By Patti Coogan
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2003
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While traveling in 1874, Sam and Olivia Clemens purchased a large, oak mantelpiece from Ayton Castle in Scotland and installed it in the library of their Hartford home. It became the dominant element in a room that was central to the lives of the writer Mark Twain and his family. It was the room where his daughters played “jungle” by riding on the back of their father, where Olivia wrote letters to friends, and where Sam told stories or read parts of his latest manuscript to his family.
The mantel and overmantel are opulently carved with masks, scrolls, musical instruments, and garlands of fruit, flowers, and ribbon. The central decorative element of the overmantel is a coat-of-arms combining the crests of the Mitchell and Innes families, the owners of the castle for whom the mantel was originally created. In addition to the family emblem the Mitchell’s motto, Je reçois por donner (I receive in order to give), and the Innes’s motto, Deo Favente (With God’s Favor), are carved above the crest. Standing more than 11-feet high and nearly eight feet wide, the mantel was discovered to be too tall to fit into the Clemens library. To solve this problem, a 17-inch high by 78-inch long section of carved angels and scrolls was detached from the top of the overmantel and placed over the door into the dining room. Sam and Livy also altered it to reflect their own sentimentality; Sam had the year 1874 added onto the piece to document the year his family moved into their Hartford home, and added a brass plate inscribed with the Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation, “The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”
The Clemens girls used the mantelpiece and its adjoining bookshelves as backdrops for the stories they asked their father to tell them. Each story, always a romance, had to begin with the oil painting of a cat wearing an Elizabethan ruff, hanging above the right bookshelf, and end with the watercolor portrait they called “Emmeline,” which hung above the far left shelf. There were 12 to 15 other objects standing on the shelves between these paintings, including an oil painting by Elihu Vedder entitled “The Young Medusa.” Susy, Clara, and Jean required that their father include all of these bric-a-brac and the three pictures in his story, in the order in which they stood on the mantel. He was not allowed to bring other objects from the room into his tale, and each story had to be different.
How it Ended Up in a Barn…and Then Back in the Twain House
The mantelpiece held such value for the Clemenses that when they sold their Farmington Avenue home in 1903, they removed the piece and took it with them. Sections of the mantel, its lower half and cherub crest, were reinstalled in the library of Clemens’s last home, Stormfield, in Redding, Connecticut, where they remained until his death in 1910. At that time, a Mr. Given purchased the Redding house, including the Scottish mantel, but later removed the piece and stored it in his carriage barn. The mantel passed into different hands after Stormfield burned down in 1923. The property’s new owner, Mary A. Millett, built a new house on the old Stormfield foundation. She decided against using the mantel in her home, and instead gave it to William Banks, a Redding builder, who stored the mantel in his barn for 33 years.
In 1958 William Banks’s son, Lawrence, while on a tour of The Mark Twain House during an early phase of its restoration, mentioned the mantel that was still being stored in the barn, just 60 miles away in Redding. The trustees of The Mark Twain House immediately examined the piece, and, after verifying its authenticity, negotiated with William Banks for its return. In March, 1958, in the middle of a snowstorm, the mantel returned to the library of The Mark Twain House.
As fortunate as the rediscovery of the original mantelpiece was, there is one section that has never been found. The crest of the piece, with its cherub and scroll carving, which once graced the doorway from the library into the dining room was last seen in photographs of Clemens library in Redding. In the 1960s, during the restoration of the Hartford house, restorers reproduced the missing ornament using photographs and scaled drawings of the original wood section. Today, the pieces appear together, back in their original locations as the central ornaments in the library of Mark Twain’s Hartford home.
Patti Coogan was the Collections Manager at The Mark Twain House. She holds a master’s degree in art history from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The Mark Twain House, Hartford
Mark Twain: Homeschooling the Clemens Way, Summer 2007
Saving Mark Twain’s House, Spring 2013
Nook Farm: Where Mr. Twain and Mrs. Stowe Built Their Dream Houses, Summer 2011
Sam and Livy Clemens’s Love Story, Winter 2017-2018
Mark Twain, Inventor, Spring 2005
GRATING THE NUTMEG PODCASTS
Episode 21: Our preservation story about the restoration of the Mark Twain House’s Mahogany Suite (second segment)
Episode 52: Mark Twain’s Native American Problem