A new exhibit at the William King Museum: Center for Art and Cultural Heritage playfully evokes the lives and adventures of children growing up in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
On display at the Abingdon, Va., museum through May 13, “Dress-Up: A Regional Portrait of Childhood” explores the interaction of art and fashion with children’s lives in the region through examples of historic costume and period portraiture. Other items such as toys, furniture and journals compliment the subject of childhood from this bygone era.
“Childhood was viewed as a romantic time in life,” curator Leila Cartier writes in the exhibit’s accompanying gallery guide. “However, childhood did not extend as far into adolescence as it does today. Young children often played an integral part in the daily operations of any household through chores and errands. Many examples of clothing that have been left behind in this region have been well-worn, revealing that children’s lives were full of activity. Most families, even prosperous ones, passed down clothing to younger siblings so as not to be wasteful. Patchwork and repairs suggest an intimate and affectionate relationship between the child and their caretaker.”
Those fashions are captured in the exhibit’s portraiture — both painted and photographed. A portrait of Anna Chastain, from the William King Museum collection, was likely painted by an itinerant artist, while “Portrait of a Tennessee Family” is the work of regional portraitist Samuel Moore Shaver. Born in Sullivan County, Tenn., Shaver worked as an artist in East Tennessee during the middle part of the 19th century.
There are countless photographs of children as well — some are candid and others were taken in professional studios. Many of these photographs are preserved by regional libraries and historical societies such as the O.L. Hensley Art Studio of Jonesborough, made available to the William King Museum through the Jonesborough-Washington County History Museum/Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
Unconventionally, in Washington County, Va., the now-celebrated photographer Thomas Rupert (T.R. or Tommy) Phelps helped to provide for his family by roaming the countryside on his horse and taking commissioned portraits. Children were a frequent subject in Phelps’ photographs, and these children appear within the context of their homes and land, often with their toys, and in every-day clothes rather than “dressed-up” for a formal studio portrait. These photographs and hundreds of others have been archived by Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va.
Although the “Dress-Up” exhibition focuses primarily on the costuming of children, there are two literary items that contain particularly striking narratives of childhood early in the region.
One of them belongs to Jane Douglas Summers Brown, daughter of the noteworthy author Lewis Preston Summers, who wrote the comprehensive “History of Southwest Virginia and Washington County.” Brown wrote an unpublished memoir late in her life — titled “As I Remember It: Recollections of Old Abingdon” — in which she records descriptive memories of what it was like to grow up in Abingdon at the turn of the century through the eyes of a child. In one passage, she recalls time spent with a childhood friend:
“Inez was my contemporary, and we spent many happy childhood hours together. As playmates we kept ‘house’ among the lumber stacks of her father’s blacksmith shop and wagon factory, a short distance away on Tanner Street. We made mud pies in our ‘kitchen’ and played with our dolls. We competed with each other jumping from one pile of stacked lumber to another. It was an exhilarating but dangerous game.”
The William King Museum, located at 415 Academy Drive, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday; and from 1 to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
Admission is $5 for adults; $3 for seniors; and free for students, members and children.
For more information about “Dress-Up” or any of the exhibits at the William King Museum, call (276) 628-5005.