Colonial Williamsburg conservator to receive prestigious American arts award

Colonial Williamsburg conservator Leroy Graves

Colonial Williamsburg conservator Leroy Graves. Photo by Tom Green, provided by Colonial Williamsburg


WILLIAMSBURG, Va. —Recognized world-wide as a leader in his field, Leroy Graves, the conservator of upholstery at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation whose nonintrusive techniques for restoring upholstery have been adapted by museums around the globe, will be honored as one of the two recipients of the 2017 Eric M. Wunsch Award for Excellence in the American Arts given by the Wunsch Americana Foundation. The awards will be presented at a ceremony at on January 18 at Christie’s Rockefeller Center Galleries in New York City.

The award, which was created by the Foundation to continue the legacy of renowned collector Martin Wunsch and to encourage greater scholarship and appreciation of American decorative arts, is given annually to individuals, institutions and causes in recognition of their dedication and contribution towards preserving the field. In addition to Graves, Brock Jobe, professor of American decorative arts in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, will also receive the award in 2017.

“When we meet to discuss possible honorees, the spectrum is overwhelming. Yet this year’s discussion was the briefest in five years,” said Peter Wunsch, president of the Wunsch Americana Foundation. “Leroy’s role in conservation is amazing and his story is so compelling. I believe that the people who are going to learn about this wonderful man will be amazed at where he has come from and where he is.”

While his techniques for upholstery conservation and re-creation, known as “The Graves Approach,” are well-known and were featured in the celebrated book, Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2015). Graves reached his status in the field via an uncommon path. He first joined the facilities maintenance staff of Colonial Williamsburg in 1967 and was soon thereafter recruited to be an art handler in the Department of Collections, a position he held for nearly ten years. As Ronald L. Hurst, Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, wrote of Graves in the foreword to the book:
His keen eye, intellectual curiosity, exceptional hand skills and intense work ethic caught the attention of the senior curatorial staff and led to an opportunity to work in the furniture conservation lab…. [There, he] began to study examples of original upholstery and to design new systems that would replicate period coverings without adding thousands of damaging tacks to fragile antique frames. In time, his minimally intrusive upholstery techniques were copied and adapted by colleagues at institutions across the country. Graves joined the Conservation Department at its inception in 1984.

As impressive as is Graves’ body of work, his reputation as a gentleman precedes him. David Blanchfield, director of conservation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation says, “In my twenty years’ working with Leroy Graves, he has unfailingly been a beacon of collegiality and good fellowship. The fact that he retains this manner through every facet of his workday, from studying the evidence in a chair frame to creating a masterpiece of period upholstery, makes his accomplishments just that much more impressive.”

“Based on Leroy Graves’s work on historic upholstery practices and his development of sophisticated non-intrusive techniques, he can rightfully be described as the Da Vinci of modern upholstery conservation,” said Luke Beckerdite, editor of American Furniture. “The Wunsch Award is a fitting acknowledgment of Leroy’s decades of research and hands-on conservation that have set the standard for the field. That he is as modest as he is talented makes this honor especially gratifying to all of us who have admired him for so long.”

After serving the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for nearly fifty years, Graves has contemplated retirement. He told The New York Times in 2015 that those plans are on hold because “‘…wonderful stuff is still coming in’ to analyze and protect.”