August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
At Bath the British can catch glimpses of their rebellious daughter country’s history in an unusual museum
The scene is one of a quintessential Englishness: a stately manor house with sparkling bay windows giving out upon a broad expanse of finely trimmed lawn that reaches out toward the river Avon in the valley below, an exquisite formal garden with pebbled walks and a delicate fountain, the whole set off against a stone balustrade supporting a majestic row of classical stone urns. But there is something weirdly wrong with the picture nevertheless—what is that huge tepee, with all the children running in and out of it, doing out in front of the manor? Or that rear end of a Pullman car with its observation platform? Or, in fact, that old Conestoga wagon? It’s a double exposure, with the Wild West imprinted sharply upon the green English calm, a schizocultural impossibility that boggles the mind. Yet it is really here.
This is the amazing American Museum in Bath, England, the only serious museum of Americana anywhere in Europe. Far from being put off by the split personalities of the manor house and the examples of traditional American arts and crafts they proposed to fill it with, the founders of the museum took advantage of the contrast to emphasize the originality and strength of the American contribution to the practical and decorative arts of the world. And somehow it works.
The idea of a museum to show Englishmen something of the creativeness of American arts through all the historical periods since colonial days came from two men: an English-born naturalized American, John Judkyn, who was an antiques dealer, and Dr. Dallas Pratt, a New York City psychiatrist. In 1958 Judkyn, who has since died, discovered Claverton Manor, a famous old house at the edge of the Georgian city of Bath, a mansion built in Greek Revival style in 1820 by Sir Jeffrey Wyatville, the architect to George iv. It already had in its history the Anglo-American stamp of Winston Churchill, who gave his first political speech there in 1897. Judkyn and Pratt bought the place, putting in their own money plus contributions raised among a group of rich American acquaintances in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. In association with Ian McCullum, a former architect who became and is still the museum’s director, they installed inside the great squarish three-and-a-half-story manor whole period rooms, including original floors, walls, doors, windows, panelling, and ceilings brought over from the United States. There’s even a colonial Massachusetts tavern, fireplace and all.
The work of putting together the imported pieces was supervised by C. A. Bell-Knight, an antiques conservationist who recalls with some awe the confusion of the job at Claverton Manor: “My first impression was of endless corridors and passages leading to countless dormitories and bathrooms. The vast pile of timbers and miscellany [that had been assembled] presented a colossal nightmarish jigsaw puzzle. I used to dream that I was condemned until eternity to sort out dentils and pilasters, feather-edging and sills each into their respective piles, whilst little imps mixed them all up again.” But the work was finally completed, and the museum opened in 1961. Last year some 87,600 people visited its 1690 keeping room from a house in Wrentham, Massachusetts; its dining room from an eighteenth-century house in Lee, New Hampshire; the parlor dating from 1763, showing early styles of imitation wood graining, from a house in Boxford, Massachusetts; and another parlor, with Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture, from a 1788 house in Colchester, Connecticut. There is also a stencilled bedroom of 1830 from Windham, Connecticut; the captain’s cabin reproduced from the American whaler Charles W. Morgan ; Conkey’s Tavern, from Palmer, Massachusetts, dating from 1776, with a great original open brick fireplace now used to bake gingerbread—visitors get samples.
Some fifty part-time guides, mostly local housewives who have done their homework on American history and craftsmanship, are on hand, one in each room, to answer questions. A peepshow room of meticulously detailed miniature American interiors appeals especially to children—the museum is a favorite destination for school tours—and the Indian and western exhibits include such intriguing objects as the war bonnet of a Sioux chief and a Wells Fargo strongbox.
To emphasize the enormous variation of taste and style in America’s brief history a typical Shaker room has been constructed, showing the exquisite, serene lines of Shaker furniture; a bedroom and private chapel from a New Mexican adobe house are included; a fancy New York City salon of the Greek Revival period, complete with spinet, harp, and Tuckerware pitcher, occupies one room; and there is an ornate Victorian New Orleans bedroom, its massive carved mahogany bed topped by a plush pink-upholstered canopy.
The museum is probably best known in England for its stunning collection of some sixty patchwork quilts that are on display, with many others in reserve storage. They are hung fulllength on swinging crossbars so that their overall design can be appreciated. Some hooked rugs are also shown, and the textiles are widely studied by serious students of needlework. Outside, the Mount Vernon garden reproduces George Washington’s original one in Virginia, plant for plant, and the Southampton, Long Island, Garden Club has installed an authentic herb garden of native American plants, many of which are on sale in an herb shop at the front of the manor. Also on the grounds is a nineteenth-century milliner’s shop displaying bonnets and vividly decorated travelling boxes and a first-rate gallery of American folk art housed in what was the manor stable.
On sunny days scores of school-children are scattered over the broad lawn gobbling down their picnic lunches, and there is no doubt that the museum offers them a rich visual picture of America’s past. The founders’ message to the English—that Americans are creative as well as pioneering in spirit—seems to get through pretty well, although one schoolgirl remains convinced, after inspecting samples of scrimshaw in the ship captain’s cabin, that American whales were born with pictures of ships engraved on their teeth. The air of authenticity is maintained even in the country store, where souvenirs are sold, and in a tearoom serving cookies and cakes from real colonial recipes. But one item did rather shatter the careful illusion—a tray of little cakes with sugar frosting on top was bravely labelled “Original American Flapjacks.”