Reinventing 1893: The Rehanging of Mary Lippitt Steedman’s Bedchamber
Our homes become a museum of who we are, each item speaking to our interests and experiences. Whether it be a strategically placed doily underneath a vase or a grand painting above a mantle, each item gives hints into the life of the space we are observing.
This summer I catalogued the prints owned by the Lippitt family and also studied the collections and belongings of Mary (May) Lippitt Steedman (1858-1938) and her sisters Abby and Jeanie, the daughters of Henry and Mary Ann Lippitt. Through this deep dive into the photos, paintings, and books that circulated the Lippitt household, I got to know these individuals more personally than I anticipated.
I began the summer with a dissection of the comprehensive 1893 inventory of the home and its accompanying photographs. These documented items ranged from furniture as stately as the Steinway Grand Piano in the Music Room down to a pair of scissors and the case they were stored in. While there were only a handful of prints to be documented, I took the time to read through every line within the handwritten inventory, deciphering the curlicues and swirls which proved to be extraordinarily difficult. Once each print was accounted for and cross referenced with photographs of each room, I moved onto the larger project of the summer, the rehanging of the art in May’s bedchamber.
The goal of the rehanging was to recreate May’s bedchamber as close as possible to the three photographic views from between 1865 and 1893 within the museum’s archives. Three of the items which were rehung in the room are original to May’s bedchamber in 1893, when she was age 35. The charcoal portrait of her father, Henry Lippitt, and the watercolor titled French Girl with Dog, were rehung in their original locations. The lithographic portrait in profile, titled Maid of Mont Blanc which originally hung above May’s sink (currently the bookshelf) now hangs above the mantle adjacent to its original location.. The portrait of her mother, Mary Ann Lippitt, which originally hung in sister Jeannie’s room (which is not part of the current museum) now hangs beneath the portrait of Henry Lippitt. The Schule Skailin’ engraving, which originally hung in the 1911 home May built next door, is now placed in the room she occupied in her family home. Finally, the candelabrum set that once sat on the second-floor guest bedchamber mantle, currently a museum office space, now sits on May’s mantle.
Other works within the room, while not original to the bedchambers of the house, complement the many other works of art the sisters had within their rooms as well as their interests. The many views of Venice that originally hung within the walls of the home served as souvenirs from their vacations there, and the religious imagery that echoes throughout the house reflect popular Victorian aesthetic preferences. Many of the artworks that hung within the home are by local artists as well. Diving into the museum’s archival records allowed me to get to know May as well as her sisters quite well. By not only looking at the main furniture items, but the small pictures and knick-knacks that adorn their vanities, these individuals living a seemingly distant and luxurious life can be understood a little better, and we can find comfort in their homes.
Anik Levcovici is a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, majoring in printmaking and concentrating in the Theory and History of Art and Design.