Historic Upholstery Expert Took an Uncommon Path to Success

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Graves poses in the furniture lab with one of his current projects- a recreation of a chair owned by George Washington's mother. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Graves poses in the furniture lab with one of his current projects – a re-creation of a chair owned by George Washington’s mother. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

Leroy Graves, author of Colonial Williamsburg’s new book on Early Seating Upholstery, never anticipated he would be one of the world’s leading experts on the subject when he was growing up in the small community of Long Island, Virginia in the 1940s.

“It was a rural area, and you only had a few choices to make a living there,” Graves said of his hometown. “There was working on the railroad or sharecropping, and that was it.”

Graves’ childhood did not afford him many educational opportunities, which makes his tremendous success in the field of conservation all the more remarkable.

School took a backseat to working in the tobacco and cornfields that were the basis of town’s economy, and when Graves moved to Williamsburg with his mother at age 12 he barely had a first-grade education.

Facing such a significant disadvantage in terms of formal education, Graves dropped out of high school and moved back to Long Island at age 16. There he took up the life for which it seemed he had been destined: working as a sharecropper alongside his grandfather.

“But it just wasn’t a life for me at all,” he said.

Graves felt compelled to return to Williamsburg, and once there he began doing “whatever it took to make a living.”

His employment history in his early and mid-20s included stints working as a cook, a construction worker and a janitor.

Then at age 27 he took a job that would change the entire trajectory of his life. In 1967 he came on as a member of the facilities maintenance staff at Colonial Williamsburg for what he thought would be another short-term employment opportunity to add to his resume.

“I thought I’d be here for a couple of weeks, but now it’s been over forty years,” Graves said.

Graves remained with facilities maintenance, where his responsibilities included mostly structural upkeep and repair, for just over a year before he was asked to transfer to the Department of Collections to fill an open art handler position.

Art handlers for Colonial Williamsburg are in charge of moving the many antique objects the Foundation has in its charge. For more than a decade, Graves helped package objects to be shipped, moved furniture from place to place and took care of some of the artifacts that needed upkeep, such as pewter plates that required polishing.

It was during that period of his life that Graves first became familiar with upholstery conservation. Colonial Williamsburg contracted at that time with two upholsterers from New York who would come down during the summers to work on items too large or fragile to ship, and he often spent his lunch hour hanging out with them.

“I’ve always loved to learn to do new things, and anything I helped them with was something they didn’t have to do,” Graves said.

The typical approach to applying upholstery to antique chairs and sofas at that time was to secure the fabric to the frame by any means necessary. This often involved the use of hundreds of steel nails that were drilled into the wooden furniture, permanently altering and weakening it as a structure.

Hours spent observing the destruction being rendered to these precious antique objects would come into play in a major way later in his career.

It was Graves’ enthusiasm for learning and attention to detail that caught the eye of the senior curatorial staff at Colonial Williamsburg, according to a recent news release. This led to a promotion to the furniture conservation lab, where he would ultimately make a name for himself.

The lab was in the throes of a major redesign of the Governor’s Palace as new information had come to light in the 1970s about the interior’s original layout and appointment. Graves in particular began to focus on the upholstery of a set of 12 dining chairs.

“The only concern was to hold the upholstery onto the frame, and in the process we were destroying the frame,” Graves said. “That was when we started to focus on why don’t we try to do this with half the amount of nails? Why don’t we use copper tacks instead of steel nails?”

It was from this thought process that “The Graves Approach” was born. Graves led his coworkers in pioneering an approach to upholstery that was non-invasive and removable, meaning someone could easily remove whatever upholstery was applied and look at the original frame.

The idea of non-invasive and removable upholstery quickly caught fire, expanding to include a variety of new materials and techniques to improve the authenticity and preservation of antique chairs and sofas.

Upholstery, which was once applied at great expense to the object, became a means to actually protect the frames it adorned with the introduction of rigid copper plates beneath the filling and fabric.

In addition to improved materials, the Graves approach drew on improved understanding of colonial furnishings.

Historians and conservationists at Colonial Williamsburg and other museums around the country began to realize they were over-stuffing the antique chairs in their collections, “creating an out-of-proportion and distorted appearance that was hiding carefully shaped frames, carved ornaments and other design elements,” according to a news release from Colonial Williamsburg.

The process that Graves developed and continued to tweak once he joined the Conservation Department at its inception in 1984 revolutionized the industry and was quickly adapted at other historical institutions.

“This system is being used in museums all over the country,” Graves said. “It’s the standard now.”

Graves role in pioneering such an influential approach to upholstery application led several of his colleagues to encourage him to compile his expertise into a book. After 10 years of work, Graves’ book was published in October and is available for purchase in bookstores now.

Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence is rich in both the history of upholstery and information about the Graves approach, complete with extensive illustrations and color photographs. It details how conservators can examine objects forensically in order to learn how to handle them.

“Never before has a book on the subject been written by someone who is both a craftsman and a furniture historian, qualifications that provide the author with a unique perspective,” reads a recent news release from Colonial Williamsburg.

Graves’ position as an authority straddling two fields is unique in more than one way. It does not escape him, nor his colleagues at Colonial Williamsburg, that the path he took to get to where he is would not be open to many today.

“If I had to apply for this job today, I couldn’t get it,” Graves said.

David B. Blanchfield, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of conservation, echoes that sentiment in the book’s forward.

“In a time when great emphasis is placed on the formal education of young art conservators, Leroy’s career serves as a reminder that an earlier paradigm, that of apprentice training, remains valid,” Blanchfield writes.

For his part, Graves is both proud of what he has achieved and humbled by the help he has had along the way.

“Whatever I’ve done, I took pride in,” Graves said of how his work ethic has played into his success. “Even when I was washing dishes, I tried to be the best dishwasher there was.”

Graves also gives a great deal of credit to Colonial Williamsburg for the opportunities it has provided him.

“Colonial Williamsburg is such a wonderful place,” Graves said. “We have such great resources, and such a wonderful staff, both curators and conservators. It says something that I’ve stayed here for 48 years.”

The remaining years of his time in the workforce will be dedicated to passing on his knowledge as a conservationist to the next generation of Colonial Williamsburg employees, as well as to building up his private business, for which he makes and upholsters furniture – both originals and historical re-creations – for personal use.

“I hope the book will be motivating for the younger generation, to maybe get them interested in this,” Graves said. “I do believe every person on this planet has some type of talent and was put here for something. You just have to be open to it.”