A Curious Attic Find: Drayton Hall's Watercolors
Anyone who has ever watched Antiques Roadshow dreams of stumbling across a hidden treasure in a dusty attic. Descendants of the 18th-century plantation owner John Drayton did exactly that, finding a portfolio of watercolors on the top floor of a family member’s house in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1969. A team of experts later identified the paintings as rare, original works by the celebrated British ornithologist and artist George Edwards, painted in 1733.
In 2011, a fundraising campaign that included a gift from Ben and Cindy Lenhardt allowed Drayton Hall (John Drayton’s Palladian house in Charleston and a National Trust Historic Site), to acquire 21 of the watercolors from the Drayton family, which made them available at half their market value. “They were clearly a very early purchase or gift—probably a gift—from George Edwards to John Drayton, his North American benefactor,” says Sarah Stroud Clarke, archaeologist and curator of collections at Drayton Hall. Among the birds depicted in this series are the bald eagle, the red-winged blackbird, and the Carolina parrot. Their physical attributes are rendered with a scientist’s precision and an artist’s flair. “In person, they shimmer, almost like a bird’s feathers would,” Clarke says.
The paintings had suffered minor damage, but “they were in remarkably good shape, for being locked in a Charleston attic,” Clarke notes. Chicago specialist Joel Oppenheimer oversaw their conservation in 2013, cleaning them and repairing small tears in the paper. They are now known as The Lenhardt Collection of George Edwards Watercolors at Drayton Hall, and eight will be on display this summer at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, as part of a larger exhibit on Edwards’ contemporary Mark Catesby. Next year, a selection of the watercolors will go on display at Drayton Hall’s new exhibit gallery, which is currently under construction.