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Wilton brings Revolutionary icons Washington and Lafayette to life vividly in its dazzling exhibit.

Conjuring Colonial Spirits


"Washington and Lafayette at Wilton"
Wilton House Museum
215 S. Wilton Road
Through Oct. 19
282-5936 "George Washington slept here" is the grandest claim that any American house can make. So consider: Not only did the father of our country stay at Richmond's Wilton House on numerous occasions, but so did the adopted son of the Revolution, French nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette. Wilton (moved in 1934 to its present location on the James from a site downriver) therefore, is laden with historical cachet. This being the 200th anniversary year of the death of Washington, and considering that on Oct. 19, 1781, Washington and Lafayette were together at Yorktown when the British surrendered, Wilton is offering a special exhibition, "Washington & Lafayette at Wilton for Friendship and Freedom." Running since spring, the ambitious and elegant show is in its last days. So not just those interested in American history, but also folks with a taste for French culture and cuisine, decorative arts, fashion or those seeking a brief escape from the clutter of contemporary culture should run, not walk, to Wilton Road. The exhibition is different from most others you have probably experienced. Each room of the house museum (already meticulously and handsomely furnished in high-style 18th-century American furniture and decorative arts), has been given a second layer of seldom-seen artifacts from dozens of places including Monticello, Montpelier, Mt. Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg. This second layer consists of objects that had special meaning in the lives of Washington or Lafayette. And since nothing in the exhibit is under glass in showcases, and there are neither labels nor text copy (docents lead the tours), the Wilton experience is akin to sneaking around the place while William Randolph (who built the house in 1753) has stepped out for the day. In the library, among the special items on display are Lafayette's coin purse and a pocket watch given by Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Beverly Randolph. Looming over the fireplace is a portrait of a handsome and uniformed Lafayette (on loan from Colonial National Historical Park). Below, a reproduction of the Frenchman's National Guard uniform jacket is draped over a chair. In the exquisitely wood-paneled parlor, curator Sylvia B. Evans has placed three mannequins with outfits from the late 18th century — a gentleman's court suit and two silk women's gowns. In the master bedchamber is a small portrait of Adrienne de Noailles. In 1774, at age 14, she and 16-year-old Lafayette were married. Placed across the room is a pair of cobalt-brilliant vases and candle holders which were given by Lafayette to James and Dolley Madison. In the upstairs boy's bedroom, a camp tent has been pitched: it is both a playful touch and a salute to the realities of life in the trenches. It is the dining room, however, that causes audible gasps from visitors. The table setting for eight is laid out for an 18th-century French dessert course much like Lafayette would have attended at court at Versailles. The Virginia Museum's Tiffany lamp and Faberge collections aside, seldom has a Richmond exhibit installation been so dazzling. The French Sevres china, with garlands and daisies, was manufactured in 1773 and presented by Louis XV to his grandson as a wedding present. "Washington and Lafayette at Wilton" is an object-driven, experiential museum-going experience. The absence of labels is refreshing — it allows one's eyes to do the "reading." And what rewards await! The exhibit takes two American icons and infuses them with humanity, warmth and even romance. It all but conjures up Washington and Lafayette in a refreshing, intelligent and visually stunning

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