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Eli Wilner & Company recreates George and Martha Washington's Front Parlor Looking Glass
A portrait of Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis Lewis at Woodlawn Mansion, in its original frame, fully restored by Eli Wilner & Company.

NEW YORK, NY.- In early 2017, Curator Adam Erby contacted Eli Wilner & Company about recreating a looking glass from an archival photo for the front parlor at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Mr. Erby was already familiar with the firm’s capabilities in working from photos, including recreating a large pair of lost overmantle mirrors for Lyndhurst Mansion, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site in Tarrytown, NY.

In this case, the frame in the photo is in fact still in existence, but it is in the possession of another institution, and for various reasons, unavailable for long term loan. George and Martha Washington purchased the original elaborate English neoclassical looking glass from New York City merchants J. & N. Roosevelt on April 15, 1790, during the brief period of time the United States capital was in New York. They moved the mirror with them to Philadelphia for the duration of the presidency and then back to Mount Vernon where it took pride of place in the front parlor. Martha Washington thought so highly of the looking glass that she bequeathed it to her granddaughter Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis Lewis in her will as “the large looking glass in the front Parlour.” It remained in the hands of descendants until they sold it to an institution in the 1870s. The original looking glass had lost many of its original elements and recreating them in the new mirror required careful research and coordination between Erby and the Wilner team.

After several months of discussion and establishing agreements as to how to financially and logistically make this unique project happen, an on-site meeting was arranged to view the original frame in storage in Washington D.C. There, Mr. Erby, along with Williamsburg, Virginia based conservator Thomas Snyder and two members of the Wilner team, took detailed measurements and discussed various observations on the original looking glass, particularly where there appeared to be missing elements and prior restoration attempts. Due to various circumstances, including the missing design elements, this replica would have to be an “inspired copy”.

In January of 2018, Mr. Erby and Senior Curator Susan Schoelwer personally met with the Wilner team at their studio in Long Island City, NY to finalize some subtle details regarding the overall flow of the elaborate crest design. With agreement from all involved regarding the scale and design of the inner frame, the wood profile was shaped and a system designed for securing the mirrored glass into the interior sections of the frame. After carving the lamb’s tongue ornament on the inner frame, and creating rows of beads to be applied, work on the elaborate crest elements was begun. This incredibly intricate and fragile design incorporated wire armature elements to support the delicate hand carved details.

The various elements of the frame and crests were then water gilded in the same manner as the original frame would have been. First, multiple layers of gesso were painted and sanded. This smooth surface was then painted with layers of ochre and red clay to recreate a similar tone to the original. Next gold leaf was applied with a squirrel hair brush and a water/alcohol/glue mixture known as “gilder’s liquor”, and the entire surface was selectively burnished. At the curator’s direction, the surface should look “15 years old”, therefore the finishers did minimal rub to the gilding. This was an unusual challenge for the Wilner studio, as normally the artisans are tasked with making a replica frame look older, rather than newer.

In January of 2019, during a follow up on-site visit to the Wilner studio, one last decision was handed over to Mr. Erby and Dr. Schoelwer to choose from two options of corner straps. Both of the existing frames that were being used as studies for the design were missing their original straps, so further research was done by the Wilner team to offer historically and aesthetically appropriate choices. Though these elements are purely superficial and do not actually function structurally, the width is critical to cover the edges of the glass contained inside. The straps needed to be sufficiently wide for tiny nails to be hammered through to the wood substrate, while maintaining an aesthetic delicacy consistent with the rest of the object. The straps on the original frames were most likely lost because they were only adhered with glue which dried out over time.

Within hours of this final decision, the frame was fully assembled, corner straps and all. The looking glass was then immediately secured inside a travel crate, ready to be shuttled to Mount Vernon by a trusted fine art shipper. In February 2019, the looking glass was officially installed in the front parlor at Mount Vernon and the fully restored room was reopened to the public shortly thereafter on February 16th, 2019, just in time for President’s Day weekend.

Coincidentally, just as the Wilner staff were wrapping up this two-year long project, they were contacted by Abigail Horrigan, Director of Marketing Partnerships, and Carrie Villar, ​Acting Vice President of Historic Sites​ from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to advise on the restoration of frames enclosing four important portraits at Woodlawn Mansion.

Woodlawn, the first site operated by the National Trust, was originally part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. In 1799, he gave the site to his nephew, Lawrence Lewis, and Lewis’ new bride, the aforementioned Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, in hopes of keeping Nelly close to Mount Vernon. The newly-married couple built the Georgian/Federal house designed by William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol.

The frames sent to Eli Wilner & Company for restoration hold portraits of former owners of Woodlawn. In addition to two paintings of Nelly, there is a companion portrait of her husband Lawrence in a matching frame. The fourth frame was for a portrait of Senator Oscar Underwood from Alabama, who lived at the mansion from 1925 until his death in 1929.

The Nelly and Lawrence portraits are always on exhibit and are key parts of the site’s public tour interpretation. The condition of the frames, which included much cracking and losses to ornaments and gilding was beginning to detract from Woodlawn’s overall appearance and visitor experience.

At the Wilner Studio, the four frames were treated as thoughtfully as possible in order to retain the original character of the gilded surfaces. After gentle cleaning and various structural reinforcements, all losses to the ornaments were filled and then patinated to cosmetically blend with the original surface. In April 2019, the frames were reunited with the paintings and are now back on view to the public.

Eli Wilner & Company is extremely proud to add all of these projects to their list of framing accomplishments that have helped in preserving iconic moments and individuals in American History. Their most notable projects include: reframing Emanuel Leutze’s monumental “Washington Crossing the Delaware” for the Metropolitan Museum of Art , a total of 22 projects for the White House, and pairing the flag salvaged from Custer’s Last Stand with a period frame.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation sites: Woodlawn and Lyndhurst Mansion, all directly benefited from Eli Wilner & Company’s philanthropic outreach and museum funding programs. All not-for-profit and government-supported public institutions are invited to submit proposals for historical picture framing projects on an ongoing basis. Proposals are reviewed daily.

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