At Poplar Forest, John Hemings Was an Artisan for the Ages

The exquisitely fine work in wood and glass at Poplar Forest in Bedford County, Va. is the result of a complex relationship between architect and artisan, master and slave. 

Thomas Jefferson trusted John Hemings implicitly with the joinery inside and outside his Palladian retreat near Lynchburg. Trained at Monticello by master joiner James Dinsmore, Hemings was dispatched to Poplar Forest in 1809 with his own crew. Two of his assistants, Madison and Eston, were not only his nephews but probably Jefferson’s offspring as well.

Doors, trim, windows, balustrades, Chinese railings and Tuscan entablature awaited Hemings’ learned eye and graceful hand, and would keep him busy until Jefferson died in 1826.

“Jefferson was comfortable with him coming down here unsupervised while he was elsewhere,” says Travis McDonald, director of architectural restoration at Poplar Forest. “That says a lot for the trust Jefferson had in him. He corrected other carpenters, but not Hemings. He’d already observed his work and skill and didn’t need to watch him.”

The architect and his joiner communicated by written word, using a language that reached back to antiquity. It’s no stretch to say that Hemings learned the language of architecture from reading Jefferson’s books on the subject.

 “In their letters they talk about little pieces of trim, and each has an architectural name,” he says. “They’ll talk about the fillet, rather than that thin edge of wood.”

He may have been a slave but Hemings was still paid a salary – slim though it was – of $20 a year. Moreover, he had his own tools. “It’s significant for a slave to own his own tools, especially when he could use his master’s at no cost.  We have a record of Dinsmore borrowing them to work on Montpelier.”

Hemings was one of seven slaves freed by Jefferson at his death, a group that included his older sister, Sally. About 130 others were auctioned to pay Jefferson’s debts. 

“I believe that he freed Sally and her children, as part of a promise made with her in Paris, according to oral history passed down in her family,” he says. “And he also freed the skilled slaves he thought could make it on their own in the world.”

The artisanship of John Hemings bears mute witness as to why he was among them.

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