American classic

19 January 2020
Ben Pentreath

We’ve been on a whirlwind visit to America… we arrived in Washington on Wednesday evening, late. On Thursday morning, very bright and early, on a crisp, clear, wintry day, we had our first appointment – as you do – at the White House.

We were there for a tour of this beautiful building with the chief curator.  Dream light as we arrived…

Dazzling Zuber wallpaper in the Diplomatic Reception Room…

Then out onto the great South lawn…

The West Wing:

The State Drawing Room:

President Theodore Roosevelt, painted by John Singer Sargent:

The Blue Room, decorated by Hilary Clinton:

The Red Room had this beautiful portrait of Woodrow Wilson, painted by William Orpen…

The White House Gingerbread House – left over from the Christmas decorations…

One of the beautiful pantries and kitchens installed in the 50s by President Truman… totally intact.

In the basement, the north porch of the old White House reveals the sooted scars of the British Burning of Washington, in 1812.

The famous, if slightly odd, east facing window of the President’s private living quarters.

And then we were off – after the most fantastic, in depth, three hour tour of this incredible, fabled building.  What a way to start.

Charlie and I walked over to the Washington Monument…

And then to the Lincoln Memorial…

Gleaming like an Ancient Greek temple in the clear sunshine. 

And then we headed out to Mount Vernon, Washington’s country house, glowing in the the beautiful warm sunshine….

The gardens sparkled, their structure revealed. Here is the reconstructed orangery…. with the quarters of the enslaved in either flanking wing. 

The house was largely deserted. There was one other couple on our tour, brilliantly given, filled with facts; the interiors shining with rich and unexpected colours.

We absolutely loved our visit. Back to a very late lunch in Georgetown, a sleep in our hotel, and an evening at the Winter Antiques Show where I was speaking the next day.  Friday passed in a whirlwind of lecture, lunch, and booksigning, and it was a weary quartet of Charlie, me and our friends Austin and Spencer who drove down to their cottage in Virginia, arriving in Charlottesville late that evening.

The next day, we visited some beautiful farms, neighbours of Austin and Spenny, before heading to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s incredible country house, that afternoon.

We arrived in the vegetable garden, and even at this time of year, with nothing in production, and on a grey, misty day, our jaws dropped.

Mulberry Row originally housed the quarters of the enslaved. A poignant place. History here, as we were reminded at every quarter, is complicated and challenging. 

And then the view over Jefferson’s garden pavilion, and the huge, wide landscape below, opens up. 

We toured the house, extraordinary, restless, architecturally incredible, but somehow, I found, lacking the happiness and contentment of Mount Vernon – does anyone else know what I mean?  We ended with a private tour of the rotonda. 

And then the grounds and gardens… looking back at Jefferson’s extraordinary building.

Back to the Vegetable garden, where the light was doing beautiful things. 

And home to Casa Maria, Austin and Spencer’s tiny, beautiful, pink house, buried deep in the wooded countryside. The dream. 

Sunday dawned bright and breezy. We went for a drive through horse country…. And then for a visit to the University of Virginia, with Jefferson’s great Rotonda and pavilions sparkling in brilliant sunshine around the great lawn…

A watercolour of the university when first built – slightly exaggerating the size of the rotunda, to be fair, with the pavilions and market gardens stretching out to the hills beyond – Monticello looking down on the scene in the distance. 

And then for lunch with our friend Kinsey, at Shadwell, his perfect 1840s house outside of Charlottesville…

Kinsey’s dreamy interiors – who would believe he only moved in a few months ago?

And even dreamier – springlike sunshine on the porch, Bloodies flowing. 

A few hours later – and we’d eaten the most delicious lunch imaginable. The sun was gently setting.  Pudding on the porch. 

And much, much laughter….

And more…

And time to leave, and head back to the airport, and drift back across the ocean, and arrive home, eyes blinking, as if waking from a dream.



It’s been quite a busy week, meetings left and right and centre, for both Charlie and me.  It was with some relief that we got down to Dorset on Friday, for the first time since Boxing Day – can you believe. The house was happy to see us. It’s been the quietest weekend; frosty mornings, incredibly clear days, beautiful sunsets (is anyone else noticing that it’s still almost light at 5 o clock now?) . We had a long walk on Eggardon today with our friends Will and Brandon, and that’s about it.

I sometimes think the purpose of travel is to remind you how happy you are to be at home… as well as giving you a dose of inspiration on the way.

28 comments on this post

Helen Youngsays:

I agree with earlier writer that seeing this post helps offset some of the dispiriting news from the States. I have had the privilege of a private tour of the White House and you have wonderfully captured its elegance. May the building better inspire the occupants!

I hope you saw Jefferson’s fabulous serpentine wall in Charlottesville….by far my favourite part of the university campus.

If you go to Philadelphia, I recommend you carve out a day (or a week!) to go to Winterthur. A really remarkable collection of historic interiors and furnishings.

As ever, I really enjoyed your post.


