Collecting American samplers in Southern California

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2013 |

Best known for its expansive sandy beaches, stately palms, and glorious golden sunsets-as well as numerous superb collections of modern and contemporary art-Los Angeles is, perhaps unexpectedly, also home to a significant number of important and excitingly diverse American decorative arts collec­tions. While some Southern California collectors have been amassing important holdings of American art since the late 1950s, others are rela­tively new to the field. However, all approach collecting Americana with an equal mix of intel­lectual curiosity, a love of beautiful objects rich in layered meaning, and a desire to connect with this nation's shared cultural history through objects.

"Good fortune/good timing" describes the felicitous and sometimes unexpected manner in which collections develop, as seen in four remarkable Los Angeles-based collections of American needlework. Examples from all four will be featured in an exhibition called Useful Hours: Needlework and Painted Textiles from Southern California Collections, at the Hun­tington Library, Art Collections, and Botani­cal Gardens from June 1 to September 2.1 Together these works provide a wide-ranging survey of schoolgirl needlework in this coun­try, including coats of a

In recounting how they built their collections, the collectors all referred to the linked concepts of "good fortune" and "good timing." Each claimed that "being at the right place at the right time" was critical to their success. However, what was not discussed but taken as a given was the importance of preliminary preparation-the hours of research, background reading, and looking-that each collector had undertaken before pursuing an acquisition. This passionate (and what some described as a "near-obsessive") exploration was, undoubtedly, as critical to the development of these collections as were good fortune and good timing.rms, family records, mourning pictures, pocketbooks, and picto­rial compositions worked by girls between the ages of eight and nineteen between 1763 and 1844. As a group, the works offer insight into the early training, daily lives, and social and cultural values of American women dur­ing this rich period in American history.

Each of the four individuals or couples has approached collecting in a different manner. Victor Gail and his late partner Thomas H. Oxford began collecting American furniture and related decorative arts in the early 1960s.2 Their passion for needlework is just one com­ponent of an interest in all aspects of early American history and decorative arts. By contrast, Mary Jaene Edmonds who has donated three Society of Friends samplers to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one of which is shown here, has an abiding interest in American sam­plers and their makers. Edmonds is both a scholar and a collector, and her book Samplers and Samplermakers: An American Schoolgirl Art, 1700-1850 has contributed significantly to the field since it was first published in 1991. Like the Gail-Oxford Collection, the collections of both Jonathan and Karin Fielding and Katharine Pease are wide-ranging and diverse and reflect the collectors' interest in American folk art, culture, and history.

While, at first glance vibrant color and bold design seem to characterize many of the works, there are also numerous samplers-particularly the marking and darning samplers done in the Quaker tradition-that are as subtle as a white-on-white painting by Kazimir Malevich or the evanescent compositions of Agnes Martin. In the end, the samplers collected in Southern California, while remarkably distinguished, are as representa­tive of American needlework traditions as those in any such collection in the United States. The following works are among the highlights of these collections and of Useful Hours.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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