Henry Clay's Trunk

From time to time, Ashland’s Curator will select an object from the several thousand in our collection to receive special attention here. These may be new to the collection, recently studied, or of particular interest relative to Ashland or public events. Check back often to experience the remarkable treasures of Ashland!

One of the many artifacts that came with the mansion when Nannette McDowell Bullock died and her will transferred it to the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation is a leather trunk said by Nannette to have belonged to Henry Clay. The trunk is thought to have been made by Edward and William Henry Stokes, a pair of Louisville, KY saddlers who were in business together from 1831 until 1844. There is no record of how Henry Clay got the trunk or exactly when. Last year, the Curator was photographing the trunk for a presentation and discovered a great deal of imagery tooled into the leather. The leather had deteriorated badly and as a result the images had become nearly invisible. Given the known history of the trunk it seemed likely that the images might be relevant to understanding how and why Clay acquired the piece. In order to recover the images to a degree not possible with the limited technology at Ashland, the Curator contacted Brent Seales, the director of the University of Kentucky Center for Visualization and Virtual Studies. This research lab has worked to recover information from cultural materials including Dead Sea Scrolls, documents from a library destroyed at Pompeii among others. Seales connected the Curator with Rob Dickes, a senior lecturer in the School of Art and Visual Studies and Doreen Maloney, associate professor in the School of Art and Visual Studies. Rob photographed the trunk in a brand new high tech studio at UK and Doreen worked with the digital images in post production to enhance the images to a degree beyond which they could be seen unaided. The results were most interesting and important. The trunk is almost completely covered with images including Henry Clay, Lady Justice, Lady Liberty, eagles, stars, a plow and beehive, some of which can been above. These images lead to the conclusion that the trunk was likely a presentation piece, not just a purchase. This is further corroborated by research into the Stokes brothers which indicates that they were dedicated Whigs. One thing that is completely clear is that collaborations like the one between Ashland and UK are invaluable and definitely can produce amazing results! The trunk has now been fully conserved and is back on display at Ashland along with several of the images.