Early ’90s Hillary and Socks, sitting patiently in storage. (Photo courtesy of Christine Louw)
The 13—soon to be 14—presidential libraries administered by the National Archives across the United States have unique approaches to commemorating their respective leaders. But all have something in common: incredibly wacky presidential gift collections.
These sections are where you’ll find items made for presidents by members of their adoring public—the JFK library, for example, has a portrait of JFK carved into a peach pit, while George W. Bush’s gifts exhibit features a pair of handcrafted cowboy boots painted with a mini White House and the initials “G.W.B.”
The museum at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, is no exception. But one of the most offbeat gifts given to President Clinton is an item that the public cannot see. It’s a four-foot-long, three-foot-wide wooden bench painted with convincing trompe l’oeil portraits of Hillary Clinton and Socks the cat as they appeared in the early ’90s.
“The bench was given to the Clintons in 1996 by an admirer from Chicago who bought it at a gallery there,” says Christine Mouw, Museum Curator at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. How it got there, however, is a mystery: “The details of the presentation weren’t recorded.”
The full provenance of the chair may be unknown, but the artist, Phillip Grace, was a man with an intriguing backstory. According to the Spring 2005 issue of Texas Christian University’s TCU Magazine, Grace, a “six-foot-four lumberjack of a man,” meandered through studies in nuclear physics and marketing in the ’60s before becoming a protocol officer in the Air Force, then switching to politics in Texas. Following a difficult divorce, Grace took a trip to Australia, where he visited parliament house in Canberra and encountered a striking portrait of the Prime Minister. “It was so regal and elegant,” he told TCU Magazine. “It was incredibly beautiful, and I knew right then that I wanted one for myself.”
Despite a lack of experience in art, Grace began experimenting with self-portraiture and then moved onto painting friends and members of his family. Then he visited the furniture department of a Neiman Marcus store in Texas and had a revelation.
“It seemed so obvious,” he said to TCU Magazine. “All these years, most of my portrait subjects were sitting down for their paintings. I looked at a chair one day and thought that the chair itself looks like a seated person.”
Thus began Grace’s foray into trompe l’oeil chairs, which offered, in the words of a New York Times article in 1990, “the great opportunity to sit in your own lap.” During the early ’90s, Grace created made-to-order chairs in the likeness of his customers. In 1991, after Neiman Marcus featured the $6,000 chairs as bespoke his-and-hers presents in its notoriously over-the-top Christmas catalog, Grace began taking orders from across the country. He also painted celebrities, then gave them their chairs as gifts. Michael Jordan, Julia Chang Bloch—the U.S. ambassador to Nepal from 1989 to 1993—and Barbara Bush were among those depicted. (Like the Hillary bench, the Barbara Bush chair is in storage at the George Bush Presidential Library. Susie Cox, a curator at the museum, calls it “a favorite of the collection.”)
In 1994, Grace proved his artistic bipartisanship by completing the chair portrait of Hillary Clinton and Socks, the Clintons’ cat. After being purchased in Chicago and given to the Clintons while they were still in the White House, the bench ended up on display in the gifts section of Bill Clinton’s presidential museum when it opened in 2004. It has since been rotated out of public view.
Phillip Grace died in January 2015 at the age of 72, just under three months before Hillary Clinton announced her 2016 presidential bid. As for Socks, the former First Cat passed away in 2009 and is honored at the Clinton Presidential Library gift shop, where you can buy a bracelet with his portrait on it for $18.
It’s all an illusion. (Photo courtesy of Christine Louw)