Straddling the Victorian and the Avant-garde

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1890s  – Henry Clay’s granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell and her family buy Ashland and proudly inhabit it.

The McDowells performed a dramatic “inside job” at Ashland when they arrived in the early 1880s.  Keeping the exterior and floorplan of the mansion largely intact, they set about updating Ashland’s interior design.

The McDowells were the first occupants to photograph the interiors of the mansion.  The modern idea of the “open plan” flow of interior space was enhanced by the light-increasing addition of a large mirror in the Entrance Hall.  Here, Major McDowell is seated before the mirror, while the fellow to the right is actually a reflected image.  This mirror was even mentioned in the local press: visitors to Ashland were warned to watch out for this faux doorway, which proved a tricky optical illusion (!).

Entrance Hall: Major McDowell

The McDowells straddled the Victorian era and the avant garde, which included the Aesthetic Movement.  And the Entrance Hall – which would have been the room seen by all visitors and the room which created the strongest first impression – appears to have received the greatest ‘modern’ makeover.

The anaglypta wallcovering in this photograph is a good example of this transition.  The concept of materials made to look like other materials – here, pressed paper board made to look like fine carving – was a very Victorian idea.  But the Japanese-inspired design is straight from the Aesthetic Movement’s emphasis on the exotic.  The deep, rich “Pompeian Red” paint finish was in vogue throughout both decorative periods.

Entrance Hall: anaglypta in Japanesque design

The McDowells kept some facets of James and Susan’s interiors and replaced others.  Here we see the 1850s plasterwork ceiling that they retained, surrounding their brand new Eastlake staircase and open hall.  At the landing, the doorway leading to the back ‘service’ staircase, topped with a portière – characteristic of the Aesthetic style.  The Movement’s penchant for potted plants and art pottery are in evidence here, too.

Entrance Hall

The McDowells replaced the 1850s flooring in the Entrance Hall with thinly-slatted hardwood flooring, another trademark of the Aesthetic Movement.  The colors of the floor are not due to different stains, but to carefully chosen and cut oak.  (Ashland’s Entrance Hall receives a lot of traffic, as is obvious in this photograph.)

Entrance Hall: oak parquet flooring

The McDowells again retained the plasterwork at the ceiling in the Drawing Room, as well as the marble mantlepiece and woodwork.  In this photograph, too, we can detect that their taste still ran toward a more cluttered, richly-decorated look (wall finish beneath plaster cornices, number of chairs, objects, and plants), yet the room is lighter and airier than James and Susan’s would have been.  Natural light floods in the windows and the furniture design is light and portable.

Drawing Room

For Victorians, the Dining Room sideboard was often a focal point, often a dramatic and ‘busy’ one.  For the McDowells, it was no different.  Yet, their wallpaper spoke to their new aestethic by evoking the designs of William Morris.

Dining Room: sideboard

The McDowell Dining Room saw one significant adaptation after the original remodeling of 1882-83 (above photograph): they replaced the original wainscoting with lincrusta: a canvas-backed, linseed oil and wood particle material meant to resemble hand carved wood.  Again, the Victorian penchant for faux finishes still found a home at Ashland, but the lincrusta design itself is fresh and modern.

Dining Room: lincrusta

The McDowell Study contained more of the faux-finish wainscoting.

The Study: Major McDowell

Anaglypta (same pressed paper material as Entrance Hall) in the Study is finished to look like leather on the walls.

The Study: anaglypta

The McDowell Library retained James and Susan’s Victorian-style wood paneling and mantlepiece and continued to exhibit the Victorian style in the more crowded arrangement of furniture, proliferation of textiles, patterns and textures, and the number of objects on display.   While this room was also used for entertaining and would be seen much like the (more obviously modern) Entrance Hall, it appears that the Library’s multipurpose needs were best met for the McDowells in a more Victorian manner.


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