The Flame-throwing Serpent at Ashland

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-today

If you have ever visited Ashland, you likely remember the unusual octagonal, skylight-crowned Library and the exotic light fixture hanging down in the middle of the room: a serpent’s head.  Those of us who lead tours through the mansion witness the amazement on most guests’ faces when they enter this room.  All eyes gravitate toward the ceiling.  And before any substantive interpretation of the Great Compromiser can ensue, a wise tour guide must address the exotic sight before them.

The Ashland Library

First, the Library’s current appearance is a mix of different eras at Ashland.  Latrobe designed Henry Clay’s original library, which was likely circular in shape, with plaster finish, and a round oculus above.  When son James rebuilt Ashland, he kept the size and general shape of the Library, but created a Victorian haven: octagonal, paneled in dark wood, with marble mantelpiece and multi-part skylights.  When granddaughter Anne modernized the house in the 1880s, gas lighting was installed and the Library was outfitted with several gas fixtures on its walls…and from the ceiling.

The serpent likely was a symbol of wisdom, fittingly installed in Ashland’s Library.  There are no known pictures of this serpent gasolier in its entirety – with serpent and gas fixture together.  But McDowell-era photographs do reveal the original fixture that had hung down out of the serpent’s mouth.

McDowell-era Library with gasolier

Electricity was installed at Ashland in 1907 and eventually the gas fixtures were converted or went unused.  A 1940s photograph shows a lamp shade on the Library’s light fixture; perhaps it was electrified by this time.

1941 photo shows light fixture with shade (Louisville Courier Journal)

But sometime probably between the 1940s and the 1950s, the original light fixture was removed.  By the 1970s modern electric lights were installed around the serpent’s base.  Those lights were removed in the 1990s restoration of the house, so that all that remains today is the serpent’s head.

Photo circa 1970s

This feature of the house has, amusingly, been the subject of some misunderstanding and exaggeration.  A 1960s-era tour script reads, “…a flame emitted from the pipe in the serpent’s mouth.”  By the 1970s, Ashland tour guides were instructed to say, “This particular light is unusual – serpent with gas pipe emerging from mouth – so gas flame could have come from serpent’s mouth!”

Never mind that nothing emitted from the creature’s mouth but an elegant light fixture, the fanciful idea of a flame-throwing serpent at Ashland was a crowd-pleaser!

Despite the professionalism that came to Ashland in the 1980s and the fact that the serpent wasn’t even mentioned in scripts of that time, the story had staying power.  Likely through repetition by tour guides over the years, as late as 2003, one Ashland docent was overheard telling guests, “When lit, flame would shoot out of the serpent’s mouth. Henry Clay would probably roll over in his grave.  His style was more subdued; his granddaughter’s was – shall we say – more flamboyant?”

Anne Clay McDowell would likely roll over in her grave if she knew people believed she would have had something so garish in her most tasteful home as a flame-throwing serpent!

The serpent's head

2 thoughts on “The Flame-throwing Serpent at Ashland

  1. very nice concise history of the infamous serpent light fixture. I learned some new things about its recent history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s