Artist Camilla Huey is best known as a costume designer and couturier who has helped dress some of the entertainment industry’s biggest stars, from Oprah Winfrey and Cate Blanchett to Bette Midler and Janet Jackson.
But her exhibit, The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding, which opened this week at Henry Clay’s Ashland Estate, is an artistic tribute to a much earlier group of fascinating women.
Huey runs House of Execution, a firm that has helped big-name fashion designers execute their visions. Her husband, Kurt Thometz, is a rare book dealer. They also are huge history buffs.
The couple has spent years researching Eliza Jumel, a former owner of the 1765 Morris-Jumel Mansion, which is now a house museum across the street from where they live in the Washington Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan. Jumel rose from poverty in a Rhode Island brothel to become a rich New York socialite and real estate magnate.
Jumel’s second husband was Aaron Burr (1756-1836), the most controversial of the nation’s Founding Fathers. Burr was a Revolutionary War officer who became the nation’s third vice president. He killed rival Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel and was accused of treason by another rival, Thomas Jefferson, then tried and acquitted.
The research led Huey to an interesting realization. Burr, an early opponent of slavery who believed in the then-radical notion that women were the intellectual equals of men, was surrounded all his life by interesting, educated women: wives, lovers, confidants — even his mother and daughter.
“That’s one of the interesting things about Burr,” Thometz said. “Men hate him, women love him. He really likes women and he has this deep equalitarian streak.”
Huey tells each woman’s story with a symbolic sculpture built around the theme of corsets — undergarments women used then to keep their torsos fashionably thin.
“There’s a triple definition of binding,” Huey said Monday as she took me through the exhibit. “There’s binding in corsetry. There’s book binding. You will see in some of the corsets that the actual waist size is the output of the woman as a writer. And then there’s legal binding” in an 18th and 19th century society ruled by men.
To make the piece representing Jumel, Huey measured and copied a gown of hers preserved at the Morris-Jumel Mansion and assembled it with books symbolizing her self-education.
Burr’s wives and lovers are an interesting group, and Huey worked to create pieces that reflected their interests, talents and accomplishments.
Margaret Moncrieffe was Burr’s first love. She was then the 14-year-old daughter of a British officer, and Burr caught her spying for the British during the Battle of Harlem Heights.
Maria Reynolds was at the center of America’s first political sex scandal, which involved Alexander Hamilton. (The hit Broadway musical Hamilton tells one version of that story, about which historians disagree.) Burr and Reynolds were later thought to be lovers, and he financed the education of her children. Huey’s piece portrays her as a puppet of both Burr and Hamilton.
Burr also was accused of an affair with Jane McManus Cazneau, an early female journalist.
Before Jumel, Burr was married to Theodosia Prevost Burr. And then there was Mary Emmons, a free black woman who bore Burr two children after he separated from Theodosia and before he married Jumel.
Other pieces symbolize Theodosia Burr Alston, Burr’s well-educated daughter; Esther Edwards Burr, his mother, who was daughter of a famous English cleric and wife of the president of Princeton University: and Leonora Sansay, a Burr confidant who became a novelist.
This is the first major art exhibit staged at Ashland, which since the 1950s has been a house museum dedicated to Kentucky’s most famous politician. It makes sense, and not just because Jim Clark, Ashland’s executive director, has spent most of his career leading arts organizations.
Burr had several Kentucky connections. On the way to his treason trial in Virginia, Burr spent time at the Chaumiere des Prairies estate in Jessamine County. Burr was accused of conspiring to create a new nation by separating Western states and territories from those along the East Coast. His alleged co-conspirator was Gen. James Wilkinson, an early Lexington pioneer and a founder of Frankfort.
Henry Clay’s descendants included several forward-thinking women, most notably his great-granddaughter, suffragette Madeline McDowell Breckinridge. Huey’s creations are displayed with memorabilia of the Clay women, such as the corset and wedding gown of another great-granddaughter, Nannette McDowell Bullock. One room also shows some possessions of Mary Todd Lincoln borrowed from the Main Street museum that was her childhood home.
“It’s not that there were parallels between the women from Aaron Burr’s life and Henry Clay’s descendants, but there were strong influences of being highly educated, purposeful, driven women,” Clark said. “So we could tell the stories of the women of Ashland, who also influenced American politics and culture and the role of women in society.”
And then there is this economic reality: House museums everywhere are looking for ways to attract new visitors and supporters. When Huey’s exhibit debuted at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in 2013, attendance spiked — an outcome Ashland would love to repeat.
“This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this, and that’s important,” said Eric Brooks, Ashland’s curator. “The historic house field has had real struggles adapting to change. We can do things that are new and different to tell our story.”
If you go
What: The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding
Where: Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Rd.
When: May 3-June 30
More information: (859) 266-8581 or Henryclay.org