Straddling the Victorian and the Avant-garde at Ashland

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1890s

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

With Ashland’s interior design, 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 Clay’s son James and his wife Susan’s antebellum interiors and replaced others.  Here we see the 1850s plasterwork ceiling that they retained  It surrounded the brand new Eastlake staircase and open hall.  At the landing, the doorway leading to the back service staircase is 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

In the Drawing Room the McDowells again retained the plasterwork at the ceiling, as well as the marble mantlepiece and woodwork trim.  In this photograph, too, we can detect that their taste still ran toward the Victorian in its more layered, patterned, richly-decorated look, as evidenced in the wall finish beneath the plaster cornices, the number of chairs, decorative objects, and plants).  Yet the room is lighter and airier than James and Susan’s antebellum spaces would have been.  Natural light floods in the windows, there is ample open space, and the furniture design is light and portable.

Drawing Room

For Victorians, the Dining Room sideboard was a focal point, often a dramatic and ‘busy’ one.  For the McDowells, it was no different, as seen in this photograph.  Yet their wallpaper spoke to the new Ashland aestethic by evoking the designs of British designer William Morris, who was a major influence on the Arts & Crafts Movement.

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 in the Study, the same pressed paper material as Entrance Hall, is finished to look like leather.

The Study: anaglypta

The McDowell Library retained James and Susan’s rich Victorian-style wood paneling and mantlepiece.  They also 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 viewed often by guests, 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.  The multi-paned skylight in the antebellum library also remained, but the McDowells added a downward-facing serpent gas light fixture (see featured photo), the lower portion seen in this photograph.


While the McDowells were focused on honoring Henry Clay at Ashland, and respecting James and Susan’s rich antebellum design, in the 1880s and 90s they updated and furnished the Ashland mansion according to their own particular style, a style which straddled the Victorian and the avant-garde Aesthetic movement.

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