Yes, I do agree with you on the difference between Mt. Vernon and Monticello. I think Monticello is architecturally interesting, although I hesitate to say beautiful. But it doesn’t feel like a family home, it feels like a museum, albeit in a stunning setting. Mt. Vernon feels more like a family home where there was a great deal of society and love. Both are tainted by slavery, and it’s nice to see places in Virginia, South Carolina, and Louisiana confronting that and discussing it much more openly these days.

I’m very impressed! We live in Alexandria, Virginia, but I have yet to visit the inside of the White House. My youngest and I went to the White House Easter Egg Hunt 6-7 years ago, but that was out on the lawn, crazy hot, and a crowded fair (but fun).

As always, I so love your photography. I especially love the shot of Charlie toasting you from the front porch. So sweet!

Patricia Lillian Taylorsays:

Beautiful photos!

Thank you for sharing.

Darlene Chandlersays:

Fantastic pictures of your trip. I have been to Washington, but never toured the White House inside or Mt. Vernon. Loved your friend’s home and nice to see everyone having a lovely visit and celebrating on the porch and lounge of the house. While you were attending Winter Antique show, I have just returned from London last night attending the Art and Decorative Antique Show at Battersea and enjoyed it immensely. Celebrating my birthday in London. Love to see you place in Devon again and soon will hopefully see Charlie’s garden blooming again. Can’t wait to see the Dahlias again. Love the car and the dog, lovely picture. Thank you for the in-depth tour of the White House and Mt. Vernon, it was lovely to see. Charlestown home looked just wonderful. So nice to see you and Charlie enjoying time with friends and pictures. I look forward to your next blog and more uplifting pictures. You have made my day after a long flight from London last night. Thank you again.

Deborah Wagnersays:

It looks as if you’ve had a great trip. I have not toured the White House, but it isn’t very old and always gave me the impression of having a slight whiff of the parvenu about it. I may be wrong, but still.

I haven’t toured Mount Vernon, either, but I doubt it would dislodge the abiding affection I hold for Monticello, from the glory of its dome room to the inadequateness of the stairway up to it, from its curiosities and logical appurtenances to its flights of fancy. The house is a testament to the twists and turns of Jefferson’s mind as his vision grew, sometimes beyond the scope of his ability (and often beyond his purse), as well as to the restlessness of his intellect. Jefferson, somehow, feels more like a kindred spirit than does Washington.

I have a friend, an architect just outside Bath specialising in listed buildings, who reminds me of Jefferson, so a couple of weeks ago, I bought a book on Monticello in order to forward it on to him. Predictably (in hindsight), I can’t bear to part with it, so I have ordered another to be sent to him direct.

If you ever get to Cambridge/Boston (where there are also some wonderful historic buildings) and feel the need a decent cup of tea and a proper scone (or a stiff single malt) in a house where the silver isn’t always polished, the kitchen is modest, the carpets are uneven, and the dog will faint with joy at the sight of you, just let us know.


Deborah Wagner


What a wonderful trip! I can’t believe what wonderful weather and light you had at this time of year! Thanks so much for sharing!

E E Deeresays:

Oh, another delightful post and, as an American, it’s nice to see some of our history through your eyes.
Yes, I agree that Monticello has more of a restless spirit in its interior.
Jefferson was a tinkerer, and it shows. Things like the clock mechanism in the entry hall that required a big hole in the floor. My favorite story by the curator was that all the skylights were put in after his wife died. In my mind’s eye I see him returning from France with this great idea to cut holes in the ceiling, and her saying “Over my dead body.”
Thank you for mentioning the enslaved people who made these estates possible. I believe there is a Hemings family tour available now.


It is meaningful to me (esp. at this time) to read your current post re: your trip to America bc there are many of us who are feeling dispirited and tarnished by current events in our country. There is much to feel inspired and proud about; there is so much which is noble and beautiful in our land, so your January 19th blog serves as a restorative note midst the horrific . Thank you for that.

Charlotte Ksays:

I think you must have had very VIP treatment to see Monticello so empty. It was sort of a zoo-like Disney experience the day I visited a few years ago, with the jitney up the hill. Then we were pushed and rushed through the house with no photos allowed inside. Our American heritage…


Beautiful, thank you.


I often wonder what British visitors think of Mount Vernon? The political history aside, the house was one of the largest houses of the colonies at the time and Washington one of the richest men, and he desired to build something grand and elegant. But by the standards of Britain, Mount Vernon would barely pass as anything more than a minor gentry home, or maybe even a richer tenanted farmhouse. That blend of grand ambitions in the plasterwork and some of the furniture married with the lack of sophistication elsewhere in the house and especially the ridiculously low ceilings of the upper floors is a marriage one can only find in the colonies. Mount Vernon is so very colonial.

I have often thought a brilliant architectural history book would comparing British houses, Irish houses and colonial American houses side by side, as Ireland often does seem to straddle both worlds, sometimes very colonial, other times very sophisticated.

And when you come back to America, try to make it to Philadelphia. A wonderfully historic city and a fabulous architectural legacy and one of the best urban downtowns in the country with one of the largest surviving Georgian/Federal era historic districts. It will be well worth your and Charlie’s time (and Longwood Gardens is outside the city).


