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Portraits of the Past

We have been the lucky recipients of generous donations here at Agecroft Hall & Gardens. While we, as with most museums, have strict parameters on what we accept into our collections, our most recent donation aligns with an institutional goal to incorporate more 20th century Richmond history into the narrative of Agecroft’s centuries-long story that we present. For example, one room on exhibit, the Williams Library, has been kept in its early 20th century glory. Our most recent donation, a book, fits in in this part of Agecroft’s story and history which is intertwined with the Windsor Farms neighborhood and has parallels with the history of the Virginia House (please see this blog post for more information).

The donated book is a large copy of A Memorial Volume of Virginia Historical Portraiture, 1585-1830, edited by Alexander Wilbourne Weddell, an Agecroft neighbor and the original owner of Virginia House, (now owned and operated by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture). This book, which originally cost $100, is from 1930 and details the portraits that were included in a month-long exhibit held at Virginia House, from April 26, 1929 through May 27, 1929. A committee of four wealthy Virginians, with the backing of the Virginia Historical Society (now the Virginia Museum of History and Culture), spearheaded this exhibit. These four men, Weddell, George Cole Scott, John Stewart Bryan, and Preston Davie, funded the entire exhibit and paid for any conservation treatment the paintings needed to be stable enough for display. In fact, Weddell set up a conservation studio at Virginia House for eighteen months leading up to the exhibit opening. The exhibit was intended to reawaken a love of colonial and early American portraiture for all who came to view it. And come they did—supposedly thousands of visitors came to see the exhibit while it hung in the rooms of Virginia House.

Particularly fascinating in this book are the biographical narratives for each of the portraits’ subject. An author was chosen for each sitter. The exhibit committee attempted to hire subject matter experts to write the sitter’s biography, but sometimes there was no expert. In that case, committee members found someone who knew a lot about the sitter’s family and ancestors, so the biography focuses more on the sitter’s family background then the sitter themselves. If no one knew much about the family, the committee’s last option was to hire an author who was able to do research about the sitter, at a library or home, wherever the sitter’s papers and correspondence was housed, and then write up a quick biographical sketch. Ellen Glasgow, a Richmond native and a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, wrote the introduction to the book.

This book is a welcome donation to our collection. It tells of a time in Agecroft’s history when supposedly thousands of people came to visit the house next door. It reminds us that we are not a metaphorical island and that Agecroft’s story is woven within its location, whether it be on Sulgrave Road in Windsor Farms in Richmond, VA or in its ancestral location in Lancashire, England.





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