The Curious Case of The Golden Draperies

YOU ARE HERE -> 1950s – today

Among Ashland’s most prized artifacts for decades were two pair of fancy draperies, which were on display for Ashland’s 1950 Opening Day.  In 1953 Mrs. Seay told the Herald-Leader, “Probably the items on display in the house that most capture the fancy of visitors are the gold brocaded draperies that hang in the drawing room…You can usually expect some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when visitors first see the draperies…”  Mrs. Seay loved these draperies and mentioned them in most every interview she gave.

1952 – University of Kentucky student at the Drawing Room windows

As a featured artifact in a featured room of the house, these draperies naturally became a focal point.  But the fact that they were considered having belonged to Henry Clay lent them a mythic quality.  After all, he was said to have had purchased them on his acclaimed diplomatic trip to Europe in 1814.  As the story evolved, Clay bought them in Lyon, France, and with them he brought home a “rare gold-dust mirror” and a “French sofa.”  1950s Ashland, then, with all these fine Clay artifacts seemed all the more like his ‘real’ home!

But there was something even more remarkable about these draperies: said to have been well over a century and a quarter old, they looked fresh, bright, almost new.  How could that be?  A 1950 article provided Ashland’s explanation: “Wrapped in tobacco leaves and quilts, the draperies apparently suffered no damage in their 86 years of storage in the attic of the historic house.”

Ashland’s story was that the draperies were believed to have been hanging in Henry Clay’s Drawing Room from 1814 and then throughout James and Susan’s time, until the family vacated Ashland toward the end of the Civil War.  At that point, the draperies were said to have been put in storage in Ashland’s attic and ultimately “discovered” there in April 1950.

No wonder guests were impressed.

Golden draperies hanging in the Drawing Room, c1978

But there were a few problems with the story of the golden draperies.

For one, after James and his family left Ashland, the estate left family possession.  Kentucky University moved in.  It is highly doubtful that Clay family belongings remained stored away in Ashland’s attic.

Secondly, documentation shows that a descendant lent the draperies to Ashland in 1950.  They were not actually discovered in the attic.  Elizabeth Clay Blanford initially intended for the loan to be short-term, but somehow, the draperies became a permanent fixture at Ashland.

Third, it was another pair of drapes – in all likelihood belonging to the McDowells (last family residents of Ashland) – that were discovered in Ashland’s attic wrapped in those tobacco leaves.  Not the golden draperies.

Finally, there is substantial evidence that says the draperies were not Henry Clay’s at all, but his son James B. Clay’s, purchased in 1856 when Ashland was newly rebuilt and lavishly redecorated.  Textile experts have indicated that they were more likely mid-nineteenth century (James) and not of the sort in use in 1814.  And donor Elizabeth Clay Blanford was, in fact, a James B. Clay descendant.

The once prized and touted golden draperies lost their mythic status and, after suffering damage from so many years on continuous display, were put away in Ashland storage, with no plans in the immediate future for their restoration.

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