WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Earlier this year, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announced the most significant single American decorative arts bequest in its 90-year history: The Joseph H. and June S. Hennage collection, with its more than 400 objects of various media, including American furniture and miniature furniture, American silver, and Chinese porcelain that will transform Colonial Williamsburg’s already renowned collections. To celebrate this momentous bequest, an exhibition of approximately 50 highlighted objects, A Gift to the Nation: The Joseph and June Hennage Collection, will open in the Miodrag and Elizabeth Ridgely Blagojevich Gallery at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the newly expanded Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, on June 26 and remain on view through 2023. While the items selected for the exhibition represent only a fraction of the overall collection, they will illustrate the Hennages’ exceptional taste and collecting style, the American origins and family histories of the objects, and the couple’s passion for American decorative arts.
“Joe and June Hennage were remarkably generous and philanthropic,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the foundation’s Carlisle Humelsine chief curator and vice president for museums, preservation and historic resources. “They wanted to ensure that these exceptional illustrations of the nation’s history and culture would be held in the public trust for everyone’s edification. Their gift to Colonial Williamsburg has done just that and we are forever in their debt.”
Colonial Williamsburg and its annual Antiques Forum played an important role in the Hennages’ collecting focus and philanthropy for more than 50 years; they received the highest honor for service to the foundation, the Churchill Bell award, in 1994. The couple’s patriotic generosity also extended to other institutions to whom they donated important American objects, including the U.S. State Department, the White House, the National Portrait Gallery, Mount Vernon, and Monticello.
“Objects from the Hennage collection that were selected for this exhibition illustrate June and Joe’s collecting philosophy,” said Tara Chicirda, curator of furniture at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “They specifically acquired representational objects from a variety of regions to highlight the local options in form or ornament, and they often sought out pieces with family histories or by well-known makers with signatures or labels. We have tried to show the breadth and depth of the furniture and silver collections in this exhibition as well as highlight their interest in miniature furniture and Chinese export porcelain.”
Although each object included in A Gift to the Nation is a highlight of the Hennage Collection, one exceptional piece of furniture is a high chest of drawers possibly made by Isaac Tryon in either Middletown or Glastonbury, Connecticut, located in the Connecticut River Valley, between 1760 and 1790. Joe Hennage gave this piece to June as a gift, and many times in the years that followed, the dealer who sold it to Joe offered to buy it back at a greater price. June declined to sell each time as she felt she would not be able to acquire another Connecticut high chest as nice as this example. Cabinetmakers, such as Isaac Tryon, crafted furniture for the wealthy inhabitants of the Connecticut River Valley, and the vertical, sleek lines and carved fans of this cherry high chest typify the work of makers in this region like Tryon.
Another highlight to the exhibition is a pair of French-inspired armchairs made in Philadelphia circa 1790 and believed to have been originally owned by the wealthy Philadelphia merchant and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Morris. French furniture and furniture inspired by French design became quite popular in America after the Revolution, especially in Philadelphia. Following this trend, George and Martha Washington purchased gold and white French chairs for the Presidential House there in 1790. The chairs survive with their original upholstery foundation covered in a reproduction silk of the same color as the show cloth first used.
Joe and June Hennage’s interests in American silver focused primarily on the period between 1730 and 1815 with emphasis in objects from Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Their collection of approximately 100 pieces includes tea and coffee sets, jugs, tankards, cans, goblets, porringers, sauceboats, casters, salvers, punch strainers, and ladles, many with known histories of ownership. As with the furniture and ceramics in the bequest of this collection, the silver from the Hennage collection is transforming the already important assemblage of silver in Colonial Williamsburg’s holdings.
“The Hennage silver bequest is game-changing, effectively doubling the number of American-made hollowware pieces owned by Colonial Williamsburg. It offers exciting new opportunities to interpret the diverse range of wares produced by silversmiths from New England to the South, and includes important examples with distinguished pedigrees,” said Janine E. Skerry, Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator of metals.
Among the highlights of the Hennage’s silver collection to be on view in A Gift to the Nation is a tea and coffee set by Littleton Holland made in Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1800. Large en suite tea and coffee sets such as this example became popular by the earliest years of the 19th century. This set was made for the Krebs family of Baltimore and features two teapots—one for black tea and one for green—as well as a coffeepot, sugar urn, cream pot, and waste bowl. Fashioned in the late neo-classical style with broad fluted panels and bands of bright-cut engraving, this set exemplifies the end of the timeline for the silver that the Hennages collected; very few of their acquisitions date past 1810.
The Chinese export porcelain that Joe and June collected to complement their antique furniture and silver reflected their passion for American history and sense of design. The pieces to be on view in the exhibition include objects with rare American histories of ownership and those that reflect the couple’s love of vibrant color.
“The Chinese porcelain featured in the exhibition not only relays stories of the young United States, but also tells very personal stories of Joe’s and June’s love of collecting and their love of brilliant colors,” said Angelika R. Kuettner, associate curator of ceramics and glass at Colonial Williamsburg. “While the ceramics in this multimedia exhibit are only highlights from the collection, it’s important to note that, to date, the bequest marks the most significant addition to Colonial Williamsburg’s collection of Chinese porcelain destined for the post-Revolutionary American market.”
One such example of the Hennages’ love of vibrant color can be seen in A Gift to the Nation through their collection of a hot water dish and plates made in Jingdezhen, China, circa 1800. These pieces made of hard-paste porcelain represent the variety of colors in which the so-called Fitzhugh pattern was available to 18th and early 19th century consumers. (Collectors have referred to this diaper and moth or butterfly-bordered four-paneled motif as “Fitzhugh” since at least the late 19th century, and most likely the name derived from Thomas Fitzhugh, who served as a British East India Company official from the 1780s until 1800.) The pattern often included a central medallion surrounding a floral sprig or a cypher. Instead of the central medallion, some pieces made specifically for export to the American market feature a splayed eagle holding within its beak a banner bearing the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” all representative of the Great Seal. Vibrant green, orange, yellow, and brown as well as the more common underglaze blue version were available and pieces decorated in yellow, such as the Hennages’, are among the rarest examples.
A Gift to the Nation: The Joseph and June Hennage Collection is generously funded by Cynthia Hardin and Robert S. Milligan and Mary Virginia E. and Charles F. Crone in honor of Ronald and Mary Jean Hurst.
Visit the website of Colonial Williamsburg and see the page for the exhibit A Gift to the Nation: The Joseph and June Hennage Collection.