I found this a very interesting commentary on the theme of homes and their meanings long after the demise of their occupants. Best wishes, Nicola

Anne Yodersays:

I’ve been blessed many times by the gorgeous photos and heart-felt commentary on this site. The American buildings really shone out for me today, as I’ve visited them all over the years. I went to Monticello first when I was in college, and still remember how beautiful and peaceful it was in the sunlight, with the panoramic views from where it sits. I loved the house’s stateliness, along with Jefferson’s inventive furniture and other objects that he created. And the gardens showed off his interest in horticulture in a way that enamored me. Mt. Vernon, on the other hand, had hundreds of tourists milling around, stifling heat and humidity, and long lines of people crowding into rooms. I never could get a feel for the house itself accordingly. Your images help to rectify that!

Andrew Lagesays:

Great tour pictures. The White House wouldn’t look out of place in the Irish countryside, right? I’ve always loved Mt. Vernon and it was Washington’s home, not his country house. During the war he would write letters to his overseer about seeds and setting out plants. And strangely, the awful oppressive shadow of slavery seems lighter there. Unlike Monticello, a house I dislike. Squatty grandeur.
You’ve seen the best. Now you must travel to Big Sur to see the rest.


Can I come and look after your house and doggies next time you head overseas.


I never knew until now what a fine house Mt Vernon is. Honestly it always seemed dull to me. I want to visit. DC really is a beauty, though over it hangs the pall of a terrifying new and dark stupidity that honestly threatens to consume us.


Oh my, what a busy few days you had! I cannot believe you toured the WH and Mount Vernon in one day. My family lived just outside DC for a few years when I was young and I have accompanied my husband there for business in recent years. Each time I’ve enjoyed revisiting some of the city’s highlights, including those you’ve pictured in your story.
The history of beautiful properties like Mount Vernon, Monticello and the University of Virginia is indeed complicated.
But, it was lovely to see it all through your very practiced and appreciative eyes.
Thank you!


Thank you for the gorgeous pictures. Yes, Monticello is not a happy house. While it is exquisite in many ways, it is incongruous at the same time and definitely reflects the discontented owner.

Lisa D.says:

How fabulous! Even though I’m an American, I have never, ever, been to Washington D.C., or any of the places that marked the inception of my own country. So much history! Thank you for the post, Ben, and for sharing your beautiful pictures.


Dear Ben,
thank you so much for sharing these photos from your trip to America ! My absolutely favourite is Mount Vernon, it’s such a wonderful house and I’ve never heard about it before ! You all are looking so happy and lovely and the photos are speaking for itself ! Back in Dorset and the parsonage and landscape are wonderful as always ….. absolutely heaven, for me it’s heaven on earth and your photos are always a treat …….
Thanks again and best wishes,
Yours Birgit from Germany 🙂


Snap! I recently went to see Hamilton and was wondering what Mount Vernon and Monticello looked like! How brilliant to get your newsletter – and how in character both estates are in view of how Washington and Jefferson are portrayed by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the show!
Thank you for making my Monday lunchtime so “zen”.

Linda Frostsays:

What a beautiful story and I agree your pictures are peerless. Including the picture of Lewis the Airedale.
Did you think that Monticello seemed like a small town? The garden is stunning. Glad you enjoyed your trip to America.


Did you see the reconstructed orangery at the White House? Sorry – couldn’t resist.


Did you see Maira Kalman’s gorgeous children’s book for all ages in the Monticello gift shop (Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything)? At the end of it, she writes: “If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to Monticello.”

Gill Thompsonsays:

Wonderful photos, as ever. And such brilliant weather! Please tell me next time you are planning to go anywhere so I can go at the same time, to take advantage of the weather!


Dear Ben,
Yes yes yes, you are the only person I have heard get this. One feels the sense of a family home at Mt Vernon, but Monticello feels like the work of an obsessed crazy person(pervert?). The whole slavery thing makes me weep, and I dont feel we say enough about how none of these things would have happened without them

Susan Toye Fergusonsays:

I am so glad you and Charlie were able to visit two of the greatest buildings ever erected in this country – back when it was very new! I have always loved Mount Vernon – I swear you can feel Martha running her home from her chambers, dealing with her husband and the endless issues of running a large farm. It is well-known that the Washington’s were a very happy couple – she even traveled to war with him during the Revolution. Mr. Jefferson, on the other hand, was widowed and struggling with an overloaded brain, trying desperately to accomplish everything he set before himself. He became involved with a slave and fell in love with her despite the very strict standards of the time. I definitely felt the difference in the homes every time I visited and I am glad to hear that I am not the only one. I lived in Washington, D.C. for years then moved to Virginia for about 25 years and visited both sites at least every two to three years. I never tired of either and the thrill was never gone!

Peggy Stanwoodsays:

Thanks again for taking us all along.
I hope next trip to US you find time for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest retreat 1 1/2 hours SW of Charlottesville, near Lynchburg, VA. I think you’ll find it a more cohesive, contented building – apparently Jefferson did.
Your photographs are peerless.

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