Giving the Impression that Henry Clay “may return at any moment”

YOU ARE HERE -> 1880s-1940s

When Henry Clay’s son James and his wife Susan left Ashland during the Civil War, they placed their precious Clay heirlooms safely in family hands.  Their family line would retain a large portion of Henry Clay artifacts, many of which eventually found their way back to Ashland after 1950.  But following the postbellum Kentucky University period, another line of the family came to Ashland with their own collection of Clay relics.

Major Henry Clay McDowell and Anne Clay McDowell, c1890s

In 1883 granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell and her husband, Major H.C. McDowell, resumed the display of artifacts in the house for the public to admire, eventually filling much of the house with them. While the extant Clay artifacts continued to be scattered among many family members, the McDowells apparently had inherited a sizeable number.  They were highly motivated to memorialize their great ancestor, determined that their revitalized Ashland resurrect the spirit of Henry Clay.

They also understood the public’s ongoing attraction to Clay artifacts on display within his former home.  As an early twentieth-century visitor described it:  “Soon we…stood in the presence of many mementos of America’s great statesman…There are many pictures hanging on the walls and there are numerous articles that were a part of Henry Clay’s life.” (Clarence P. Wolfe, “Editorial Comment,” unidentified newspaper).   Even more than James and Susan had done, Henry Clay’s personal—and sometimes quite mundane—belongings, such as his “quaint washstand,” were now objects of reverence at Ashland.

Now that Ashland was reclaimed and reinhabited by the family, the McDowells wanted to present a full picture of Henry Clay’s life to visitors, but many choice artifacts (e.g., his bed, The Washington Family painting, the Ghent jacket, the George Washington goblet) were not in their possession.  The McDowells went about augmenting their collection with the purchase of artifacts, especially portraits of Henry Clay.

Entrance Hall, 1907, with Jouett portrait of Clay above doorway, right

And this portrait collection was one aspect of the McDowells’ interiors that never failed to impress.  As Elbert Hubbard recalled of his 1890s visit to Ashland, “In the library, halls and dining-room are various portraits of the great man, and at the turn of the stairs is a fine heroic bust, in bronze, of that lean face and form.”  The well-known c.1818 Matthew Jouett portrait of Clay as a young man hung in the entrance hall, while a copy of Joel T. Hart’s impressive 1847 marble bust was displayed in the library.  The many portraits in the McDowells’ handsomely remodeled Ashland undoubtedly gave the interior the appearance of a fine art museum.

The McDowells’ bust of Henry Clay by Joel T. Hart

But they also created a type of exhibit at Ashland that furthered the ‘museum feel’ even more: they evidently dedicated two rooms specifically to Henry Clay’s memory: the study and the library.  When they entertained, guests had free access to these rooms.

A glimpse of the McDowell-era Henry Clay study as seen from the entrance hall, c. 1890s

Clay’s former study, off the entrance hall, was a natural choice for homage as he spent much time in the room.  The McDowells went beyond a simple assemblage of his belongings there:  “The room formerly used by Clay as an office was restored in the minutest detail,” and “was very carefully modeled after the original…” (Chas. W. Coleman, Jr. in December 1886 Century Magazine, and Mary Hodges in June 1907 House and Garden).  If any room at Ashland was ‘frozen in time,’ this was it:  “The office he used is still just as he left it for the last time, giving one the impression that he may return at any moment…” (Kentucky Explorer, October 1998 – recap of an article from 1898).  Henry Clay’s study was preserved and presented almost as a ‘period room,’ but one in which the lingering presence of its occupant was palpable.  The McDowells endeavored to perpetuate Clay’s legacy at Ashland through a dynamic reenactment of his life there (e.g., hospitality, farming), but also through an evocative portrayal of how he lived, worked, and used particular parts of the house.

The octagonal library also naturally lent itself to his memory.  As James and Susan had done, the McDowells utilized this unusual room as a showplace of Henry Clay artifacts.  But unlike the study, this was not a re-creation of the Henry Clay library.  From photographic evidence of the McDowell era, it is clear that the family used the library for contemporary needs, as well, at one time creating a family sitting room.  But some illusory impression of Clay’s time must have remained, as one 1920s visitor was fully convinced that he was in Henry Clay’s actual library (Chesla C. Sherlock in Fruit, Garden and Home, May 1924).

McDowell-era library

The numerous Clay artifacts on display included private possessions such as his pistols, spurs, saddle, and memorandum-books, letters “faded and yellow, dusted with black powder on ink that has been dry a hundred years,” a manuscript copy of one of his speeches, and his mahogany table and inkstand “in which he dipped his pen to make his name immortal…” (Coleman).   James and Susan had emphasized Henry Clay the international statesman, but the McDowells portrayed him as a more accessible figure through the personal objects on display.

While Henry Clay’s artifact collection at Ashland had provided a national historical tribute, and James and Susan’s collection served as an immortalizing homage, the McDowells’ collection at Ashland was something of a humanizing document.

After the McDowells died (the Major in 1899, Anne in 1917), great-granddaughter Nannette seems to have frozen Ashland in time; photographic evidence suggests that no more significant changes were made to the house and the McDowell-era collection remained in situ.  Before her death in 1948 when Nannette bequeathed Ashland to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, she stipulated that the contents of the house be included.  Thus the McDowell artifacts eventually formed the basis for the institutional museum’s collection.

Ashland Drawing Room, 1941

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