Whimsy: The spirit of play at Shelburne
By Sara Woodbury
From her first folk art purchase of a cigar store figure in the early twentieth century, to one of her final acquisitions, Andrew Wyeth's Soaring, in 1960, the unexpected defined Electra Havemeyer Webb's collecting. Throughout her life she pursued objects that affected her aesthetically and emotionally, whether it was a coverlet, a house, or a turn-of-the-century carousel. It is only apt, then, that the museum she founded would be equally capricious. From an apothecary shop to impressionist paintings, whirligigs to glass witch balls, the holdings of Shelburne Museum elude straightforward categorization and infuse it with a whimsical sense of place.
Nine Pins, Pennsylvania, c. 1867-1900. Carved and polychromed wood; height 11 ½, width 19, depth 4 . inches. Bohl photograph.
As a collector Mrs. Webb relied on instinct rather than scholarship, stating that, "I would be less than frank if I did not admit that I buy first and do the research afterwards."1 She was especially interested in functional objects, and some of Shelburne Museum's best-known collections consist of useful items such as ceramics, furniture, and quilts. As the other essays here emphasize, however, usefulness does not exclude playfulness, and many of the museum's utilitarian objects feature bright colors or unusual patterns that give them a whimsical appearance.
Some pieces in the collection, though, do have decidedly playful functions. Tin whimsies, for example, such as Bowl of Flowers (Fig. 17), were intended as humorous souvenirs for the tenth wedding anniversary, a marital milestone that received significant attention during the nineteenth century. With illness, childbirth, and accidents curtailing the average lifespan, the tenth anniversary was considered an important occasion, and was celebrated with a tin wedding party, a lighthearted and mildly self-deprecating event. At these parties guests would present the couple with gifts of tin, usually oversized hats, shoes, or other everyday objects, but they could also be tailored to the couple's personalities or idiosyncrasies.2 The anonymous recipient of this bowl of flowers may have been a gardener, for instance, but if nothing else, the shiny spiral-stemmed blossoms would have made for a memorable presentation.
Mrs. Webb also collected games and other toys, with one of the most significant examples being a ninepins set acquired from Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York (Fig. 19). A popular precursor to modern-day bowling, ninepins was introduced to America by English and Dutch colonists and was played in both indoor and outdoor settings. In Shelburne's unusual set, six smiling faces, some in medieval headgear, peer out of oversized boots, giving the pins a decidedly mischievous appeal. While this set might originally have been intended as a game, during the early twentieth century it assumed a new life as an esteemed work of folk sculpture. In 1931 the set was featured in the seminal American folk art exhibition held at the Newark Museum. A few years later, in 1937, the ninepins were recorded in watercolor for the Index of American Design.3
The ninepins set and tin whimsy flowers are just two examples of the many objects that are inherently fanciful in both form and function in Shelburne's collection. Yet individual objects constitute only part of Shelburne Museum's playful identity. Equally important to its whimsical sense of place are the unexpected ways in which these objects have been installed. Where else, after all, can we find a steamboat docked in a grassy landscape, a horseshoe-shaped barn filled with nineteenth-century carriages, or a hunting lodge replete with taxidermied animals (see Fig. 21), all within the same museum campus?
One of the most emphatic demonstrations of Mrs. Webb's eclectic taste is Variety Unit, named for its myriad collections. Built originally around 1835 as a farmhouse, Variety Unit is an example of so-called New England continuous architecture. Around every corner in this labyrinthine structure, a different collection awaits curious visitors. One room on the first floor contains trivets, for example, shaped into such diverse forms as spiders, birds, and abstract sunbursts. Glass objects, from pressed goblets to colorful walking canes, also occupy rooms on the first floor, while on the second floor, dolls and automata await (see Fig. 22). Still other collections abound in the building, but whether it is a Staffordshire plate or a wooden food mold, all these disparate objects underscore Mrs. Webb's capricious taste, and together help create a museum environment that leaves visitors guessing about what awaits them next.
The seemingly arbitrary (though very deliberate) installations at Shelburne Museum reflect a key component of Mrs. Webb's approach to design. She was less interested in maintaining historical accuracy than in conveying "the spirit of life in the past."4 She was keen on presenting collections in visually exciting ways, and, in addition to layering color and patterns, she grouped seemingly unrelated objects together to give her arrangements a sense of spontaneity. Indeed, when asked about how she and her staff had created the museum's distinctive campus, Mrs. Webb stated, "I have found that beautiful antiques, buildings, structures, or even a sidewheeler, will ‘place themselves.'"5 By suggesting that her objects "place themselves," Mrs. Webb implies that they possess agency-that they appear to choose where they want to go, and engage with visitors on their own terms.6
This animated, capricious quality not only characterized the museum's campus but also defined the look of its earliest catalogues, books, and other forms of self-publicity when the museum was establishing its institutional identity. One particularly idiosyncratic example is Richard Lawrence Greene and Kenneth Edward Wheeling's Pictorial History of the Shelburne Museum, published in 1972. On page 64, photographs of eagle weathervanes, trade signs, and sculptures appear to perch and hover in a pen-and-ink drawing of a forest scene (Fig. 20). The resulting image gives the figures an animated quality and presents the museum as an almost enchanted place where folk art is endowed with a life of its own.
Such lively visuals underscore Mrs. Webb's vision for Shelburne. While she intended it to educate visitors about nineteenth-century American life, particularly life in Vermont, she also wanted to make that past approachable. To that end she infused the museum with a sense of whimsy and playfulness that would appeal to multiple generations. As Charles Messer Stow, one-time antiques editor for the New York Sun, remarked during the founding years of Shelburne, "the animating spirit of the museum will place a strong accent on youth and play."7
Like any organic creature, Shelburne Museum has adapted to its changing environment and audiences over the last several decades. It has added galleries to accommodate new collections, periodically rearranged its installations, and refined its self-presentation. Undoubtedly it will continue to evolve with the opening of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, which invites an exciting array of new challenges and opportunities in terms of exhibitions and programs. Yet a sense of whimsy will likely remain a defining aspect of its identity. Shelburne Museum invites us on a journey into the unexpected, and just as Mrs. Webb trusted her objects to "place themselves," it leaves us to choose our own adventures.
SARA WOODBURY, formerly a curatorial fellow at Shelburne, is now curator of collections and exhibitions at the Roswell Museum and Art Center in NewMexico.
1 Quoted in Kathryn Grover, "Electra Havemeyer Webb and Shelburne Museum," Shelburne, Vermont, 1999, p. 46, Shelburne Museum Archives. 2 Jean Lipman, Elizabeth V. Warren, and Robert Charles Bishop, Young America: A Folk-Art History (Hudson Hills Press in association with the Museum of American Folk Art, New York, 1986), p. 180. 3 Henry Joyce and Sloane Stephens, American Folk Art at the Shelburne Museum (Shelburne, Vt., 2001), p. 6; Virginia Tuttle Clayton, Elizabeth Stillinger, and Erika Lee Doss, Drawing on America's Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2002), p. 201. 4 Grover, "Electra Havemeyer Webb and Shelburne Museum," p. 151. 5 Electra Havemeyer Webb, "The Shelburne Museum and How It Grew," speech delivered at the Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum, January 30, 1958, Electra Havemeyer Webb papers, Shelburne Museum Archives. 6 For a more thorough discussion of the agency of images, I recommend W. J. T Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005), pp. 28-56. 7 Quoted ibid., p. 133.