Living history: A New England couple reanimates the past

An  interior view signed by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) hangs above a veneered wal­nut dressing table, Boston, 1710-1730, formerly in the collection of Eric Martin Wunsch. On the dress­ing table, from left, are a delft hand warmer shaped like a book, Lon­don, probably Southwark, dated 1665 and initialed "B./I.E"; a delft jug with armorial decoration, Lon­don, 1699; and a Charles II silver covered bowl, London, 1679. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.

As suggested intriguingly by a small oil portrait on copper that surfaced publicly in 2006 after more than half a century off the market and out of sight, the man said to be James Tilley enjoyed expansive views (Fig. 10). England and its rooted traditions lay behind him. Ahead, beckoning, was the unsettled promise of America. But Tilley died indebted in New London, Connecticut, while the painter whose name is affixed to the work, John Singleton Copley, decamped to London and further acclaim in 1774.

 

Writ small or large, New England's dual and sometimes contradictory past is at the heart of this distinguished collection combining American furniture, paintings, and sporting art with English silver and tin-glazed earthenware, much of it dating to the eighteenth century or earlier. With deep ties to the Connecticut River Valley, the couple who gathered the treasures shown here set to work nearly a half century ago, object by object fashioning a spirited account of their own history and that of a region they call home. As the wife explains, "This is who we are and where we came from."

In the early 1960s the husband, an investor, ac­quired a weekend retreat in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where the Connecticut River empties into Long Island Sound. He wanted to furnish the eighteenth-century house, a center-chimney colonial, in a sympathetic fashion. By instinct a hunter, he made his way down the coast one day to Ansonia, Con­necticut, where he found a rare foliate-painted high chest of drawers of a type associated with the shore­line Connecticut communities of Guilford and Saybrook (Fig. 11). After an obligatory tussle, dealer Harry Arons agreed grudgingly to sell the early eighteenth-century case piece. It has remained with the husband, a souvenir of his journey.

Still unknown to him, his future wife had also fallen under the spell of the old and beautiful. "My great aunt and her husband had put together a fantastic collection. I visited their won­derful house almost every day when I was a girl and it made a tremendous impression on me," she says. She graduated from candle­sticks to candlestands as fi­nances allowed and still buys pieces with her family's prov­enance when they surface.

Once married, the couple looked for a place to call their own. They found an early nineteenth-century farmhouse up the river and set about restor­ing it. Colchester, Connecticut, dealer Arthur Liverant, who advises them, recalls visiting the understated property decades ago-before the old potting shed became a new kitchen, and the old kitchen, a new dining room. About ten years ago, the couple commissioned a talented architect to add a sequence of rooms that, through clever sleight of hand, conjures early New England. In an imaginative flourish, they built backward, adding a late eighteenth-century bed chamber, an early eighteenth-century parlor, and a seventeenth-century tavern room.

"No Tory furniture for us. We wanted to live with simple, quirky New England things," says the couple, who gathered emblematic forms from Wethersfield and Windsor, Connecticut, and from Hadley and Taunton, Massachusetts. They acquired candlestands in felicitous variety.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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