Winterthur’s Meredith Graves: An Interview
Seventh in our series of interviews of those charged with the various aspects of historic site stewardship is Meredith Graves. Ms. Graves is the Senior Designer and Coordinator of the Winterthur flower program, a position she has held for the past seven years and has been member of the flower design team at Winterthur for over ten years, overseeing all the flower and display work at the museum, which involves collaborating with all divisions of the museum and all curatorial staff.
Meredith graduated with a degree in history from Trinity College in Hartford, CT and retains a Masters degree in Education. She began her career in New York City in the design field and has followed it passionately ever since. A move to the Wilmington Delaware community allowed her to pursue a degree from the renowned Longwood Garden Floral Program. Meredith has lectured throughout the East Coast and enjoys a full life surrounded by flowers and fine design.
What types of flowers did Henry Francis du Pont favor?
Mr. du Pont was not known to favor certain flowers. He was a very fine horticulturist and focused on the best and most unusual specimens and cultivars of flowers. Mr. du Pont had a four acre cutting garden and twenty three greenhouses. Color was the essence in Mr. du Pont’s aesthetic and flowers that worked with his textiles, china, linens, furniture, and room design were chosen and for that moment were his favorite!
Did Mr. du Pont leave any specifications for flowers at Winterthur?
Mr. du Pont’s love of flowers made them ever-present at Winterthur as well as his homes in New York City, Long Island and Florida. Therefore we are very fortunate today to have fresh flowers at Winterthur as Mr. du Pont specified in his will:
“I always want the museum to look as someone living in it……There must be flowers in the room……There must be someone employed who has taste and will use the right colors in the rooms as is done now”
Fortunately for me, I am that person now.
What do you have to consider when selecting flower varieties?
This is a very good question. Color is always first for the specified rooms, but equally important is the flowers staying power and ability to work in a museum setting. Flowers that weep or shed pollen easily are an absolute no.
Do you grow the flowers at Winterthur?
We are very limited in what we can grow and cut here at Winterthur. Winterthur offers one of the finest naturalistic gardens in the English landscape style. Cutting gardens have been reduced and only a few greenhouses remain. I buy as much local product as possible from area growers that would reflect the kinds of flowers and color combinations that Mr. du Pont would have had in his house.
How many hours a week do you devote to the upkeep and monitoring of the arrangements?
We groom arrangements daily, and on Mondays when the museum is closed we dismantle all the arrangements and dry those flowers that we can in preparation for our highly regarded dried flower tree that is displayed during the Yuletide Season. New flowers are delivered Monday mornings and processed and containers sterilized. New floral designs are created Tuesday morning and placed in the museum rooms by 10 am. Grooming and maintenance of flowers involves approximately 15 hours a week, preparation and design work another 20 hours.
How do you coordinate your efforts with the curatorial department?
I work with the curatorial departments very closely. I am aware of textile changes and movement of furniture, as well as seasonal interpretive tours and how that affects the flowers I chose and the focus of the designs we create. It is a very close continual association. It would not be possible to create what we do effectively and beautifully without this association.
What do you say to those who believe that living flower arrangements in a historic interior create a preservation risk?
We are very fortunate here at Winterthur to have fresh flowers in the house. It is something our guests appreciate and what Mr. du Pont desired. Therefore we have a very thorough care and handling procedure and in-depth training for our floral design team. It is taken very seriously and followed strictly. Only certain tables and locations are approved for fresh arrangements. So in that regard, we reduce the preservation risk as much as humanly possible.
Can you walk me through the process of creating an arrangement? Say for the Phyfe Room (my personal favorite)?
We are indeed very fortunate to have copious records and documentation by Mr. du Pont of flowers and containers used in his rooms. As this was Mr. du Pont’s home, we work in his design aesthetic. Mr. du Pont had multiple arrangements in his rooms…..all of one single type of flower, often in large punch bowls, cache pots and glass vessels. We do the same today. I take into account the textiles of the season, the vistas from the windows and colors following suit, the china and floral design placement. From there I choose the appropriate container and flowers. This would be done for the Phyfe Room, as any others.
Do you have a favorite room at Winterthur to create arrangements for?
Truly each room has so much beauty and dimension. But I do love choosing the flowers for Chinese Parlor and executing that design. The flowers in this location tend to be tall and bountiful and the end result just magical. A lush bouquet of peonies, rich in fragrance and in combination with the stunning Chinese scenic wallpaper is just so beautiful this time of year. As one of Mr. du Pont’s weekend visitors said when entering this room and viewing the flowers,” I just gasped…. It was the Chinese Room…I was wordless…indeed breathless.”