Martha Washington’s Waxwork Tableau

Fine Arts Conservator Amy F. Byrne of Amy Fernandez, Inc, and Textile Conservator Jennifer Zemanek, examine a tableau made of wax and shells, that once belonged to Martha Washington. The tableau, which depicts the parting of Hector and Andromache, is now part of the collection at Tudor Place Historic House and Garden in Washington, DC.

Below is an article from the Winter/Spring 2010 Tudor Place Times describing the piece in more detail:

A Curious Piece
by Leslie Buhler
Resting atop a sideboard in the Parlour is a curious piece that surprises today’s visitors. It is a rare wax and shell tableau within a glass and wood frame box that was once a prized possession of Martha Washington.

The wax and shell tableau was given to Martha Washington by Samuel Fraunces, an ardent supporter of General Washington. Fraunces owned a tavern in New York City frequented by Washington and his men. It was there on December 4, 1783, that General Washington gave his farewell address to his Revolutionary War officers. (Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan was restored as a Museum and is open to the public.) After he was elected President of the thirteen United States in 1789, President Washington selected Samuel Fraunces to be the household steward of his executive mansion in New York City.

Samuel Fraunces created wax figures, a popular art form during the 18th century. Spectacular displays of life-sized historical figures in elaborate garments were in fashion in both England and the American colonies.
Fraunces chose to create for Mrs. Washington a wax and shell tableau depicting the parting of Hector and Andromache, a popular subject for engravings and paintings during the mid to late 18th century. The waning Age of Enlightenment, the rise of interest in Roman mythology, and a developing Romanticism found expression not only in script but also, in paintings, engravings, and other art forms. Fraunces probably selected his subject because Andromache was honored as the epitome of the loyal wife. An engraving on this same subject was at Mount Vernon and now is held at the Alexandria Masonic Lodge.

Having completed the wax and shell tableau, Fraunces wrote to President Washington: “I most earnestly beg your Excellency will order about the Carriage of a small piece of Shell-Work which I have lately completed for Mrs. Washington purposely – whose acceptance of it will confer the greatest honor on me – the field is Hector and Andromache adorned with Shell-Flowers the collections of a number of years.” New York Governor George Clinton facilitated the shipping of the wax and shell tableau, noting on March 5, 1785 that it was a “. . . very Ginger Bread piece of work.” Upon receipt, it is believed that Martha Washington placed the tableau in the bedroom she shared with her husband.

The wax and shell tableaux was purchased by Thomas and Martha Peter, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, at the 1802 estate sale following Mrs. Washington’s death. The Peters also purchased the chest-on-chest upon which it stood. When the Peter’s home at Tudor Place was completed, the chest-on-chest with the tableau was placed in the upper hallway of the center block. The chest-on-chest remained in this position for six generations of the Peter family. It was a constant reminder of the family’s ties to the Founding Father and his beloved wife.

The winter of 1954/55 the last owner of Tudor Place, Armistead Peter 3rd, was dismayed by the condition of the waxwork. He explained in his book, Tudor Place:

“At some time it had apparently been dropped or treated extremely badly, probably in the moving of the furniture which I have described earlier, at the time of the Civil War. The figures were all thrown about, the nurse on the left side had the right side of her face bashed in, and was lying in the summerhouse. The man had been thrown over and his head snapped off. The woman was still standing but her arm had been pulled loose from the corner of the frame. Most of the flowers had fallen down into the bottom, because it had evidently been put in such heat that the wax had melted that held them together; the animals were in disarray; the whole thing was really a shambles. I decided to do something about this . . . and took it down to the shop, opened it up, took the figures out and laid them carefully on bath towels that I had provided for the purpose, emptied out all the shells that had been parts of the flowers, sorted them all out into similar categories, took out the little summerhouse, and put the whole thing back together in the condition that you now see it.”

Today, however, the wax and shell tableau which so poignantly depicted the sacrifices of the wife of the Founding Father is in a state of severe deterioration. The chest-on-chest on which it so proudly stood is now undergoing a comprehensive conservation effort on Williamsburg, Va.; now this historic tableau also needs major conservation, and funding is sought to repair the ravages of time.

Posted by: Heather Bartlow, Director of Communications