Henry Clay personally delighted in the historic artifacts he displayed at Ashland. But he stressed that such objects were intended to reach the public – that vast public that always found its way to his doorstep.
Memorializing George Washington was the special focus for Clay and his visitors at Ashland. While Clay proudly exhibited such objects as a miniature ‘Liberty Bell’ made from shavings of the original and presented to Clay by the city of Philadelphia, his most treasured artifacts honored and recalled George Washington who perfectly symbolized national union – Clay’s passionate purpose.
The Washington goblet was undoubtedly the most awe-inspiring artifact at Ashland. This object, which Washington’s hand had touched, was a precious memorial of the Founding Father’s achievements. Henry Clay was described as bringing out this “‘greatest treasure’” for an 1847 visitor. Clay also owned a fragment of Washington’s coffin that he utilized as a prop in one of his speeches.
But another Washington-related highlight for visitors was the frequently mentioned painting of The Washington Family which dominated Clay’s parlor. Nearly every visitor recalled the huge picture and gazed upon it “with renewed respect and well nigh reverence.”
This huge painting was presented to Henry Clay for Lucretia in 1844 as a gift from James C. Johnston. Johnston had commissioned it of the artist, Henry Inman. Inman made a fine copy of Edward Savage’s iconic Washington’s Family (1789-1796), that hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (Copying well-known paintings was not considered a second-rate thing at that time.)
Henry Inman (1801-1846) was a New York portrait, genre, and landscape painter. He studied under John Wesley Jarvis, then served as director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1834, and as president of the National Academy through the 1840s.
It was said that Johnston’s motivation in that election year was to demonstrate that Henry and Lucretia would so aptly follow George and Martha as President and First Lady. Clay lost the election by a narrow margin, but the portrait remained as a symbol of the high hopes many American’s held for Henry Clay.
The Washington portrait depicts George and Martha with their adopted children – actually Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis and granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis – and an enslaved servant, probably William Lee.
The painting dominated Ashland’s parlor from 1844 until after the Civil War. It stayed in family hands until the 1950s when William J. Alford purchased it at a New York auction, then donated it to Ashland, the newly opened house museum.