Telfair Academy Audio Tour
Listening Station 1: Telfair Family History
Welcome to the Telfair Academy. Alexander Telfair commissioned English architect William Jay to design this home for his family in 1817. You are standing in the double parlor, which originally featured pocket doors that could be opened or closed to adjust the size of the rooms. A team of black and white, free and enslaved craftsmen completed the Telfair house, which is now the Telfair Academy, in 1819. Alexander moved into the urban residence with his mother and unmarried sisters, Mary and Margaret, and his widowed sister, Sarah Haig, upon its completion. The Telfair family numbered among the most prominent in the state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Edward Telfair, Alexander’s father, had served as governor of Georgia and as a delegate in the Continental Congress. Telfair operated a lucrative merchant enterprise but made much of the wealth his family enjoyed by enslaving over 600 hundred men, women, and children on rural agricultural properties.
By the time Alexander commissioned this house, his father and two older brothers were deceased, leaving him in control of the family fortunes. Though enslaved people were generating their wealth in rural areas, the family spent most of their time in Savannah, where Alexander led an active civic life, serving on committees and local ventures. Alexander died in 1832, leaving his sisters in the family home.
The Telfair family generally summered outside the South, usually in New York or New Jersey, but occasionally in Europe. On a trip to Europe in 1842, Margaret met her future husband, William Brown Hodgson. An accomplished diplomat and scholar, Hodgson returned to Savannah with the sisters and spent the rest of his life in the company of Mary and Margaret. In fact, evidence suggests that this trio together concocted the idea of turning their home into a “Library and Academy of Arts and Sciences” upon their deaths.
Proceed to listening station two on the same wall for information about the people enslaved by the Telfair family.
Listening Station 2: People Enslaved by the Telfair Family
The Telfairs were extraordinarily wealthy. They belonged to a small class of Southerners called the Coastal Aristocracy who made their money by enslaving people of African descent in the Low Country and profiting off their labor, while enjoying social and political connections that extended to northern cities and European countries. The Telfairs enslaved over 600 people on their various rural properties.
In addition to the people on whose labor the Telfairs profited, the family enslaved several people in their urban residence. Friday and George Gibbons were born on one of the Telfairs’ agricultural labor camps and brought to Savannah as children to serve in this house. Surviving evidence does not tell us if they ever saw their parents again. Juddy Telfair Jackson cooked the food enjoyed by the Telfairs and their friends, while her granddaughter Lavinia, the daughter of George Gibbons and Juddy’s daughter Coomba, served as Mary’s maid.
Proceed around the wall to learn about the architect.
Listening Station 3: William Jay
The architect William Jay was born to the Reverend William Jay and his wife Anne Davies Jay on November 16, 1792 and grew up in Bath, England. For his education as an architect, Jay apprenticed with David Riddall Roper in London. During his time with Roper, he attended lectures at the Royal Academy and submitted designs to several exhibitions and competitions. The lectures Jay attended were presented by John Soane, whose ideas became highly influential in Jay’s work. Jay traveled to Savannah in 1817, following the prospect of work through family connections. Jay likely hoped that Richardson, to whom he was connected by marriage, would be able to send business his way, in addition to the fine residence (the current Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters) he had already designed, which was under construction before he departed England. He would not be disappointed. Richardson and his connections provided Jay with a constant source of work during his years in Savannah. He ultimately designed at least five private residences and five commercial properties before leaving the city. Many of the design features that make the Owens-Thomas House visually striking are duplicated here. Notice the curved walls and three-dimensional molding in this space.
Move to the left and look for listening station 4 to learn about the founding of the museum.
Listening Station 4: Carl Brandt and the Founding
When Mary Telfair died in 1875, she was the last descendant in Edward’s line to bear the Telfair name. She used her philanthropic bequests to immortalize her family name. In addition to founding Telfair Hospital for Females, she left her home to the Georgia Historical Society (GHS) with instructions that it should become the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences. Mary was so interested in honoring her family, she gave specific instructions for the lettering of the Telfair name on the exterior of the building.
GHS was a natural fit for governance of the organization. Mary’s brother-in-law, William Brown Hodgson, had served as a curator of the historical society for many years, and after his death Mary and Margaret commissioned a new building for the society to be named Hodgson Hall in his honor.
