Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Earliest-Known, Virginia-made Horse Racing Trophy Acquired by Colonial Williamsburg

“Madison” Horse Racing Trophy, marked by Johnson & Reat (1804-1815), Richmond, Virginia, ca. 1811, silver, Museum Purchase, The Friends of Colonial Williamsburg Collections Fund, The Joseph H. and June S. Hennage Fund, Mark S. Farnsworth, and Partial Gift of the Family of Randolph Madison, Jr., 2023-13.

WILLIAMSBURG — In October 1810, a horse named Madison (likely in honor of President James Madison), won first place in a race held at the New-Market racecourse in Petersburg, Virginia.

Madison’s owner, Revolutionary War veteran Burwell Bassett Wilkes (1757-1815) of Brunswick Country received a $400 cash prize for the win.

Although Wilkes, who had turned to farming and breeding in the decades following the war, had several prized racehorses, this victory was certainly his greatest equestrian triumph. To mark the event, Wilkes converted his stakes into the “Madison” Horse Racing Trophy.

The trophy descended through five generations of the Wilkes family before recently coming to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s silver collection.

“Following more than two hundred years of careful preservation in the family of its original owner, Colonial Williamsburg is honored to become the permanent steward of this important and monumental example of early Virginia silversmithing,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Foundation’s senior vice president for education and historic resources.

The Madison trophy stands 13 1/4 inches high and expands to 10 1/4 inches between its lip and its handle. Made and marked by Johnson & Reat (1804-1815) of Richmond the trophy is similar in form to a cream pot but on a large scale.

Made of hollow repoussé construction, the horse head details are applied, chased and engraved.

“The Madison Trophy is colossal, a work of silversmithing genius, and jaw-dropping to see. It will instantly grab and hold your attention,” said Erik Goldstein, senior curator of mechanical arts, metals and numismatics. “Nothing like it exists in the world of early 19th-century, Virginia-made silver, and it is unique in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg for many reasons.”

Wilkes, being “low and weak of body,” composed his estate plan in late 1814. He passed away the following year at the age of 57. Described in his will as “a silver Cupp won by Madison,” the trophy went to his daughter Mary “Polly” Wilkes, who saw fit to scratch variations of her initials into the underside of the foot.

The formal inscription was added later and included the erroneous date “Spring, 1811” as shown by contemporary newspaper accounts. The trophy has been preserved in Virginia by Burwell Wilkes’ descendants since it was made.

The Madison Trophy was acquired through The Friends of Colonial Williamsburg Collections Fund, The Joseph H. and June S. Hennage Fund, Mark S. Farnsworth, and a partial gift of the Family of Randolph Madison, Jr. It is currently on view in the Chesapeake section of A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early Southlocated in the Nancy N. and Colin G. Campbell Gallery of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

Additional information about the Art Museums and Colonial Williamsburg, as well as tickets, are available online at colonialwilliamsburg.org, by calling 855-296-6627 and by following Colonial Williamsburg on Facebook and @colonialwmsburg on Twitter and Instagram.

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