The Williams Library

April 11, 2019

 

 In 1925, T. C. Williams, Jr. purchased Agecroft Hall, sight unseen, at an auction in England. The house was then dismantled, shipped to the United States and rebuilt in Richmond, VA. Mrs. Elizabeth Williams Morton (affectionately known as Bessie) lived in the home until the late 1960s and, after she moved out, the house became a museum, opening to the public in 1969. Mr. Williams bought the home in 1925 intending for it to become an art museum after both he and Bessie no longer needed the house. While Bessie was living at Agecroft, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was established and there was no need for another art museum so close, so it was decided to look to the building’s past and turn the house into a historic house museum focusing on early modern England. Mrs. Morton allegedly had one caveat—she wished for one room, the library, to remain untouched, as though she and her guests had just left. The Williams Library, the last stop on our house tours, represents life in early- to mid-twentieth century Richmond.

 

Henry G. Morse, the New York architect hired by T.C. Williams, Jr. to design Agecroft in Richmond, included a very large, almost 1,125 square foot library in his design. The library now holds nearly 4,000 volumes and the collection includes books from T.C. Williams, Sr., T.C. Williams, Jr., Elizabeth Williams Morton, Dr. David C. Morton, and other family members.

 

When comparing the Williams Library to the library when the house was standing in Lancashire, it becomes obvious that the present library is not a copy of the earlier, English one—as are none of the rooms in the house. Both the shelves and ceilings are much different, but the windows are, obviously, the same. Of the seven leaded glass windows found in the Williams Library, the most notable is the east facing oriel window. This window is comprised of seven leaded diamond pane glass panels which create a near perfect, outward curving, half-moon shaped window. The window is similarly placed as it was in England, situated over an archway entrance to a courtyard beyond.

 Displayed in the library are many pieces left to the museum by Bessie Williams Morton including the Simon Willard clock, the Kazan Mother of God icon and a mantle clock made by Tiffany and Company. This decorative marble and ormolu (a gold colored alloy of copper and zinc) piece mimics a French empire revival style clock. Atop the Tiffany timepiece is a bronze cupid stringing his bow. He sits upon a perch created by four marble columns, in the middle of which is the clock—a white enamel clock face inscribed with Arabic numerals and ‘Tiffany & Co./New York/France.”

 

Commanding people’s attention upon entering the room is a large banquet table, ca. 1675, also known variously as a draw table or telescoping table. There are six walnut top panels with a bonded geometric and floral inlay. Each pedestal foot ends in a lion mask. This table also features a highly carved oak apron. Although there is no supporting documentation, it is believed that the top and bottom were not created as one piece. The origins of this table are also unclear—Agecroft Hall object files (and folklore) speculate that either the top or bottom section once belonged to a monastery. Past Agecroft curators have decided the monastery story is a myth popularized during the Victorian era to add intrigue to antiques.

 

This was a family space at Agecroft and, as such, we have hung portraits of T.C. Williams, Jr., Elizabeth Williams Morton, David C. Morton and an extremely large, 1890, portrait of Robert Dauntesey posed with his Jack Russell Terrier. Robert was the last of the family to claim Agecroft Hall as his principle residence; his death ended over four centuries of ownership by the Dauntesey family. Due to the massive size of this portrait, it can only be seen on tour once yearly, during our Christmas Open House, held annually on the second Sunday in December. While he is on display the rest of the year, he cannot be seen from the regular tour.

The area of the Williams Library that many visitors often ask about is the small loft with leaded glass windows situated over the back of the library. It is believed this was intended as an area for musicians to play during parties, a ‘minstrels’ gallery.’ Today it is very utilitarian in purpose--an area for storing Christmas decorations and housing the library’s environmental control system. Most interesting about this loft is a story that Bessie, who had no children of her own, used to tell her nieces and nephews that theghosts lived up there—her amusing attempt to keep the children from the Christmas and birthday gifts she’d hidden in the loft.

 

What would a library be without books? To say the 4,000 book collection encompasses a broad range of topics is an understatement. The breadth of the books’ topics reflects the wide ranging interests of the Williamses and the Mortons and includes both fiction and non-fiction from the mid-19th century to the 1960s. As one would expect in the library of a well-educated Southern gentleman of Mr. Williams’ time, there are many books on the Civil War (mainly confederate history), English architecture and furnishings, and a number of Bibles and Christian religious works. In addition, there are tomes on world history, travel diaries from every corner of the globe and books about explorations of Antarctica and the North Pole. Biographies were also popular with the family and include those of famous historical figures and seemingly insignificant people who have been lost to time. Finally, the fiction section ranges from pop culture novels to the classics of Balzac. What is truly amazing is the collection of books by local, early 20th century Richmonders. We have a book by Sallie Mae Dooley—one of the builders and owners of the Maymont Mansion, as well as a book by James Cabell, a Richmonder known for his fantasy fiction novels.

 

The Williams Library is the last stop on our house tour. Please come in for a visit and see this gorgeous room.

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