Colonial Williamsburg conservator has groundbreaking gift for upholstery

Pioneering conservator worked his way up from maintenance position

Leroy Graves was born the son of sharecroppers 70-odd years ago in rural Pittsylvania County.

So hard-pressed was his struggling family that he spent most of his childhood in the region's famous tobacco fields — and by the age of 10 he knew more about pulling weeds and picking worms and beetles than reading or writing.

That left him miserable and confused when his mother moved her children back to her family home near Williamsburg, then enrolled her ill-prepared son in the fifth grade.

Three years later Graves gave up, and he shakes his head today as he recalls returning to the fields and the decade of odd jobs that followed. He sighs as he describes rushing from early morning and afternoon shifts as a cook and dishwasher to evening work as a maintenance man — yet still having so many bills as the head of growing family that he became a weekend mechanic.

Life didn't get easier when he joined a Colonial Williamsburg maintenance crew at the age of 23 in 1967.

Even after being elevated into an art handler, he still ran short on cash, and by late 1973 he was ready to leave when he received an unexpected promotion.

No one suspected then that this unconventional gamble on a promising but untrained assistant conservator would pay off in the spectacular way that followed.

Not only did Graves become an integral part of the pioneering team that helped revolutionize the care of period furniture in the United States but he also emerged as the preeminent upholstery conservator in the country.

"Leroy came from a very modest background," CW collections and museums chief Ronald L. Hurst says.

"But he's keenly intelligent. He's intellectually curious. He's very hard-working — and he has this remarkable ability to look at the evidence left by the past until he understands what very few people can see.

"Those things have combined to make him the finest upholstery conservator in North America."

Early trials

Graves was born in south central Virginia's tobacco belt just north of Danville.

With its sprawling fields and scattered farm houses, the only things that set the hamlet of Long Island apart were a grocery store and a train stop.

"It's not really a town. It's barely a place on the map," Graves says.

"It looks the same today as it did when I was a kid. I still have family there."

With his father often absent because of his chronic scrapes with the law, the support those relatives gave Graves and his family proved crucial.

So did the hours he spent toiling in the fields.

"I still remember the first silver-dollar bill I brought home," Graves says.

"I was 8 years old, and it was the proudest thing I ever owned."

Still, after several years of hardship his mother moved her children back to her family neighborhood off Penniman Road near Williamsburg, where she soon got a job working at Chowning's Tavern.

Leroy went to school regularly for the first time, entering fifth grade despite having something less than a first-grade education.

Three years passed before he gave up on a deeply discouraging struggle.

"It was a tough time," he says.

"I'm still not as good a reader as I'd like to be — and it gets aggravating whenever I run into a word that's unfamiliar."

Returning to Long Island, the 16-year-old Graves tried his hand at sharecropping, laboring alongside his father to extract a living from 58.5 acres.

But his experiment didn't last.

"I told my dad, 'This doesn't add up. I want to get paid by the week.' And I didn't get paid," Graves says.

"So I left."

Treadmill

Exactly how long Graves struggled to make ends meet while working a long string of odd and part-time jobs around Williamsburg is hard to determine.

Over some 10 years, he toiled as a dishwasher, a cook, a maintenance man, a mechanic and a highway construction worker, plus many other short-lived positions, he says.

Always he had to put two or three low-paying jobs together in order to pay his bills — especially after he married and had children.

Without the encouragement his mother provided, he might not have made it.

"She was my friend. She was my cheerleader — even when we were struggling to put food on the table," he says.

"She had more confidence in me than I did — and she always said I would be something special."

Still, the future didn't look much brighter when Graves started working on a CW maintenance crew, where his tasks included paving the streets in the Historic Area.

Small in stature, he thought he would last only a few weeks.

But his intelligence and work ethic so impressed his foreman that he sent Graves over to the collections department, where he soon began attracting notice for the care and attention with which he handled even the most lowly objects.

Nearly seven years passed, however, before Graham Hood, the foundation's new head of collections, told newly appointed furniture curator Wallace Gusler to, "Keep any eye on Leroy. Give him some projects. Test him and see how he does," Gusler recalls.

"The thing about Leroy is that — even when he was an art handler — he was always very diligent and careful. He would clean things when he had nothing to do.

"So I put him to work polishing and coating swords and he was very thorough, very careful and very gentle. That's something you can't teach."

New ground

Hood and Gusler's appointments in the early 1970s marked the beginning of a revolution at Colonial Williamsburg — and Graves soon found himself working as part of the pioneering team that dramatically revamped the dated interpretation of the furnishings at the Governor's Palace, then rethought and reassessed hundreds of antique pieces in preparation for exhibit at the new DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

"No one else came close to the way we were rethinking these objects and changing ideas about how they should look and be treated, " Gusler says.

