By: Frank Leone and Denise Vogt
City of Washington maps from the early 1800s do not identify Foggy Bottom by name, but you can still see the basic layout of our neighborhood on the earliest maps. Engraved printed maps were common tools to show the placement of roads, green spaces, and landmarks. More rare are artistic renderings of Washington on maps made on fabric.
You can now view an extraordinary handmade map of the city of Washington on silk fabric using paint, ink and fine embroidery that was created by a teenager Grace Turner Cleaver in Alexandria in about 1802. The gold-framed map is on view only until March 15, 2023 at Mt. Vernon’s Gilder Lehrman Gallery in the exhibition Mount Vernon: The Story of an American Icon.
In 1790, George Washington signed legislation to move the national capital to the banks of the Potomac as of 1800. Energetically overseen by President Washington, French Major Pierre L’Enfant laid out majestic avenues, public squares, and parks of the City of Washington, in the style of a European capital. After disagreements led to the Major’s dismissal, his work was continued by Andrew Ellicott and African American surveyor Benjamin Banneker. The L’Enfant-Ellicott map of Washington City was widely circulated and published by Thackara & Vallance in 1795. That map provided the basis for the Cleaver map.
Which brings us back to the extraordinary embroidered, ink and painted map now on display at Mt. Vernon. It was created around 1802 by Grace Turner Cleaver at an Alexandria, Virginia school for young women. She copied and arranged images and text taken from printed versions of L’Enfant-Ellicott map of Washington, a portrait of Washington, and figures of Justice, Liberty, and Hope. The 19 inch x 28 1/2 inch map is made of silk and silver- and gold-wrapped threads, paint, and ink on a silk satin background. You can zoom into the picture above and see that her stitchery is impeccable with a keen understanding of color and sensitivity to detail. As described by the Mt. Vernon curators: “Her creative use of materials, including metallic threads in Washington’s epaulet and the silver chain and tassels along the top, enhances the realism and appeal of the imagery.”
The exhibit also states that: “Grace Cleaver’s tribute to George Washington and his legacy – the capital city – was an advanced project at an Alexandria school that combined lessons in the arts, history, and geography…. Beginning in the 1790s, academies began introducing formal instruction in subjects such as geography, civics, and history, in addition to traditional, gendered instruction in embroidery, drawing, painting, and music. . . . This combination of intellectual and ‘ornamental’ curricula aimed to refine young women both intellectually and socially, preparing them to become active members of civil society, as well as mothers and teachers who would raise the next generation of American citizens.”
Grace Turner Cleaver was born in England. Her father, John Cleaver, may have operated an Ordinary or Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia in the early 1800’s. In February of 1813, Grace married Lemuel B. Clark (1775-1849) a physician born in Lebanon, Connecticut, in Norfolk, Virginia. Lemuel was the son of Lemuel Clark (1753-1831) who served in the Revolutionary War under Captain David Tilden in the relief of Boston. Grace had five children, some born in Pennsylvania. Both Grace and Lemuel died and are buried in Trenton, New Jersey.
The Cleaver map was one of five such maps created at her school. Others are held by Dumbarton House in Georgetown (The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America), Winterthur Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, and in private collections. The map was acquired at auction by the Stella Boyle Smith Trust and provided to Mt. Vernon in 2022. The map was obtained by descent in the family of Grace Turner Cleaver to the present owners. It is amazing that the 220 year old fragile map was passed down through generations while remaining in a state of high quality and preservation. The auction estimate for the item was $30,000-$50,000 and it sold for $63,000.
To see the map (and the Mt. Vernon Museum), contact Mt. Vernon - https://www.mountvernon.org/plan-your-visit/calendar/exhibitions/a-rare-embroidered-and-painted-plan-of-the-city-of-washington/
Sources: Mt. Vernon, Plan your Visit; Freeman’s Auction Site, Lot 94, A rare embroidered and painted "Plan of the City of Washington," May3m 2022; Fergus M. Bordewich, Washington: The Making of the American Capital, Amistad: 2008; FBA History Project, https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/history-project