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Winter Comforts: The French Fauteuil at Monticello and Gale Hill

Diane Ehrenpreis

Winter at Monticello brings with it a solitary, clear beauty, with vistas that stretch for miles. When the shutters weren’t closed to contain the warmth, family, guests, and enslaved servants might have admired the snowy views out of the numerous large windows, but this pleasure was certainly tempered by the cold they endured. Limited heat cast by stoves and fireplaces, made some rooms moderately comfortable by today’s standards. However, the need for warmth made for a communal lifestyle, with people gathered not only in one room but close up round the fire. The Parlor was one such chamber where family and guests would congregate. Documentary evidence indicates that the Parlor at Monticello contained oil paintings, looking glasses, sconces, marble-topped tables, and some of the seating that Thomas Jefferson purchased in France in the late 1780s. Eventually, on another winter day at Monticello in January, 1827, a large portion of the public furnishings of the house was sold at auction, including at least six French armchairs. A recent discovery regarding these chairs sheds new light on what happened to some of Jefferson’s possessions after they were sold at auction, and how the new owners used and valued the chairs that once belonged to their neighbor, Thomas Jefferson.  

John A. G. Davis (1802-1840), a Charlottesville attorney, attended the 1827 Estate Sale at Monticello, where he purchased six French armchairs. Davis became a Professor of Law at the University of Virginia in 1830, serving until his untimely death after an altercation on the Lawn with an armed student in 1840. Family history relates that two of the chairs were for Davis and his wife, Mary Jane Terrell (1803-1879), Jefferson’s great niece.  A pair each went to two of Mrs. Davis’s sisters. Four of the six chairs have returned to Monticello, and two of the chairs (1946-3-1 & -2), those belonging to Martha Jefferson Terrell Minor, are currently installed in the parlor.

The Davis and Minor-Caskie families of Charlottesville and Gale Hill, Albemarle County, took especial care in not only preserving the armchairs, but also the oral history associating them with Jefferson. Thanks to Mr. Jasper Burns, a Minor-Caskie family descendent and historian, a remarkable letter with a passage about the Monticello chairs has recently come to light. It was written in the winter of 1892, and describes a setting and ambiance at Gale Hill that is likely similar to that of Monticello earlier in the century. Note that the author, Susan Colston Minor, describes the chairs as having been owned by Marie Antoinette, which is now known to be an erroneous embellishment on top of the Jefferson provenance.

As we came up to the house, the bright dancing light from the wood fire streamed out across the verandah - through the French windows - and we were more cheerful immediately - and ran up the steps, expecting to find all of the others sitting in the parlor, but they were still Hero-worshipping - so Sally and I had a little delicious chat in the fire light - sitting in those chairs of Marie Antoinette - and when she went out after a little while, leaving me alone, I fell into a dream - with my eyes open - looking into the fire - and wondering what scenes those same little chairs had graced - and could almost see the gracious ladies and courteous gentlemen who had probably occupied them. . .We got the guitar and they all assembled and we had some rousing songs - until supper after which, we adjourned to the sitting room - where we talked and worked on some things for Christmas until quite late.  --Dec. 4, 1892, Susan Colston Minor to John Wilson. Papers of the Minor and Wilson Family, Accession #38-602, 3750, 3750-a, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va, As quoted by Jasper Burns, “Gale Hill” web page.

Susan Colston Minor’s description of the parlor on a winter’s eve evokes not only how welcome the parlor fire was, but how the chairs were arranged around it. Minor also gives a good indication of some of the ways Virginians passed the time together in the winter, playing guitar and singing, making gifts, and talking. There was even time for reverie by the fire, while others in the house doted on a little nephew. All of this activity, so richly articulated here, is remarkably similar to what the family at Monticello might have experienced in their parlor generations earlier. It should also be noted that both households used the French armchairs in prominent locations, signaling both the taste and storied lineage of the owners.

Parlor at Gale Hill, Albemarle County, VAThe “little chairs” that Susan Colston Minor described are known in France as fauteuil en cabriolet, an upholstered chair with arms and a curved back. To modern eyes it appears not only delicate in form, but diminutive in proportions, making it less like comfortable seating and more like sculpture. But for the society for which it was intended, and for the next few generations, a chair such as this offered a high level of comfort and ease due to the incurvate back and padded upholstery on the seat, back and arms. The lack of height and breadth was not considered an impediment to one eager to take a few moments of rest by the fire.

In addition to the letter, Mr. Burns has shared a remarkable photograph of the parlor at Gale Hill, c. 1917, then the home of Margaret Lee Minor Caskie and her husband Jaquelin Ambler Caskie.  Two of Jefferson’s French fauteuils are in the parlor, much as Susan Colston Minor described twenty years earlier. As if illustrating her observations, the family has ranged the chairs around the fire for warmth and sociability.  The sense of a familial moment is reinforced by the presence of a mother caring for  twofor two young children, the patriarch warming himself by the fire, and the young husband reading the newspaper, apparently having just risen from one of the armchairs. This image not only tells us how the Minor-Caskie family used these chairs, but also evokes how the Jefferson family would have used these chairs at Monticello one hundred years earlier. Particularly interesting, is the evidence that tall men, much like Thomas Jefferson himself, did actually take their leisure in such diminutive forms as the French fauteuil en cabriolet.

In Jefferson’s time winter at Monticello meant a time of near repose, when fewer visitors made their way up the mountain, and the family gathered together for warmth and sociability. However, those visitors who did venture up the mountain were well-rewarded for their efforts, with a chair, perhaps a French chair, by the fire and a place in the circle. You too are invited to make the journey to Monticello this winter to see the fauteuil en cabriolet and other discoveries.…..

Provenance: Acquired by Thomas Jefferson in Paris, ca. 1785; by purchase to Prof. John A. G. Davis at the Dispersal Sale, 1827; presumably by gift to Martha Jefferson Terrell Minor [TJ’s great niece and Prof. Davis’s sister-in-law]; by descent to Margaret Lee Minor Caskie [of Gale Hill]; (1946-3-2) by sale to Governor William MacCorkle; by purchase at MacCorkle estate sale by Jessie Moffat Bloch; by gift to TJF; (1946-3-1) by purchase to Mrs. Hollins N. Randolph; by purchase to TJF


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