"We were leaders in the field — and it was like being on the frontier."

Though the untrained Graves began by learning basic skills, his keen eye and responsive hands combined with Gusler's step-by-step tutelage to make him a quick study, then unusually adept at such demanding tasks as wood carving.

But by far his most important contribution came as Gusler, Hood and other newly hired curators such as Margaret Pritchard began challenging the way that upholstered period furniture had been treated and made to look by even the finest museums and collectors.

Poring over example after example from CW's collection — and guiding themselves through their careful study of both surviving coverings and period illustrations — the group recognized early on that most of what they were looking at reflected Victorian and 20th-century tastes instead of the 1700s.

And that meant chairs, sofas and stools that were puffed up and overstuffed, distorting their original contours and proportions in ways that had been routinely accepted until the CW team began asking questions.

"In some ways the evidence was already there in period paintings and prints, but we didn't understand how to interpret it until we began looking at these objects closely for the Governor's Palace project," Pritchard says.

"And it was Leroy who really began to take the furniture apart with a forensic approach. He could see things nobody else could see, and he became a master at making sense of what all those nail holes were trying to tell us."

Saving the past

Graves' emerging mastery of 18th-century upholstery methods played a key role in this radical shift of interpretation, enabling him to recreate the long-lost appearance of many pieces after deciphering the clues he found in their wooden frames.

"You had to be impressed by the way he could see what was real and what was not — and then use his memory of everything he'd seen to stitch together new coverings that looked the way they were supposed to look," Gusler says.

"It's a gift."

Still, both men ventured into uncharted ground when they began looking for a way to recover frames without adding to centuries of damage.

Previously, even the best museum upholsterers had simply resorted to using longer and bigger nails — or replacing the original wood when it became so splintered nails would no longer grip.

"We were looking at a New York easy chair, and we saw these chalk lines that had been laid down by an 18th-century upholsterer, and I said to Leroy — 'There's got to be some way we can preserve that evidence without driving more nails into it and splitting it all apart,' " Gusler says.

"He looked back at me and said, 'I can do it, man.' So I gave him half a year to come up with a solution."

Fabric sleeves fastened together with Velcro became the foundation of Graves' new non-intrusive upholstery method, allowing him to wrap the frame for protection, then suspend various layers of stuffing and covering materials between the sleeves.

Soon, they had improved upon the system by incorporating Gusler's metal-working skills, enabling them to add hand-shaped sheets of copper that hung between the rails and supported not just stuffing and fabric but human bodies.

So successfully did this new approach solve the problems of conservation and function that museums and collectors across the country began to take notice.

But even before the Graves method became a museum standard, the one-time dishwasher and maintenance man found himself standing alongside Gusler at a major conservation conference, where a rapt audience gathered to hear their revolutionary new ideas about dealing with historic upholstery.

"We did a demonstration together in Boston in 1979, and you could see that Leroy was pretty nervous," Gusler says.

Still perfecting

Nearly 40 years later, Graves is the go-to guy when it comes to historic upholstery.

So widely known and influential has his approach become that in January he received the prestigious Eric M. Wunsch Award for Excellence in the American Arts in a ceremony at Christie's Rockefeller Center Galleries in New York City.

"When we meet to discuss possible honorees, the spectrum is overwhelming. Yet this year's discussion was the briefest in five years," said Peter Wunsch, president of the Wunsch Americana Foundation.

"Leroy's role in conservation is amazing and his story is so compelling. I believe that the people who are going to learn about this wonderful man will be amazed at where he has come from and where he is."

Still, such success hasn't kept Graves from experimenting with and perfecting new methods, such as the molded epoxy and linen panels he developed to help reduce the weight of his copper sheeting.

Even after working with hundreds of pieces of furniture, the 72-year-old conservator is still curious and careful with each new example he encounters, conjuring up custom treatments for each one instead of a one-size-fits-all solution in his Colonial Williamsburg workshop.

"So many early conservators made names for themselves doing one thing — and then they never did anything else," Hood says.

"But Leroy is always looking for the solution that's best for the object — and he'll look and look until he's found a way to make it as right as he knows how to do it."

Among Graves' most recent accomplishments was the publication of a 2015 book that describes in detail his profound understanding of 18th-century upholstery and the forensic path to unraveling each piece's secrets.

Though written in collaboration with Pritchard, it teems with Graves' unmistakable presence, too, especially in his closing tribute to his mother.

"She was my hero, best friend and mentor," he writes, remembering an influence felt long after her passing.

"She taught me a lot, but what stood out the most was to always do your best whatever you choose to do in life — whether it's washing dishes or reupholstering furniture."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

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