On Southern Turf
from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2012 |
For Mary and Hank Brockman the proper preservation of the South's material culture includes art, architecture, artifacts and the landscape.
Driving through the limestone gateposts of Pontotoc Farm and up the winding lane that leads to Hank and Mary Brockman's Greek revival house, a visitor might understandably assume that the scene has been largely untouched over the last 160 years.
In fact, the harmonious setting of house and horse farm, stone fences and historic outbuildings, reflects the deliberate hand of two collectors as much as the interior assemblage of American sporting art, southern furniture and paintings, and nineteenth-century agricultural presentation silver.
"Pontotoc," the name chiseled into one of those weathered gateposts, is a Chickasaw Indian word meaning land of hanging grapes, an allusion to the abundance of the land. It was 1992 when the Brockmans fell in love with the 112-acre property nestled into a crook of the Harpeth River just outside Franklin, Tennessee, an ideally lush, level site for Mary's thoroughbreds and Hank's Percherons. There was only one drawback. "I complained that it didn't have an old house," Mary Brockman recalls. "And Hank said ‘That's no problem. I'll find one!' And of course, he did."
The post-and-beam clapboard house with a two-story portico and four Doric columns was built in 1854 but had been unoccupied for three decades when Hank discovered it twenty miles away. It was not on the market, but Hank persuaded the owner to sell. Acting as his own contractor, he arranged to have the house dismantled and reassembled on the new property, taking care to preserve most of the original architectural elements. A rear wing was constructed for additional living space. The limestone gateposts came from property owned by Mary's aunt. They were all that remained of a house that burned, along with hundreds of other structures, in the Nashville fire of 1916.
Outbuildings salvaged from other sites soon followed, including an 1860s barn in the cantilever style unique to the southern highlands, and a rare three-seat outhouse (now a garden shed) from Foxland Hall plantation north of Nashville, which Hank recalls rescuing while a bulldozer idled a few feet away. For the Brockmans, the preservation of material culture and its setting is a shared passion. Hank, a banker and businessman, sits on the board of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, and Mary, a Williamson County Commissioner, is on the board of the Land Trust for Tennessee, an organization founded to preserve the state's historic landscapes and open spaces. Both have been deeply involved in historic preservation efforts in Middle Tennessee, especially in Franklin, founded in 1799 and the site of one of the Civil War's pivotal battles. The town's downtown district has won multiple preservation awards and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The scenic Zuber et Cie. Vues d'Amerique du Nord wallpaper that lines the Brockmans' front hallway tells visitors at first glance that this is a house where history is honored. But the carved limestone lion in the corner by William Edmondson (the Nashvillian who was the first African American to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art) is a reminder that history encompasses much more than a single era. Early nineteenth-century southern furniture appears throughout the house, including two huntboards, three sugar chests, a sugar sideboard, and a sugar desk, these last recalling a time and place where a pound of sugar could cost more than an acre of land.1 They mingle comfortably with paintings by late nineteenth- and twentieth-century southern artists such as John McCrady of Louisiana, William Gilbert Gaul of Tennessee, and Elizabeth O'Neill Verner of South Carolina. While some of the Tennessee furniture descended in Mary's family, most of the art and antiques have been acquired over the last three decades from regional dealers such as Clifton Anderson and Jerome Redfearn of Kentucky, Jim Williams of Nashville, Turner Reuter in Middleburg, Virginia, and at major shows and auction houses across the country. "Art is not in the eye of the beholder," Williams says. "I know it when I see it and so do Hank and Mary; they have a keen eye. They don't buy to match the drapes. They buy items worthy of a serious and educated collector."
The paneled library houses the Brockmans' collection of American sporting art, an interest that has evolved in the last ten years and has become one of their most significant pursuits. "I was already collecting southern regional art, and I always liked the look of English salons, with horse paintings lining the walls," Hank says. "I started buying British pieces, but there was something missing. They didn't mean as much to me."