Few museums existed in the United States at the time, and the curators of Georgia Historical Society were at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed with the Telfair Academy. Fortunately, Henry Rootes Jackson, the president of GHS, knew artist Carl Brandt well. Brandt had also been an acquaintance of the Telfairs and painted the portrait of William Brown Hodgson that has adorned the walls of Hodgson Hall since its construction.
Brandt, an academic European artist, set about collecting art for the new institution. He traveled to the major salon exhibitions of Europe, purchasing large-scale academic and historical paintings. He also commissioned copies of important works of sculpture from major collections. In fact, he collected so much art, the original Telfair house had to be altered and expanded before the institution could open to the public.
Brandt served as the museum’s director until his death in 1905.
Move to the drafting table behind you to hear about the changes made by architect Detlef Lienau.
Listening Station 5: Detlef Lienau
The original Telfair house consisted of a receiving room, formal dining room, and double parlor on the main level; bedrooms and a study on the upper floor; and service areas like the kitchen in the raised basement. The property also included a walled work yard between the main house and the slave quarters and carriage house. Carl Brandt, the museum’s first director, worked with the museum’s board of directors to hire Detlef Lienau to alter the home to create an appropriate space to show off the works of art he’d collected in Europe.
In the main house, Lienau removed the original staircase, raised the roofline, and expanded the skylight. In the area that previously occupied the yard, he added the sculpture gallery with the rotunda above. A new marble staircase connected the original house to this equally sized addition and allowed access to the second floor. Lienau also built a residence and classrooms for Brandt where the slave quarters and carriage house originally existed.
The rotunda featured a large skylight that shone through an oculus in the floor, which in turn illuminated the magnificent Toro Farnese sculpture below.
Head out the door and up the stairs.
Listening Station 6: Rotunda
This stunning, tranquil space was added to the Telfair house under the supervision of director Carl Brandt and architect Detlef Lienau, effectively doubling the size of the building. The original skylight shone down through an oculus in the center of the room where a sofa is now located. The light moved through the oculus to shine on the massive statue, the Toro Fornese, in the sculpture gallery below. Lienau and Brandt understood the importance of natural light in early museums. The scale of the space was also important. Brandt collected massive paintings of epic scenes from the salon exhibitions of Europe. Paintings like the Black Price at Crecy and La Parabola could hardly grace typical drawing room walls. Though this space has changed over the years, it currently invokes the mood and spirit of Brandt’s original vision. Brandt himself modeled the plaster decorative elements and painted the four surviving murals representing the visual arts on the upper level of this gallery.
Take a look at the large portrait on your right.
Listening Station 7: Julian Story
In the 19th century, artists often created large, narrative history paintings like this one in order to gain entry into prestigious exhibitions, such as the Paris Salon. Titled The Black Prince at Crécy, this painting depicts the aftermath of a battle that took place in 1346 during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.
The central figure is the victorious Prince of Wales, Edward, often referred to as the “Black Prince” due to his preference for dark armor. Edward stands over the body of his slain opponent, King John of Bohemia, an ally of the French, who rode into battle alongside his troops despite being blind. Out of respect for his fallen adversary, Edward adopted King John’s motto, Ich dien (I serve), and it remains the motto of England’s Princes of Wales today.
American artist Julian Story painted this work in 1888, more than 500 years after the event it portrays. Telfair’s first director, Carl Brandt, purchased it directly from the artist in 1889. Somewhat unusually, Brandt purchased the painting with his own funds and bequeathed it to Telfair upon his death in 1905.
Continue to your left to learn more about the museum’s founder.
Listening Station 8: Mary Telfair Portrait
Carl Brandt painted this portrait of Mary Telfair from memory after her death. Mary was a bit of a contradiction. She managed to insist on conformation to traditional Southern virtues while also bucking the system she was born into. Mary was educated at Miss Dow’s school for girls in New York and Newark Academy in New Jersey. She was well read and literate in current events. Along with her sisters, she spent her summers in New York or New Jersey and traveled to Europe four times. Mary thought highly of her family’s position in society and kept her social circles in Savannah accordingly limited.
Mary never married, likely because she never found a man she saw as her equal. By the time she was 30, she had settled on the idea of “single blessedness.” She expressed herself with a bluntness and honesty that shocked some in her social circles, but never missed an opportunity to critique the manners and social graces of others. Though she professed to abhor excessive pride, her will’s main consideration seems to have been the aggrandizement of the Telfair name. Through her bequest, she created the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Telfair Hospital for Females.
Continue to move around the room to the left.
