Nearly one hundred years after H. Siddons Mowbray painted murals on the ceiling of the Anderson House Key Room, they received conservation treatment to address damage caused by an old water leak and gradual deterioration. This work was the first phase of a larger project that will also conserve the Key Room wall murals in the near future. Olin Conservation, Inc., of Great Falls, Virginia, undertook the work, which consumed three months in early 2007. This conservation effort brought the ceiling murals back to their original brilliance and preserved for future generations the stories of patriotism, military service, and family history that Mowbray's allegories celebrate.
The Key Room murals were heralded as one of the best examples of mural painting in the United States in the April 1911 issue of Harper's Monthly Magazine: "Seldom has one small room had compressed into it so fine and complete a presentation of History by Art." These brilliant works of art, completed in December 1909, chronicle iconic events in American history on the four walls and honor the citizen-soldiers who helped win American independence on the gilded ceiling. The room they adorn, named the Key Room for the repeating Greek key pattern in the marble floor, served as a second-floor reception room where Larz and Isabel Anderson formally greeted their guests while surrounded by images of their patriotic heritage.
Artist and Patron
Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858-1928), an Egyptian-born painter raised in Massachusetts, was one of the most popular artists of the Gilded Age. After eight years of studying painting in Europe, Mowbray settled in New York in 1886 and received his first mural commission several years later. His creativity, allegorical themes, luscious colors, and collaboration with architects forged a style of architectural decorative painting that was sought after by many of America's most prominent and wealthy individuals. Mowbray's mural work is concentrated in New York City and Connecticut, but also includes commissions in St. Louis, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio. Murals decorating the Morgan Library, Appellate Court House, and University Club in New York City, and the Hyde Park, New York, home of Frederick W. Vanderbilt are prominent among Mowbray's accomplishments. Read More<
Larz Anderson sought Mowbray to adorn the walls and ceiling of the Key Room—in addition to the Choir Stall Room and the Winter Garden on the first floor of Anderson House—after admiring his murals in the library of the University Club in New York City. In January 1908, through "a prominent architect of Boston" referred to only as Mr. Fox, Anderson made contact with Mowbray to request his services. Anderson House would become the only building in Washington, D.C., to bear Mowbray murals.
Anderson envisioned that the murals in the Key Room would chronicle the role of his family in important historical and military events—the Revolutionary War, westward expansion, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War. Mowbray drafted a series of detailed sketches of his proposals for the wall murals, which he and Anderson went back and forth revising for more than a year and half. The final design for the walls called for wainscoting to be painted up to five feet high with the main scenes painted above those architectural details. To achieve this effect, Mowbray painted thin pieces of canvas sixteen feet high and adhered them to the walls from floor to ceiling.
Larz Anderson and Mowbray do not seem to have made plans for the ornamentation of the ceiling as early as they did for the walls. After work was already well underway on the wall murals, Anderson wrote to Mowbray asking the artist to begin sketches for the ceiling murals, which would become, in Anderson's words, "an Apotheosis of the Spirit of the Cincinnati." None of Mowbray's sketches for the ceiling designs are known to survive.
Larz Anderson proved to be a demanding client. His frequent examinations of the artist's progress and skill often resulted in comments such as, "Certain portions seemed to me painted in deeper effects than others, and the white backgrounds didn't look well but the workman told me all this was to be gone over and made to tone together." At one point during work on the Key Room, he wrote to Mowbray that "at present the cost of the full fresco of the walls rather appalls me." How much the Andersons paid the artist for the murals is not known, but Larz Anderson wholeheartedly appreciated the result when Mowbray's work in the Key Room was finished: "Your beautiful frescoes are ever a delight, not only to ourselves, but to our guests."
The four wall murals highlight momentous events in American history through the participation of Anderson family members. Titled "The Society of the Cincinnati Was Instituted in Peace after Revolution," "The City of Cincinnati Chose Its Name to Commemorate the Society of the Cincinnati," "The Order of the Loyal Legion Was Born out of Cruel Civil War," and "The Order of the Spanish-American War Records a Generous Fight for Freedom," the wall murals also call attention to the hereditary societies that perpetuate the memory of these conflicts and to which Larz Anderson belonged.
The ceiling murals—a combination of painted canvas panels adhered to the ceiling, gilding, and molded plaster decorations—honor the Revolutionary War soldiers who fought to establish the nation. Two large medallions show allegorical figures representing the "Triumphant Republic," a female figure with cherubs holding fasces and a wreath, symbols of authority and administration; and "The Genius of the Cincinnati," another female figure wearing the insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati while the figure Fame holds a scroll of names of original members. On the north and south ends of the medallions are two gilded panels with cherubs holding the obverse and reverse of the Society's insignia.
In the corners, blue-and-white panels done in high relief depict smaller scenes drawn from the eighteenth century. They represent the "Farmer Patriot" called to defend liberty, the support of the French alliance, the American victory over the British, and the exploration and settlement of the West by American pioneers. Larz Anderson requested that Mowbray include the initials of what he considered the four generations of Anderson men who had been Society members—original member Richard Clough Anderson; his son Larz Anderson I, who was not able to become a member of the Virginia Society before it disbanded in 1824; Larz's son Nicholas Longworth Anderson, who joined the Maryland Society in 1890 as the Virginia Society had not yet reorganized; and Nicholas's son Larz Anderson III, who joined the Maryland Society in 1894 and resumed the family's membership in the Virginia Society in 1934.
Restoring a Masterpiece
Working almost entirely on site, conservators from Olin Conservation stabilized and consolidated flaking paint and gilt, removed previous overpainting that had darkened over time, resecured buckling canvas panels to the ceiling, filled in areas of lost gilt and paint, and cleaned grime from the surface of the murals. (Three of the painted canvas panels required enough work that they were removed from the ceiling and conserved in the conservators' studio.) Olin Conservation, comprised of experts in restoration of murals and large-scale paintings, has also conserved the murals in the rotunda of the National Archives building and the cyclorama mural at Gettysburg National Military Park.
One of the most dramatic improvements occurred in the northwest corner of the Key Room ceiling where the prior water damage was most severe. To repair and preserve the murals in this area, the conservators removed efflorescence on the surface and underneath the paint layer (a white-colored growth of salt crystals resulting from water damage), stabilized and consolidated the crumbling and cracked plaster, and repaired lost paint and gilt. These painstaking measures have returned the ceiling murals to their original brilliance.
Funding the Project
Conservation of the Key Room ceiling murals at Anderson House was supported by a challenge grant from Thomas Stephen Kenan III, which was matched collectively by George Sunderland Rich, Charles Lilly Coltman III, Rufus Putnam Van Zandt, George Miller Chester, the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, and a Society of the Cincinnati member who wishes to remain anonymous. Read Less<