Then Greg Ladd, the equestrian art dealer in Lexington, sold the Brockmans a portrait of the American horse Devil Diver by Kentucky-born painter Vaughn Flannery. That introduced the Brockmans to the lesser-known world of American sporting art, in which southern horses, owners, farms, and tracks played a key role. According to racing historian John Hervey, there are records of horse racing as early as the 1670s in Virginia and Maryland,2 and by the time of the Civil War, "the turf had become pre-eminently something in and of the South."3 The couple still admires classic British sporting art-their Blue Prince II by Sir Alfred Munnings is a favorite-but they have decided to readjust their focus.
"With American sporting art you have a broader range of styles versus English," Hank observes. "We identified a few American artists we felt captured the essence of American racing history: Edward Troye and Henry Stull, who painted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Vaughn Flannery and Lee Townsend from the 1930s and 1940s."
It has been said that Troye "did as much for the American horse as Audubon did for American ornithology,"4 but the Swiss-born artist did not apparently set out to paint only horses. He was educated in London, came to Pennsylvania in about 1830, around the age of twenty-two, and painted other animals as well as portraits and landscapes.5 A commission in 1832 to paint two thoroughbreds owned by John C. Craig of Philadelphia launched his career as a painter of horses. He would go on to paint every major thoroughbred in the United States. He spent most of his career in the South, and his horse paintings are prized also for the other elements they record: the landscape, antebellum houses and stables, racing sites, and people. Troye died in Kentucky in 1874.
Although Stull initially aspired to be an actor, he was associated with horses from childhood and seemingly destined to paint them. Reputedly born over a stable, he frequented races as a youth and worked early on as a sporting illustrator. Studying horse anatomy at veterinary school helped him articulate subjects with unparalleled precision, which he often juxtaposed against impressionistic backgrounds.6 Vaughn Flannery began his career in advertising illustration, but went on to paint highly realistic depictions of horses and their surroundings. Lee Townsend (1895-1965) was a professional horse trainer turned artist whose paintings brought an intimate perspective of turf life to his canvases.
An intriguing aspect of American equestrian art is the visual witness it bears to African Americans as athletes, often depicting them astride or alongside the horses. "They were integral to the sport. They were the trainers, the grooms, they worked the farms, and-not least of all-they were the jockeys," Mary points out. In fact, black jockeys dominated thoroughbred racing in America up to the early twentieth century. Thirteen of the fifteen jockeys in the inaugural Kentucky Derby of 1875 were black, and black jockeys won fifteen of the first twenty-eight Derbys.7
One of the Brockmans' most important paintings is the portrait of the undefeated racehorse Asteroid, owned by Robert Alexander of Woodburn Stud in Kentucky (Fig. 8). It was painted by Troye about 1864, not long before Confederate guerillas raided Woodburn and stole Asteroid. (The horse was later ransomed, survived a second attempted theft, and was sent north for the duration of the war.)8 Pictured to the right of Asteroid is his trainer Ansel Williamson, loaned to Woodburn as a slave; Robert Alexander later showed his admiration by naming a thoroughbred after him.9 To Asteroid's left, adjusting his boots, is the teenage jockey Ed "Brown Dick" Brown, purchased as a slave at age seven, who later became an accomplished trainer. The name of the young groom standing beside Brown remains a mystery. For unknown reasons, Troye painted the scene twice. The painting's twin was formerly owned by Paul Mellon and currently belongs to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. The Brockmans acquired Asteroid at a seminal event-the 2004 Sotheby's sale of the Jeffords Collection, considered the finest collection of American sporting art ever to come to auction. Mr. and Mrs. Walter M. Jeffords were prominent owners not just of sporting art, but also of numerous champion horses, and Walter Jeffords's father, himself a collector, married the niece of Samuel Riddle (owner of Man O' War). "I went to that auction intending to buy two paintings and I walked out with seven, plus a trophy and a sculpture of Man O' War," Hank says. "It was the opportunity to put together the foundation of a really good collection, and pushed us to another level."