Listening Station 9: Gari Melchers
After the death of the first museum director, Carl Brandt, the board engaged Gari Melchers as its official art advisor. As an artist himself, Melchers was well connected in the art world, allowing him to purchase works directly from artists as soon as they were complete. His preferences and connections moved the permanent collection in a different direction than that set by Carl Brandt. Where Brandt collected grand historical paintings by European artists, Melchers pursued the impressionist pieces that were popular in his time. He expanded the collection to include many American artists as well. Melchers advised the institution officially from 1906 to 1916 and acquired over 70 works for the permanent collection.
Continue to move around the room to your left.
Listening Station 10: Walter MacEwen (Belle of 1810)
This painting by American expatriate artist Walter MacEwen is a study in costume and fabric. A modern young woman of the early 20th century surveys her appearance in an antique gown, fashioned in the Empire style that had been popular 100 years prior. Made of elegant pink satin, its lustrous sheen rendered with meticulous precision, the gown is the true star of the composition.
This painting is one of many paintings acquired for Telfair Museums on the advice of Gari Melchers, who served as fine arts advisor from 1906 to 1916, and unofficially through the 1920s. In addition to being an accomplished and highly awarded artist in his own right, Melchers used his connections with his fellow artists to negotiate favorable purchase prices on Telfair’s behalf. Many of the works he acquired are on view in this section of the Rotunda Gallery and in the Sculpture Gallery beneath you. Unlike the somber European academic paintings favored by his predecessor, Carl Brandt, Melchers preferred more progressive styles of art and would acquire works by American and European artists associated with Impressionism, the ashcan school, pointillism, Art Nouveau, and other modern art movements.
A tribute to Melchers published in the New York Times shortly after his death describes his progressive vision, which applied to his own artmaking as well as the work he collected for Telfair: “[He] argued in paint a sympathetic appreciation of the fact that living art can never afford to shut the door upon fresh search and significant discovery.”
Head upstairs and into the gallery on your left.
Listening Station 11: Gallery 1
For much of the 19th century, this was the bedroom of Margaret Telfair Hodgson, Mary Telfair’s sister, and her husband, William Brown Hodgson. Margaret met Hodgson during a tour of Europe and married after a whirlwind romance while still abroad. The Hodgsons and Mary lived together in the house from the Hodgsons’ marriage in 1841 until their deaths. The three were constant companions, traveling together often. It is likely that the idea to create a museum was developed collectively. None of them had children and they would leave a considerable fortune at the end of their lives. As the last living member of the household, it was Mary’s will that created the new museum. Today, this room houses temporary exhibitions exploring art, history, and architecture.
Continue through the door into gallery two.
Listening Station 12: Gallery 2
This room served as William Brown Hodgson’s study during his residence in the home. Hodgson exemplified the curiosity and voracious appetite for knowledge that characterized 19th century intellectuals. Though he did not benefit from the elite education received by his peers, Hodgson’s affinity for languages and his willingness to travel to lands rarely seen by Westerners quickly brought him to the attention of men in power, namely Francis Scott Key, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams.
Hodgson began his diplomatic career in 1826 with a post in Algiers. Over the next 16 years, he visited cities and countries all over the world on state department business, including Constantinople, Egypt, Panama, and Tunis. He studied the languages and customs of many of the people he encountered during that time. As a result of his travel and studies, Hodgson learned 13 languages, including Berber, Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Persian, French, and Spanish.
His 1842 marriage to Margaret Telfair necessitated a return to the United States, but Hodgson continued to study customs and people from his new home in Savannah. He sought out enslaved Muslims, who constituted approximately 30 percent of the people enslaved on Southern plantations and interviewed them about their religion and languages. However, his interest in other cultures and respect for their beliefs did not deter his participation in the institution of slavery. Once he married into the Telfair family, Hodgson managed the family plantations and the hundreds of enslaved people who labored on them and enjoyed the labor of enslaved house servants at the Telfair Mansion such as Juddy Telfair Jackson, George and Coomba Gibbons, and their daughter Lavinia.
Hodgson ultimately published works on ethnology, linguistics, and geology and became a curator of the Georgia Historical Society, as well as a member of the America Philosophical Society and the American Orientalist Society. He was elected to the geographical societies of two countries, the Asiatic societies of two countries, and the ethnological societies of three countries.
Today, this room houses temporary exhibitions exploring art, history, and architecture.
Head out the opposite door, across the walkway, and into gallery three.
