Home & Design

These Ancestors Presented a Problem

August 19, 2016


MY GREAT-GREAT-GRANDFATHER Martin Worthington Goldsborough has lived with my husband and me since 1992, and we’re quite used to him. When his wife, Henrietta Jones, unexpectedly showed up to stay, we were delighted but stunned.

How in the world could we fit this lovely lady in?


The author’s great-great-grandfather Martin Worthington Goldsborough. / MyLittleBird photo by Margaret Goldsborough.

Martin has adapted to our evolving design tastes and didn’t protest a bit when we refreshed the room where he lives with a bold modern fabric on the antique lolling chair, oversized botanical prints instead of the Hudson River oil over the mantel, a sleek glass deco lamp with a contemporary shade on his table. He didn’t care at all when we removed his slender carved wood frame as a part of our living-room re-do.


Martin Goldsborough’s wife, Henrietta Jones, the author’s great-great-grandmother. / MyLittleBird photo by Margaret Goldsborough.

But the mid-19th-century portrait of great-great-grandmother Henrietta, who arrived this spring, has always resided in an enormous, elaborate gilt frame. We could take her out of her frame too, to achieve a more contemporary look. But no, the contrast between the exposed background on her canvas and the part that’s been protected by the frame from pollution, cigarette smoke and other airborne assaults would be too jarring. She absolutely has to stay in her frame, at least until we spring for a cleaning and restoration.

Clearly, a new design challenge was thrust upon us with the generous gift of this portrait: We had to figure a way to reunite Martin with Henrietta. This reunion was long overdue: They had been staying with different relatives for a century or more.

In the traditional homes I knew growing up near Baltimore, ancestors such as these were generally perched above the mantel in a high-ceilinged living room or positioned to greet guests in a formal entryway. Like many houses in this area, our 1946 clapboard in Garrett Park, Maryland, doesn’t have high ceilings or a formal entryway.

It does have a mantel, but over the fireplace was definitely not going to work: Martin fits in the limited space, but Henrietta in her big gilt frame does not. Besides, I really love the lighter, fresh feel of the botanicals, which have breathed new life into the room.

My colleagues laughed at my dithering with the placement of Henrietta and Martin because, as co-owner of a shop on Kensington Antique Row, I rearrange spaces constantly, with artwork and mirrors coming in and moving out on an almost daily basis. But believe me, there’s a big difference between sliding a gallery rod around on a picture molding in your shop and whacking a hole in the plaster walls at home.


Henrietta’s new place in the Goldsborough living room. From here she can gaze at her husband from across the rooml. Note the contemporary checked fabric on the antique lolling chair. / MyLittleBird photo by Margaret Goldsborough.

After a week of holding Henrietta up in her heavy frame, trying a different wall, scooching a bit to the left and then back again, we finally found the right spot. Rather than a pride-of-place location or sharing a wall with Martin, she’s off to the left of the mantel and a bit lower than might be expected. A pair of antique Chinese vases with gilded dragons moved onto the mantel to continue the gold concept and unify the elements along the wall. Their celadon background plays very nicely with the greens of the botanicals.Portraits4web

So, Martin and Henrietta are gazing contentedly at each other across the room now. We are happy with the arrangement—and not expecting other relations to arrive any time soon.

—Margaret Goldsborough

Margaret Goldsborough and her sister, Susan Glynn, are owners of Goldsborough Glynn Classic Furnishings & Finds in Kensington, Maryland. In her previous life, Margaret contributed articles to the Baltimore Sun, Independent School magazine and the New York Times website.

8 thoughts on “These Ancestors Presented a Problem

  1. Janice O'Brien says:

    Great story. Great look! J

  2. Gloria Crowley says:

    what a charming piece (the article). They are lucky to have you in their family.

  3. Sharon Dean says:

    Wonderful, creative story !

  4. Katherine Brook says:

    Margaret, you always have a good solution to design problems.

  5. anne kibbe says:

    looking good margy, anne vm

  6. kariann says:

    Wonderful story and with so much imagination! Glad the family is back together

  7. Eveline says:

    So glad you finally found the right spot for Henrietta!

  8. Ginny Ann Weinberger says:

    I just love happy family reunions!

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