Gifted Hennage Collection will transform Colonial Williamsburg

Miniature tall case clock, New England, ca. 1800. Mahogany, white pine, glass, brass and steel.
Bequest of Joseph H. and June S. Hennage, 2020-162. Colonial Williamsburg image

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Theirs was a love story of many dimensions: a love for one another, a love of America and its decorative arts and a love of Colonial Williamsburg. The culmination of Joseph and June Hennage’s passion and evidence of their extraordinary philanthropic generosity is the bequest of their entire American decorative arts collection, which they amassed over 60 years, to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The Hennage Collection is a singular gift that will transform the already renowned American furniture and furniture miniatures, silver and ceramics collections at Colonial Williamsburg.

Totaling more than 400 objects of various media, the Hennage Collection also includes paintings, prints and antique toy animals, vehicles and figures.

To honor this significant bequest, an exhibition of highlighted objects from the bequest, “A Gift to the Nation: The Joseph and June Hennage Collection,” will open at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the recently expanded Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, in the spring.

“Joe and June Hennage always sought objects of excellent quality and condition. Their gift consequently comes as an outstanding addition to Colonial Williamsburg’s collections. It includes superior examples of furniture from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, as well as silver by the major East Coast artisans of that day and a variety of other materials,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president for museums, preservation and historic resources. “The Hennages’ decision to place the entire collection in a museum setting is a clear example of their public-spirited generosity.”

The couple’s love affair began in 1945. After being discharged from the Navy, Joe Hennage (1921-2010) returned to Washington, D.C., and soon thereafter founded Hennage Creative Printers. When he found himself in need of secretarial help in 1946, he hired June Stedman (1927-2020) who had come to Washington to begin her career after finishing school in Virginia. They were married in 1947 and their partnership blossomed. In the late 1940s they made their first visit to Colonial Williamsburg, and their life-long love for the historic city began. Their first collecting passion was not antiques, but memorabilia relating to Joe’s hero, Benjamin Franklin, and books on printing, the profession the two men shared.

June’s love of small objects extended to what she and Joe referred to as “penny toys,” or miniature animals, vehicles and figures, as well as miniature furniture, including tables, chests, chairs and beds. By the early 1950s, they were also collecting antique Chinese bronzes, porcelain, snuff bottles and netsuke. Although they did not begin attending the annual Antiques Forum, which began at Colonial Williamsburg in 1949, until later in the 1950s and more regularly in the 1960s, Joe often named this event as a great influence on them both. In 1965, Joe was asked to serve on the Fine Arts Committee of the State Department, a group formed to assist White House and State Department Curator Clement Conger in raising funds for the architectural renovation and furnishing of the diplomatic reception rooms and remained a member and sometime chairman of the Committee until 1996.

Teapot, Jingdezhen, China, ca. 1790, hard-paste porcelain. Bequest of Joseph H. and June S. Hennage. Colonial Williamsburg image

By the early 1970s, the Hennages were collecting American antiques with increased fervor and attending Antiques Forum regularly. “Joe and June were born-again patriots and their excitement in being American was demonstrated by their passion for American furniture in the 18th century,” said John A. Hays, deputy chairman, Christie’s, Inc. “They loved furniture that made a big statement, and their collection includes many pieces that boldly say ‘I am American.’”

The Love Affair Blossoms Over the years Joe and June gave the State Department several exquisite pieces of American furniture and helped to transform the State Department diplomatic reception rooms significantly. Joe’s involvement with this effort led to his being asked to head similar Americana drives for the National Archives and for the Supreme Court. During the Bicentennial year, the Hennage’s philanthropic spirit provided numerous extraordinary gifts of important objects to various American institutions including Mount Vernon, Monticello, the White House, the National Portrait Gallery and Colonial Williamsburg among others.

The Hennages shared these gifts with such institutions, which are among the finest examples of American craftsmanship at its highest levels, not simply because they are masterpieces but in hopes of enhancing the public’s education about its material culture. Although gardening was among June’s greatest pleasures, her interest in and deep knowledge of art and antiques led to her also serving as a member of the Department of State Fine Arts Committee. Colonial Williamsburg, however, remained a special place to both Joe and June where they could learn about and relive American historical events, and this unique interest caused them to use their resources to help the Foundation flourish. They became charter and life members of the Foundation’s highest-level annual giving group, the Raleigh Tavern Society, as well as members of the President’s Council, a group dedicated to nurturing greater awareness of Colonial Williamsburg through philanthropic support.

In 1985, the Hennage Auditorium at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, was named in their honor, and in 2019, the Foundation named a new gallery in the same museum the June Stedman Hennage Gallery in honor of June’s 90th birthday. By 1988, the Hennages completed a Georgian-style home in Williamsburg, which they named Hennage House, and they made this their home after relocating from Chevy Chase, Maryland. This home was where they lived with their extensive collections and viewed themselves as the custodians of the objects rather than their owners. Over time, they gave them to Colonial Williamsburg for safekeeping. “Colonial Williamsburg inspires us all over time, but some take the message to new heights. That is true for Joe and June Hennage whose Georgian-style house on South England Street reflects the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg and whose stunning collection of masterpieces inside—the furniture in particular—carries the analogy to conclusion,” said Philip Zea, president and CEO, Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts, and former curator of furniture at Colonial Williamsburg from 1999 to 2001.

“The Hennages’ significant legacy and generosity secure their presence in Williamsburg and make it possible to use the present tense when we think about them for some time to come.” Joe and June Hennage’s passion for their American decorative arts and for Colonial Williamsburg led to the decision to bequeath their entire collection to the Foundation upon their deaths because they believed in Colonial Williamsburg’s unique ability to understand the objects’ significance to American history and make that story accessible to all. Their extraordinary assemblage of material culture is transformative. Already renowned for having the best in British and American fine and decorative arts from 1670–1840, the Wallace Museum will now make its furniture collection complete in its ability to show the full geographic spectrum from Maine to Louisiana through superlative pieces from major East Coast centers. Knowing of this promised gift has also helped to shape the American silver collection over the past decade as acquisitions were made with the Hennage collection in mind; these objects will now serve as the backbone of Colonial Williamsburg’s American silver holdings. The Hennage Chinese export porcelain objects will provide the Foundation with the first pieces from two different services bearing the insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal organization of American and French officers who served in the Revolutionary War. The miniature furniture from the bequest will nearly double the number of pieces currently in Colonial Williamsburg’s collection (separate from its dollhouse furniture and child’s chairs) and these objects, too, will be transformative in the variation of forms include in the Hennage collection, which includes blanket chests, chest of drawers, a high chest, a desk, chairs, tables, looking glasses, beds and tall case clocks, as well as the exceptional quality of many of the pieces.

Additional information about the Art Museums and Colonial Williamsburg as well as tickets are available online at colonialwilliamsburg.org, by calling 855-296-6627 and by following Colonial Williamsburg on Facebook and @colonialwmsburg on Twitter and Instagram.