A True Story: Meg and the Victorian Society in America American Summer School, Newport, Rhode Island

1. Lyman-Hazzard House

1. Lyman-Hazzard House

I am now an alumnus of the Summer School, Class of 2013.  I survived!  Upon acceptance, course director, Professor Richard Guy Wilson wrote, in a letter sent out to the class before we all gathered on June 9th, we were NOT to wear new shoes because we were to be on our feet for six to eight hours a day. 

But…but…I had a pair of new sandals I just had to wear.

He was right of course. It was intense.  All in all, the group of 31 saw 62 sites in nine days. Yup, that averages out to seven sites a day.  The roster included churches, mills, private homes and historic house museums, libraries and art societies.

The Victorian Society Summer Schools, yes there are two: American (Newport) and British (London) was established nearly 40 years ago.  Here is an excerpted description of the schools, taken from Society literature:

2. 1890's Marble House

2. 1890’s Marble House

Both schools focus on a variety of 19th and 20th century architecture and material culture. Through lectures (we had thirteen) site visits and tours (62) of important buildings – many of which are not open to the public – students acquire a comprehensive understanding of the aesthetic, social, economic and political forces that shaped our modern age.

I benefited greatly from further education about one of the most beauty-filled periods in our history, the Victorian era. This time in history was also highly interesting to Villa Finale’s Walter Mathis, as any of you who have visited know!  I like to believe Mathis surrounded himself with beauty because he derived a great deal of happiness and contentment from it.  Aesthetics should be a part of the lives of everyone, but the concept is often ignored. 

3. Ochre Court

3. Ochre Court

Mathis had the idea that visitors would be able to experience the home of a ‘Victorian gentleman’ when they visited Villa Finale.  As a result, the house appears as if there is not one square inch left uncovered.  The effect is dazzling and incredibly appropriate for the era. He was spot-on in his decoration.

On the more practical side, during the nine-day course, I examined the successes and challenges in historic preservation, collections management and historic house and landscape interpretation in Newport, a highly successful model of heritage tourism.

4. Breakers kitchen

4. Breakers kitchen

I was able to study houses and their collections not normally on view, and have access to the people who keep and interpret them.  Since I am responsible for a collection numbering 12,000, I was able to observe both stored and exposed collections in a variety of historic house museums and understand how to counter wear on buildings and collections caused by visitors. 

Professor Wilson took us through Newport chronologically, going from this – the 1690s Wanton-Lyman-Hazzard House (1) to this – 1890s Marble House (2).

I learned much about what is successful and what really just doesn’t work in historic houses: for example, the offices within Ochre Court (3) and the big plex boxes (4) in the beautiful Breakers kitchen.

I felt that Walter Mathis would have been pleased with the summer school, after all he was a long-time member of the Victorian Society and there were so many things that appeared in the tours that also appear in Villa Finale! Another pewter-filled Welsh dresser (5). Can you find Villa Finale’s oyster plate? (6). Lots of encaustic tiles on porches! (7). Enamel eggs, chalices (8) and micro-mosaics (9). A whole cabinet full of Wedgwood Fairyland Luster (10).

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