


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - If any piece of furniture at Monticello symbolizes the dexterity of Thomas Jefferson - who inspired his country as gracefully as he grafted peach trees and played the violin - it is the revolving walnut bookstand on the desk in his study.

A lazy susan-style ingenuity made about 1810, it was equipped with five surfaces, which allowed its bookworm owner to keep an equal number of volumes open for instant access.

While Jefferson is famous for his designs, he had a secret collaborator in the creation of the bookstand as well as dozens of other furnishings that grace the quirky villa in central Virginia, three miles southeast of Charlottesville. Jefferson's designs were executed, perhaps even refined, by John Hemings, a slave artisan who managed Monticello's woodwork shop, known as the joiner's shop.

Hemings also worked on many of the significant features of Monticello, the only American home on the United Nations World Heritage List of monuments with universal value. His hands shaped the Chinese Chippendale railings, the arch in Jefferson's study, even the window shutters.

Achievements obscured

And he did all the interior joinery of Jefferson's summer home, the octagonal Poplar Forest in Lynchburg, Va. But in the world of aesthetics, Hemings' achievements - not to mention other contributions by slaves to architecture and home furnishings in the United States - have been obscured.

"People just don't think this stuff is exciting enough," Susan R. Stein, the curator of Monticello, said recently as she pointed to a table made about 1810 in Hemings' workshop. It is a simple piece, a tripod base supporting an octagonal marble tilt-top, but Stein noted its sophisticated trompe l'oeil.

Though the Monticello workshop lacked the tools to carve the table's base into a proper column, its workers came up with an ingenious solution: alternating convex and fluted panels of mahogany to create the illusion of roundness. The designer of the table is unknown, but the attribution does not really matter. It is the quality of the work that compels.

Unfortunately, such feats have been largely unexplored by historians of the decorative arts, Stein said. "They have been traditionally more interested in the complexity and virtuousity of famous cabinetmakers," she said.

Stein and Robert Self, a furniture and architecture conservator at Monticello, will be featured speakers at "Race and Ethnicity in American Material Life," a conference to be held on Oct. 3 and 4 at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del. They will talk about Hemings and his co-workers, whom Stein called "talented artisans who made consequential contributions to the history of cabinetmaking."

The rise in African-American studies has yielded a small but concurrent interest in black contributions to design. Research has brought posthumous prominence talents such as Paul Williams, who designed houses for Hollywood royalty in the 1940s, and Julian Abele, who designed many of the plutocratic palaces attributed to Horace Trumbauer, a society architect of the 1910s and 1920s.

'What else is out there?'

"When you consider the pieces at Monticello, sophisticated work produced on the edge of the frontier, it makes you wonder what else is out there," said Derek Ostergaard, the associate director of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York City.

Not much, says Ronald Hurst, the curator of furniture at Colonial Williamsburg.

Hurst, a co-author of "Southern Furniture, 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection," to be published this fall by Colonial Williamsburg/Harry N. Abrams, said that most of the furniture that slaves made "was used in utility areas like kitchens and dairies" and that "very little of it made its way into the parlor or dining room."

He added that Monticello was an anomaly, a farm whose special conditions allowed fine woodworking to flourish.

"Unlike most other Southern situations, the owner of this plantation was extremely astute in matters of design, and designed the things himself," Hurst said, which was "very much out of character" for the typical landowner of the day.

Also out of character, it seems, was Jefferson's eclectic sense of decor. He proudly set chairs attributed to Georges Jacob, Marie Antoinette's cabinetmaker, alongside chairs from his workshop executed in a bare-bones style that can be described as Blue Ridge Directoire. Neither design suffers in comparison.

Beginning in 1793 when he was 18, Hemings was an apprentice to three white master joiners, who taught him how to make windows, railings, moldings and other decorative bits for Jefferson's ever-expanding house. It is also possible that Hemings, who could read and write, had access to a library of design and architecture books, prints and drawings.

Hemings became the manager of the workshop in 1809, a position he held until Jefferson's death in 1826. Jefferson's will gave him and few other skilled male slaves their freedom.

Hemings died in the Charlottesville area in the 1830s.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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