Joyce Evans and The Inn at Little Washington

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Print of Joyce Evans' painting of the kitchen at The Inn at Little Washington

Joyce Evans’ conceptual design of the kitchen at The Inn at Little Washington

While travelling through Virginia, we stayed for one night only at The Inn at Little Washington. The learned about the inn from Kelly’s parent’s who’d stayed a year ago while road trippin’ Skyline Drive and The Blue Ridge Parkway. The description came thick with praise and an insistence that we should not pass up the opportunity if we were nearby. From this description I’d formulated a vision of the inn: a large and beautiful white mansion-esque home on stately grounds. The type of place you visit once in a lifetime to imagine what it would’ve been like to be a child of one of America’s “big” families, like the Vanderbilts.

I thought we’d pulled up to the wrong place. It was modest, at least compared the now-solidified image in my head, and to be honest, underwhelming. We stepped inside to check in and things changed.

We were greeted by name by our host, and told “we don’t do paper work, please follow me to your cocktails”. We walked into the next room which contained a neat little bar, a bartender, and two peach and carrot bellinis. With drinks in hand we were given the tour and shown our room, the courtyard, the place where afternoon tea would be served, the place where dinner would be served, and the place where breakfast would be served. Modest on the outside, not so on the inside.

The Inn at Little Washington is like stepping into a stage production; each room is decorated differently, themed, and adorned with kooky and interesting embellishments (room with the bar is called the Monkey Room, and has hand-painted walls with gold bars and monkeys who appear to be laughing at us from outside the bars). The dining room(s) are dimly lit and atmospheric, the way you’d picture smoking and brandy rooms from ye olde days. From the outside the kitchen looked to be flown in by time machine from 1900’s France. Our room was modestly sized, but un-modestly decorated. There were at least five types of patterned wallpaper in varying tones of green and jade. There were bright coral light furnishings. I think the bed was gold.

The Inn was originally built as a restaurant (with name deliberately focusing on future endeavours), and the restaurant seemingly remains it’s focus. Our afternoon tea and dinner of more than five courses (with matching wines) were immaculately presented. As recent vegetarians we were blown away by the preparation and taste of our dishes.1 It was one undoubtedly of the very best “fancy dinner” experiences we’ve ever had.

As a bonus, and perhaps because we were one of the last patrons this evening, we were given a brief tour of the kitchen. Everything was custom-made for the Inn, handcrafted in copper and stainless steel. The enormous vent above the burners being the obvious focal point. It was big and beautiful and not really like any commercial kitchen I’ve seen. Which brings me to Joyce Evans and the image at the top of this post.

Joyce Evans was responsible for the decoration of the entire Inn. Every room, hallway, and even the kitchen were conceptualised in ink and watercolour by Joyce Evans. The original concept paintings were framed and hung in the hallways between the guest rooms. I studied them intensely; the artistic pencil and ink work, the deliberate smatterings of watercolour both served to evoke the imagination and serve as blueprints for designers, carpenters, and contractors, the notes written all over to articulate little details and finishing touches. The last time I remember anything of this level of artisty was a single architectural painting of a proposed shopping mall my high school graphics teacher Mr. Johnson (Jonno) showed me in a magazine more that two decades ago. And perhaps that why Joyce Evans’ work for the Inn at Little Washington had such an immediate, and lasting, impact for me.

Unfortunately there is no complete reproduction of this work available for purchase (or even to view via Google). A handful of images exist in a book on the history of the inn, but not enough to warrant me to purchase it. There is however, a 1:1 reproduction of the kitchen concept painting available from the gift store (as well as a smaller size). It’s only available framed, and costs ~$650. When we finish our road trip I think I’ll grab one.

  1. Although at the insistence of Kelly’s mum, we did in fact order two non-vegetarian dishes — our first in several months — the lamb cutlets, and the Alaskan halibut. We concluded that although the meat dishes were delicious, the vegetarian options were more tasty.