Listening Station 13: Gallery 3
This southeast room on the second floor of the Telfair house was originally a bedroom, likely the room where Mary Telfair spent her final days and signed her 1875 will that founded the Telfair Academy. A now-covered window opening once looked onto the square outside.
Used for exhibitions since 1886, this space currently features the exhibition Before Midnight: Bonaventure and the Bird Girl. The exhibition looks at historic Bonaventure Cemetery through visual art that it inspired or held, including Sylvia Shaw Judson’s bronze sculpture Bird Girl. Originally placed in Bonaventure in the late 1930s, Bird Girl became famous as the subject of artist Jack Leigh’s photograph for the cover of John Berendt’s bestselling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. After the book brought thousands of visitors to Bonaventure disrupting the family plot, the owners removed the sculpture and loaned it to Telfair Museums.
Judson initially designed Bird Girl as a garden statue in 1936, creating six original castings of Bird Girl, five in bronze and one in lead. Look carefully at the bowls in Bird Girl’s hands and notice the small holes at the front and center of each bowl. Judson at one point titled this work Fountain Figure, engineering the sculpture so that water could be piped upward and drain from the front of each bowl into the base of a fountain.
Head through the door and into gallery four.
Listening Station 14: Gallery 4
This gallery, which would have been used as a bedroom when this building was a private home, displays paintings and drawings of Savannah’s built environment from the early to mid-20th century. Some of these artists were homegrown talents, born and educated in Savannah, who likely learned about art by taking classes right here at the Telfair Academy. Others had no formal art training but were drawn to artmaking out of a desire for personal expression. Still others were visiting professional artists drawn to Savannah as a respite from the harsh winters of the northeastern part of the country. Together, these works portray a patchwork of life in Savannah during the early 20th century, a time of rapid change in the city.
When Telfair opened to the public in 1886 as the first public art museum in the south, it was focused mainly on the art of Europe. That focus expanded to include American artists working in New York and other major American cities, but Telfair would not start actively collecting the art of Savannah until nearly a century later. The accession numbers on the labels in this gallery demonstrate this; most of them date from the 1980s to the present day.
Exit through the opposite door and head all the way down the stairs to the sculpture gallery.
Listening Station 15: Sculpture Gallery
This sculpture gallery was once crowded with 73 plaster casts of the world’s most famous sculptures, a common practice in American art museums in the 19th century. During this era, white Americans and their European counterparts believed that ancient Greece and Rome were the birthplaces of civilization and taste. Brandt and the museum’s board wanted to bring the civilization and sophistication of European art and architecture to Savannahians who might never travel abroad. Cast collections were essential to the training of artists at the time and to institutions like the Telfair Academy, which offered art instruction from its earliest years. Brandt commissioned these reproductions from some of the greatest collections in Europe, including the Vatican and the Louvre. In the 20th century, these plaster casts were devalued as copies and many museum cast collections, including much of Telfair’s, were destroyed.
Today, this space houses the remaining plaster casts from Telfair’s collection, as well as highlights from the museum’s collection of American paintings, including important work by George Bellows, Robert Henri, Theresa Bernstein, and Kahlil Gibran.
Turn to the corner to your right to learn about Kahlil Gibran.
Listening Station 16: Gibran
Kahlil Gibran is best known as the author of The Prophet, a book of poetry and fables first published in 1923. Yet Gibran’s involvement in the visual arts was also vital to his artistic personal expression; he produced watercolors, drawings, and oils from a young age. Some, like the paintings on view here, were independently conceived works of art, while others were created to illustrate his books and poems.
Telfair owns the largest collection of Gibran’s visual art in the United States, consisting of five paintings, eighteen watercolors, and six drawings all donated to the museum by one of Gibran’s most important patrons, Mary Haskell Minis, a few decades after the artist’s death. Because most of the Gibran collection consists of fragile works on paper, they are only put on public view once every few years. The portrait of a young Kahlil Gibran hanging nearby was painted by American impressionist Lilla Cabot Perry about a decade after Gibran immigrated to Boston from his birthplace in Lebanon. Perry dressed him in white robes for the portrait, reflecting not the type of attire he would have worn in daily life, but her own Orientalist vision of the Arab world.
Continue around the room to the left to learn about other works in our collection.
