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Draperies: Make Summer the Season of Change

Celebrate the start of summer the Henry Francis du Pont way—swap out your curtains
Produced by Sally Finder Weepie
  • Photo courtesy of Winterthur/Jim Schneck

    Henry Francis du Pont, an expert on and collector of Early American furniture and decorative pieces—and an accomplished decorator in his own right, was known for his seasonal change-outs of curtains, rugs, and furniture. He was so passionate about matching colors indoors to those outdoors, in fact, that he asked for these seasonal changes to continue after his death. 

    Du Pont turned his family house, Winterthur, into a premier museum of American decorative arts with 175 room settings. Today, as the official start of summer looms, we're celebrating du Pont's draperies—and their seasonal swaps—with a look at The Well-Dressed Window: Curtains at Winterthur by Sandy Brown, just published by The Monacelli Press.

    A great example of du Pont's change-ups is seen in the home's "Blue Room," which shed much of its namesake hue in summer for cheery yet muted shades of red. The color, like a wave of lovely flowers, makes sense for this space, once Ruth Wales du Pont's bedroom, with its breathtaking view of the surrounding garden. The pale blue-green walls play well with the subtle shade of red in the 18th-century linen du Pont selected for the curtains, bed valances, and furniture slipcovers.

     

     

     

     

     

  • Photo courtesy of Winterthur/Jim Schneck

    Part of the suite that included H.F. du Pont's office/sitting room, the Cecil Bedroom personifies the collector's vision and talent as a decorator. A subtle shade of gray-gray on the walls makes a perfect backdrop for New England furnishings in the Queen Anne style. Du Pont had two sets of slipcovers for the easy chair to match seasonal changes of curtains and bedhangings. Beautifully patterned hangings made from four hand-painted Indian palampores drape the slender posts of the bed and windows. Palampores were exported to Europe from India in great numbers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many in the Winterthur collection feature a tree-of-life motif. 

     

     

  • Photo courtesy of Winterthur/Jim Schneck

    Richly colored and beautifully orchestrated, the Chinese Parlor is one of the finest displays of 18th-century American decorative arts arranged for the 20th century. Created from two rooms of the 1839 house, the room was a gathering spot for cocktails and entertaining when the du Ponts were in residence. The wallpaper, featuring scenes of Chinese village life, was a rare find. It was discovered in the possession of a French couple who lived in Versailles, and du Pont later acquired it from decorator and historian Nancy McClelland. During winter and summer, the curtains are yellow silk taffeta trimmed with an unusual braid of black and gold silk that is repeated in tassel tiebacks. Modern green silk damask is used for curtains and upholstery in fall and winter. 

     

  • Photo courtesy of Winterthur/Jim Schneck

    Henry Francis and Ruth Wales du Pont took great pleasure in hosting dinner parties at Winterthur. The Du Pont Dining Room has all the elegance of the early classical style in America, and the decorative scheme may have been inspired by a set of 12 New York dining chairs passed down through the family. Interior woodwork from Readhourne, a house built in Centreville, Maryland, about 1733, is painted soft yellow and forms the backdrop for the chic curtains. The silk in use today, a modern fabric purchased from Brunschwig & Fils, was made into curtains in 1968. The pattern was adapted from an 18th-century engraving by Thomas Sheraton, and the curtains were fashioned in the same style as the originals from the 1930s, with the 44 tassels taken from the earlier curtains made by Ernest LoNano for summer use. A complement of tapes, fringes, and tassels was a required detail for du Pont. Such additions not only finished rough edges but helped to properly weight the curtains.

     

  • Photo courtesy of Winterthur/Jim Schneck

    Sophisticated and chic, this bedroom, the Gold and White Room, would have been considered the height of fashion in 1930. Striking green-and-white satin curtains dress the bed and windows. The stripes form an attractive diagonal pattern when fashioned into a swag installed inside the early 19th-century window trim from the Peter Breen house in Philadelphia. 

     

     

  • Photo courtesy of Winterthur/Jim Schneck

    The McIntire Room is named in honor of Samuel McIntire, the noted architect and master wood carver from Salem, Massachusetts. Walls and woodwork, painted a dove gray, create a pleasing contrast to the yellow satin on the windows and furniture, decorated en suite. The yellow-and-lavender color scheme in the textiles was inspired by du Pont's favorite combination in the garden. The curtains in use today were designed and fabricated in the Winterthur sewing room from reproduction silk that replicates the original French compound-weave satin previously used for the upholstery. Modern silk fringe trims the swag.

  • Photo courtesy of Winterthur/Jim Schneck

    In the perfectly appointed reception room, known as Readbourne Parlor, the complex palette of blues demonstrates du Pont's skill in organizing a room around color. The deep blue silk velvet drapery gives distinction to the space while the softer colors of the Philadelphia sofa and wing chair complement those of the silk dress worn by Experience Johnson Gouveneur, whose portrait hangs above the fireplace. The silk velvet in the curtains was woven in Europe, possibly as early as the 18th century. Because of its expense, silk velvet was rarely found in America as curtains in the 18th century. In the early 20th century, however, antique silk velvet curtains would have been considered quite chic.

     

     

  • Photo courtesy of Winterthur/Jim Schneck

    In cozy Splatterware Hall, an important collection of mid-19th-century earthenware pottery from Staffordshire, England, is displayed on plate racks and dressers and in pine cupboards. Decorated with a sponged technique featuring peacocks, flowers, simply drawn figures, and patterns in a rainbow of colors, spatterware was particularly appealing to Pennsylvania Germans. Prized by du Pont for its decorative effect, the pottery was first used at Chestertown House, his summer residence in Southampton, and then later at Winterthur. Windsor chairs and hooked rugs enhance the homespun decoration of the space. The fanciful curtain, now faded, perfectly accents the lively effect of the pottery display. The curtain panels are topped with a double-flounce valance artfully curved to fit inside the window. The fabric is a cylinder-printed cotton with stripes arranged in a pinwhell pattern, or "Catherine wheel." Joseph Lockett made the cylinder for this pattern, and many of his designs were exported to America after 1825. 

     

     

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