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Fine arts curator takes a look at Montpelier's treasures

Fine arts curator Sumpter Priddy III gave a talk at Montpelier Mansion Sept. 15 about the rich history of antique furniture in Washington and its neighboring communities, in addition to highlighting what makes the mansion's furniture collection so special.

Priddy, who is an expert antiques curator, spoke about the distinctions between furniture made during the 18th and 19th centuries in Washington and popular pieces made in the surrounding area throughout Maryland and Virginia. After the presentation, he guided attendees on an impromptu tour throughout Montpelier Mansion.

According to its website, Montpelier Mansion was built in the late 18th century and is revered for its Georgian-style architecture. The house, which sits on 70 acres in South Laurel, has hosted many famous Americans including George Washington, according to the website. It is now run by the Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation, in cooperation with volunteers from Friends of Montpelier, as a house museum and can be rented out by the public.

After his presentation, Priddy spoke specifically about the furnishings in the mansion.

"You all have some amazing things in this house," said Priddy. "(It) is just something else."

According to Priddy, there are certain aspects of the mansion's construction that are "almost unparalleled" to other places he has studied, with the exception of some buildings in Annapolis and Washington. He went on to mention a sofa in particular, which he believes was made in the 1790s and could possibly be the "great grand-daddy" of many of the sofas he spoke about in his presentation.

During the casual half-hour tour of the house museum, Priddy went room to room commenting on the particularities of the mansion. In the dining room, while admiring the structure of the dining table, Priddy was hands-on; he lifted the tablecloth, moving his hands along the table's legs, checking its support while pointing out its unique designs. The group also discussed the design and reconstruction of the dining room's inset cabinetry.

Priddy, who was born and raised in Virginia, has been studying the history of furniture in the Washington-Maryland-Virginia area for the past 25 years, and his expertise has gained him notability within the antiques and fine arts community. For his work, he has been featured in many specialty publications, including The Magazine Antiques. Priddy worked at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Va., for five years in the late 1970s and currently runs his own business, Sumpter Priddy Inc.

In his presentation, Priddy emphasized that the network of artisans and influence of many furnishings made in Annapolis during the 18th century had made its way south to areas such as Baltimore, Alexandria and Washington. Annapolis, which was a center of politics and culture at the time, had set roots in these neighboring areas and helped them define their own unique styles in the industry, he said.

His presentation focused specifically on the areas of Georgetown and Alexandria, which he believed were not well recognized as areas with notable craftsmanship. There are some furnishings that "people think should be Baltimore or Annapolis, but really aren't," said Priddy.

The audience listened intently as Priddy presented a slideshow that highlighted unique aspects of certain pieces, including some of which furnished the White House. Everything from the technical construction to the creative design was analyzed.

The event was made possible through work done by a local collector who is also one of the museum's volunteers, according to Holly Burnham, historian and museum educator at Montpelier Mansion. They discovered that Priddy had a connection to the mansion.

"Some of our pieces have been in some of Mr. Priddy's books," said Burnham. "We just thought it was appropriate to have him come down and speak about furnishings."

Though this was a special one-time event, the mansion does have other speakers throughout the year in addition to a lecture series. For more information, go to history.pgparks.com.

Sydney Paul is a University of Maryland graduate student.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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