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March 1, 2013

Governor’s Palace Revolutionary Re-decoration Roars Rich and Regal Red

Make no mistake about it. It’s red!

The new rich and vibrant crimson wall coverings in the upper middle room of the Governor’s Palace are striking to new and returning guests. It is quite a change from the gilt leather wall coverings that adorned those walls for decades. The new décor is in keeping with customary practice in the latter part of the 18th century, elevating the importance of the space over other rooms in the house.

“Period documents indicate that the furnishings were replaced with backstools upholstered in crimson damask and two looking glasses with red gilded frames during Francis Fauquier’s 10-year term as colonial governor,” said Colonial Williamsburg curator Margaret Pritchard. “Later documents confirm that the windows were hung with crimson damask curtains that likely matched the chairs, as was the current fashion.”

Fashion of the time also would have favored hanging the walls with crimson damask to match the chairs and windows. Chairs covered with figured damask frequently coordinated with the wall treatments, capturing the elegant nature of formal spaces. It is very unlikely that when updating all of the other furnishings they would have retained leather that was perhaps approaching 40 years old.

In 1710, the Virginia Council submitted a proposal for furnishing the Governor’s Palace — a document that specified “that the great Room in the second Story be furnished with gilt Leather hangings, 16 Chairs of the same.” It is the only period reference that has come to light for any type of wall treatment in that space.

“Although no one ever commented on the appearance of the upper middle room during the 18th century, ‘Chairs of the same’ — gilt leather chairs — were used in the space until Governor Fauquier’s residency, so it is logical to assume that gilt leather was hung on the walls initially,” Pritchard added. When the Governor’s Palace was reconstructed in the 1930s, gilt leather covered the walls, but the leather had reached the end of its useful life and the decision was made to replace it with a Revolutionary-era wall covering.

Color was often used during the period to elevate the status of a particular room and the conventional color for the most formal reception spaces was crimson, and in most cases, it was reserved for persons of noble birth and rank. There are several crimson “power rooms” documentable to the 18th century.

The current installation of damask hangings was hung as closely as possible to the way that it would have been attached during the period. Because the current walls are plaster, a canvas layer was glued in place in the new installation. Once the walls were covered in canvas, one length of the damask fabric was secured in place and subsequent panels stitched to each other in sequence around the room by Colonial Williamsburg upholstery conservator Leroy Graves.

Decorative borders originated as the means for hiding tacks that fixed textile hangings in place on wooden walls. Tapes and braids were commonly used as well as carved and gilded wooden fillets. A less costly option to carved and gilded wooden borders involved gilded or colored moldings made of papier mâché, the only three-dimensional borders known to have been used in the colonies. Included in the supplies that Lord Botetourt ordered to redecorate the ballroom and supper room of the Governor’s Palace in 1768 was gilt molding. Several factors suggest that Botetourt’s border was papier mâché rather than wood. Significantly, the price that Botetourt paid for his borders correlates precisely with charges incurred by others for papier mâché borders.

The design for the gilded border was reproduced for the middle room by David Blanchfield, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of conservation. The design is based on surviving papier mâché examples discovered in Charleston, S.C., and in Portsmouth, N.H.

The Governor’s Palace is open to ticketed Colonial Williamsburg guests seven days a week. Hours vary slightly on a seasonal basis.

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley