Color, collectors, and connoisseurs
By Jean M. Burks
The Shelburne Museum collection includes nine rare examples of furniture that Mr. and Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer commissioned from interior decorators Louis Comfort Tiffany and Samuel Colman for their new New York residence. The music room, which was decorated with reference to Far Eastern designs, included the armchair in Figure 7, part of a suite consisting of three settees, six arm- and side chairs, and two unusual tables. The set embodies the prevailing art nouveau style in the intertwined naturalistic plant and flower forms carved in low relief. As much attention was paid to the coloration of the finish as to the pieces themselves. "After the carving had been done, a fine gold leaf was applied and then slightly rubbed off leaving the relief a little bare, which made it look old and as if it had been handled for many years."3 Today this armchair and other gilded pieces from the suite are reinstalled in the Memorial Building at Shelburne, which houses furnished rooms from Electra Webb's 1932 New York City home.
So-called Harvard chest, Essex County, Massachusetts, 1700-1725. Pine, paint, brass; height 44 ., width 38 ., depth 20 ¾ inches. Gift of Katharine Prentis Murphy and Edmund Astley Prentis; Bohl photograph.
Mrs. Webb was drawn to vibrant color in everything she touched-American room settings, furniture, folk art, fine art, and textiles. One of her most influential colleagues was Katharine Prentis Murphy, who created mid-eighteenth-century rooms for various institutions including the New-York Historical Society (1950), the New Hampshire Historical Society (1958), and the Bayou Bend Collection in Houston (1959). When Mrs. Webb moved a 1773 house in Hadley, Massachusetts, to the museum in 1954, the two friends worked together to create colorful interior settings for seventeenth-century European and American decorative arts. While other distinguished collectors were stripping furniture of original paint to create a clean and pristine appearance on their antique pieces, Electra Havemeyer Webb was amassing all types of decorative surfaces, and preserving the finish, whether completely intact or not.
The rare chest in Figure 8, given by Murphy to the museum, is one of only six similar surviving case pieces from Massachusetts. Its decorative scheme emulates the japanned furniture fashionable in colonial America during the William and Mary period. The red, white, and yellow painted decoration covers what appear to be five drawer fronts, although there are really only two. The focus of the facade is a crimson sunrise embellishing each drawer face, surrounded by fanciful flowering vines and stairways leading to nowhere. The architectural renderings of two-story brick-faced buildings with cupolas were once thought to represent structures at Harvard College. For that reason this and the handful of related chests became known as "Harvard chests." Their design source is much more likely to have been the artist's imagination.
John Kenneth Byard of Norwalk, Connecticut, was another contemporary of Mrs. Webb's who collected and sold early American furniture to a distinguished clientele. Accession records indicate that he sold her 133 pieces that represent some of the highlights of Shelburne's collection, including a roundabout chair attributed to John Goddard (Fig. 6). Its deep red close-grained mahogany probably came from the Dominican Republic.4 Its two backrests are set at right angles, and its broad, low arms allowed a writer to draw the chair under the fall front of a secretary desk while retaining elbow support. The serpentine shape of the arms, interlaced design in the back splats, and the distinctive carving style of the ball-and-claw foot with undercut talons confirm a Newport, Rhode Island, origin. The chair is attributed to John Goddard because it closely resembles a roundabout chair he made for the prominent merchant John Brown, now in the John Brown house in Providence.
By 1941 Mrs. Webb was a regular customer at Edith Gregor Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New YorkCity. Halpert played a central role in the establishment of folk painting and sculpture as a distinct collecting category. She helped Abby Aldrich Rockefeller build the Colonial Williamsburg collection and worked closely with the Index of American Design, a Works Progress Administration initiative set up in 1935 to create a permanent record of outstanding examples of American craftsmanship. Mrs. Webb acquired weathervanes, trade signs, ship figureheads, and cigar store figures with original surfaces-more than seventy pieces-from Halpert for Shelburne. The whimsical whirligig of a lady painted in a blue colonial dress spinning at her wheel (Fig. 5) is thought to have advertised a yarn shop in eastern Massachusetts where it was found in the early twentieth century. It would have been placed outside the shop, where the wind could turn both the large and small wheels, animating the sculpture and attracting potential customers.
As Mrs. Webb began to focus her attention on paintings in the 1950s, she turned to Maxim Karolik, a Russian émigré who developed three major collections of American art that he gave to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As a collector, author, and lecturer, Karolik was associated with many important figures, including Ima Hogg and a host of museum curators and directors. One of Mrs. Webb's important acquisitions from him was a mid-nineteenth-century painting by Joseph Whiting Stock, who recorded in his journal that he received $16 for a likeness of "Henrietta Russell corpse."5 Stock created almost a thousand portraits of people from all over New England, but Jane Henrietta Russell represents one of his finer efforts (Fig. 9). In addition to her striking blue dress, of particular interest are the interior furnishings, with colorful depictions of a fanciful fabric rug or painted floor covering and a Grecian-inspired stool and sofa, all of which must have been especially appealing to Mrs. Webb.
Colorful textiles, and quilts in particular, fascinated Electra Webb and she worked closely with Florence Peto, an influential author, lecturer, collector, and quiltmaker, to acquire the finest examples for Shelburne. Peto's masterpiece crib quilt, Calico Garden, incorporates eighteenth- and nineteenth-century hand-blocked and copperplate prints, chintzes, and imported calicos (Fig. 10). All the materials are old except the white broadcloth background. Mrs. Webb purchased Calico Garden for the museum in 1952, and in 1999 it was named one of "The Twentieth Century's Best American Quilts."6
Mrs. Webb's aesthetic also had a significant influence on developing the taste of other collectors. Soon after her marriage in 1910 to J. Watson Webb (1884-1960) she began to remodel the Brick House-an 1850s farmhouse located on seven acres of her husband's family estate at Shelburne Farms on Lake Champlain-which they used as a fall hunting lodge. She filled it with her growing collections of American furniture, ceramics, glass, pewter, folk art, quilts, and hooked rugs. Henry Francis du Pont credited his interest in collecting American decorative arts to his visit to the Brick House, where he was struck by the pine cupboard with its pink Staffordshire ceramics in the hall. Following Mrs. Webb's death in 1960, her children gave him the cupboard and its Staffordshire, and today it introduces visitors to Winterthur Museum and Gardens. When the Brick House was restored to its 1938 appearance in 2003, the museum staff reproduced the original cupboard and appropriately distressed the finish. This author purchased period pink Staffordshire plates and hollowware in the same Military Sketches pattern that Mrs. Webb owned in the 1920s to complete the look.
Electra Havemeyer Webb continued to collect throughout her life, avidly acquiring pieces that "spoke" to her. Today, the fine, folk, and decorative arts at Shelburne provide visitors with Mrs. Webb's passion and keen eye for color. More than one hundred are featured in the inaugural exhibition at the new Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education.
JEAN M. BURKS is Senior Curator at Shelburne Museum.
1 Electra H. Webb, "The Shelburne Museum at Shelburne, Vermont," in The Antiques Treasury of Furniture and Other Decorative Arts..., ed. Alice Winchester et al. (Dutton, New York, 1959), p. 279. 2 "Museum Notes: What Started Me with the Museum," Electra H. Webb papers, Shelburne Museum Archives, Vermont. 3 Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Louis Comfort Tiffany: Nature by Design (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Vt., 2010), p. 10. 4 Jennifer L. Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in America (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2012). 5 The Paintings and the Journal of Joseph Whiting Stock, ed. Juliette Tomlinson (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn., 1976), p. 43. 6 The Twentieth Century's Best American Quilts: Celebrating One Hundred Years of the Art of Quiltmaking, ed. Mary Leman Austin (Primedia, Golden, Colo., 1999). This prestigious list was the result of "The Ultimate Quilt Search," a collaboration of four nonprofit quilting organizations: the Alliance for American Quilts, the American Quilt Study Group, the International Quilt Association, and the National Quilting Association.