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A Piece of the Puzzle

In the 1780s, John and Elizabeth Langdon decorated their best parlor boldly with pink wallpaper and purple-and-white curtains and slipcovers. Physical evidence indicates that a set of ceramic vases originally stood on the parlor mantelpiece. To replicate this element of the Langdons’ decorative scheme, SPNEA recently purchased a Chinese export porcelain garniture, c.1750, and installed the vases in their allotted places.

Several years ago, close examination of the architecture of the parlor in the Governor John Langdon House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, led to the discovery of five circular grooves carved into the top of the mantel shelf. The grooves indicate that the Langdons owned a set of vases, known as a garniture, and show exactly where each piece was placed in relation to the elaborate carving of the overmantel. Garnitures have their origins in the late seventeenth century, when sets of vases were produced in China for the European market. Purely ornamental, garnitures are often depicted in views of English interiors of the mid eighteenth century and are usually shown arranged symmetrically on mantelpieces.

SPNEA has recently been able to acquire a five-piece Chinese export garniture, which is now on display at the Langdon House, thereby adding one more authentic detail to the intepretation of the property. The search for the missing puzzle piece is now over, and the new vases fit snugly in nearly all the grooves, which provide them with the same stability on the narrow shelf as they did for the Langdons’ original prized possession.

—Richard C. Nylander Chief Curator
& Director of Collections

A Piece of the Puzzle