Listening Station 18: The Dying Gaul
When plaster casts of marble statues from antiquity were being created in the 19th century, it was, in fact, the second time these pieces had been copied. Many of these masterpieces were originally made of bronze and produced in ancient Greece. When the Roman empire expanded, Romans began to emulate Greek artistic culture, creating marble copies of many bronze originals. Since that time, most of the original bronze statues have been lost or melted down to repurpose the metal. Only the Roman marble copies and subsequent plaster casts remain.
Likewise, this cast is a replica of the Roman marble copy of the Greek bronze of the Dying Gaul. The original was likely created in the third century BCE to commemorate the victory of King Attalus of Pergamon over his Gallic adversaries. These Celts had moved into Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the early 3rd century BCE and became known in the region as Galatians. King Attalus’ victory prevented their invasion of Greek cities. It is possible that the original Greek statue was brought to Rome by Nero, but today only the Roman copy remains.
Continue around the room to the left until you reach the stairs. Head into the historical kitchen under the main staircase.
Listening Station 19: Kitchen
Keeping a house like the Telfair house running took considerable labor. Much of that labor occurred in the raised basement of the house. Today, much of this level is used for museum collection storage, but the original kitchen remains. Enslaved people like Friday Gibbons, George Gibbons, Coomba Gibbons, Juddy Telfair Jackson, and Lavinia worked hard day in and day out to make the Telfair family’s luxurious lifestyle possible. Common tasks included cooking, going to market, cleaning, laundry, driving the carriage, caring for horses, polishing silver, tending fires, and serving food and drinks.
Domestic labor also meant constant supervision by their enslavers or other white citizens. Knowing that she would be absent for several months when she departed for her 1841 European excursion, Mary arranged for three of the people she enslaved, Juddy Telfair Jackson, George Gibbons, and Coomba Gibbons, to remain in Savannah in the home of William Neyle Habersham, where each were paid $1 per month, while the Telfairs received the remaining $17 they earned. In the letter Mary used to make the arrangements, she described Juddy as “an excellent tempered woman and stricly (sic) honest one who can be trusted with your keys,” while George was “inferior to Friday in smartness” but “very honest, steady and faithful.” She also promised that George could make Mrs. Habersham’s birthday cake: charlotte russe with no puff paste.
Head back upstairs to the main floor and enter the room on your right.
Listening Station 20: Dining Room
Though Mary, Margaret, and Hodgson were hardly social butterflies, they did frequently entertain intimate groups of close friends for dinner and conversation. The dining table in the center of the room belonged to the Telfairs—it was crafted in Philadelphia, and in 1836 Margaret purchased the piece for $100. The table itself can expand using leaves that attach to the central circle of the table, allowing three additional feet.
One of the most striking features of the dining room is the wallpaper. DuFour in Paris designed the pattern, Monuments of Paris, during the early 1800s. A hand-block print, it displays many of the great architectural monuments of Paris lined up along the banks of the Seine. Though not original to this house, we know it was available in Savannah, because it was advertised in the 1817 Savannah Republican. This paper was created by re-tooling the original blocks and reprinting the paper in 1983. The color variations that are noticeable as the strips join one another are a result of the hand printing process; it is not a fault in the paper.
Turn right as you exit the dining room and head into the next room on your right.
Listening Station 21: Octagon Room
This room originally functioned as a receiving room and study for Alexander Telfair, but quickly became a favorite space for his sisters. Mary, Margaret, and their friends wrote to each other about the books they were reading by the fire or how much they missed being huddled in this room in intimate conversation, likely on this very furniture. The Telfairs owned most of the objects on view. A Philadelphia cabinetmaker made the curly maple side chairs, sofas, and center table c. 1820–1830. They appear on Alexander Telfair’s 1832 inventory.
The sisters spent their time here in a variety of pursuits, as Mary wrote to a friend in 1837.
“I have just finished a letter of three pages to Geo. Jones and with tired hand and exhausted intellect I again wield my pen in your service. The trio are seated around a wood fire, Sarah ruminating, Margaret reading, and I scribbling to one who I know excuses all blunders and blots as well as crooked lines.”
Head outside for more information on our exterior statues.
Listening Station 22: Statues
In 1883, Carl Brandt was given $20,000 and a ticket to Europe to acquire art for the new museum. While in Vienna, Brandt visited the studio of Victor Tilgner, one of the best sculptors of the period. Brandt ordered five sculptures of great artists to put in front of the new museum in Savannah. All were to be seven feet, six inches high and made of marzano, a hard limestone from the town of the same name.