The bronze bust of Man O' War by Herbert Haseltine that once stood on Samuel Riddle's bedside table now occupies a place of honor in the Brockmans' airy gallery underneath a prized image from Hank's early twentieth-century photography collection (Fig. 19). Taken at Faraway Farm about 1940, it shows Haseltine standing beside Man O' War and his beloved groom Will Harbut; at the left is a small version of Haseltine's full-sized bronze rendition of the thoroughbred (now a centerpiece at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington).
"So much of what matters to me about collecting is the association, being able to connect an object with a person, time, and place, and that photograph is a great example," Hank says.
The Brockmans began collecting presentation silver from nineteenth-century agricultural and mechanical societies for similar reasons. A prime example of the importance of the land in southern material culture, these pieces were awarded at fairs, expositions, and naturally, horse races, up to about the time of the Civil War. Their inscriptions often reveal a wealth of information about who gave it and who received it, when, where, and why.
The Brockmans' collection is displayed in two Tennessee corner cupboards and atop a Sheraton style sugar sideboard. While the Brockmans own an 1848 snuffbox, far more typical forms seem to have been water or cream pitchers, goblets, and beakers. In fact the latter became so associated with horse races (and the popular mint, sugar, and bourbon concoction served at those events) that they are now commonly called julep cups.
Two of the Brockmans' favorites are goblets by unknown makers, presented by the Georgia and Alabama Agricultural Society, one for the "Best Collection of Southern Made Plows," adorned with a repoussé rendition of a plow, the other for "Best Blooded Stallion," bearing the image of a horse. Both were awarded at the same event in October 1852, but went to different recipients. Hank found the first goblet at Alderfer Auction in Pennsylvania and twelve years later was delighted to find the second at Brunk Auctions in NorthCarolina, at the sale of the Bill and Florence Griffin collection.
"I collect for the inscriptions more than the makers," Hank explains. "I love to see what they prized: the best pacing gelding or largest imported mule, clover hay, brogan shoes, quilts, plows. I even recently acquired one from [Nashville dealer] Michael Hall for the best blanket and jeans, dated 1857, which may be one of the earliest references to blue jeans. The South is no longer a mainly agrarian society, so I'm intrigued by the story these tell."
Mary Brockman participates in the occasional fox hunt through Tennessee's horse country, but for Hank the thrill of the chase usually takes place at antiques shows and galleries, and with a bid paddle rather than a riding crop. It remains for both, however, an unbridled pursuit.
1 Robert Hicks and Benjamin Hubbard Caldwell Jr., "A short history of the Tennessee sugar chest," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 164, no. 3 (September 2003), p. 130. 2 John Hervey, Racing in America: 1665-1865 (Jockey Club, New York, 1944), vol. 1, p. 17. 3 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 339. 4 Anna Wells Rutledge, Artists in the Life of Charleston: Through Colony and State, from Restoration to Reconstruction (American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1949), p. 157. 5 Charles E. Fairman, Works of Art in the United States Capitol Building Including Biographies of the Artists (Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C., 1913), p. 71. 6 Michael D. Zellman, 300 Years of American Art (Wellfleet Press, Secaucus, N. J., 1987), p. 452. 7 Information provided by the Kentucky Derby Museum, Louisville. See also Jim Bolus, Derby Magic (Pelican Publishing, Gretna, La., 1997), p. 103. 8 Thomas Shelby Watson and Perry A. Brantley, Confederate Guerilla Sue Mundy: A Biography of Kentucky Soldier Jerome Clarke (McFarland and Co., Jefferson, N. C., 2008), p. 74. 9 Maryjean Wall, How Kentucky Became Southern (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2010), p. 85.
SARAH CAMPBELL DRURY is a scholar, writer, and appraiser in Nashville, Tennessee. She is Vice President of Decorative Arts at Case Antiques, Auctions, and Appraisals.