The Curious Case of The Golden Draperies

A bit of mid-twentieth-century Ashland history…

On proud display in the Drawing Room for Ashland’s 1950 Opening Day were two pairs of elegant golden draperies.  These sophisticated window dressings would be for decades among the most prized of the museum’s artifacts.

Director Lorraine Seay told the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1953, “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 was so proud of the golden draperies she mentioned them in nearly every interview she gave.

1952 – University of Kentucky student at the Drawing Room windows

As eye-catching decorative objects in a main room of the house, these draperies naturally became a focal point.  But what truly made them extraordinary was the belief that they had belonged to Henry Clay himself.  He was said to have purchased the draperies on his acclaimed diplomatic trip to Europe in 1814 (for the Treaty of Ghent).  More details were added to the story over the years: Clay bought the draperies in Lyon, France and also acquired a “rare gold-dust mirror” and a “French sofa.”  1950s Ashland, then, with so many actual Henry Clay artifacts seemed all the more like his ‘real’ home.

But there was something else remarkable about these draperies: said to have been well over 125 years 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.”  The “86 years” referred to the entire McDowell period at Ashland, 1883 to 1950, and then some.  The understanding was that the draperies hung in Henry Clay’s Drawing Room from 1814 and throughout James and Susan Clay’s tenure 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 1950s story of the golden draperies.

For one, after James and his family left Ashland at the end of the Civil War, the estate left family possession entirely.  Kentucky University moved in.  And when Kentucky University moved on in the 1870s, the Ashland estate was rented out to horse farmers until 1883 when the family returned, the McDowells having purchased Ashland.  It is highly unlikely that Clay family belongings remained in Ashland’s attic for all of that time.

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 later the loan became a permanent gift and the draperies became part of Ashland’s collection.

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

Finally, there is substantial evidence that shows the draperies were not Henry Clay’s at all, but purchased later for Ashland by his son James B. Clay. Textile experts have confirmed that they were more likely mid-nineteenth century textiles and not of the sort in use in 1814.   James had rebuilt the house and lavishly decorated it in the height of 1850’s style, having made several trips to New York City to purchase everything from furniture to mantelpieces, carpets, mirrors…and draperies.  The golden draperies make much more sense in this context.

Plus, donor Elizabeth Clay Blanford was, in fact, a James B. Clay descendant.

Thus the golden draperies lost their mythic status.  And as the 21st century dawned, they reached the end of their public life.  Having suffered extensive damage from so many years on continuous display, it was decided to remove them.  The golden draperies were indeed put away in archival storage in Ashland’s attic.  They were not wrapped in tobacco leaves.

2 thoughts on “The Curious Case of The Golden Draperies

    1. So true, Dan! In the early decades of Ashland’s museum life they did the best they could with what they had. It would take until the 1980s for professionalism (in terms of preservation, curation, documentation, interpretation) to enter the picture.

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