Past, Present, and Future at the Huntington

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2012 |

Its name, the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, pretty well covers what this singular institution in San Marino, California, is all about. But it hardly begins to tell the story. The creation of Henry E. Huntington, a man with forward-looking business sense and retrospective tastes in art and literature, the Huntington today is moving ahead in a number of adventurous ways that honor and illuminate the past. Last fall, for example, Harold B. "Hal" Nelson, curator of American decorative arts, in collaboration with The Magazine Antiques, invited seven notable California artists to explore the ways in which their work carries on and expands Huntington's legacy.

The grand loggia along the east side of the Huntington Art Gallery re­mains much as it was when built, to the designs of Myron Hunt and El­mer Grey, as the residence of Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) and his second wife, Arabella (1850-1924). The museum opened in 1928.

Before we get to these artists and their discoveries, it is useful to understand that legacy and how it came about. Having made his fortune as a railroad executive under the aegis of his uncle Collis P. Huntington-one of the "big four" who brought the railroad across the conti­nent-Henry Huntington moved to Los Angeles in 1902, recognizing its promise as one of the country's most important cultural, agricultural, and commercial centers. He established transportation and electric power systems, bought up huge tracts of land for development, and acquired a work­ing ranch for himself, with acres of citrus groves, nut and fruit or­chards, and glorious views of the San Gabriel Mountains.

The Huntington Art Gallery, which recently underwent a major renovation, now houses the institution's Eu­ropean art collections. 


About 1910, while building a commodious Beaux-Arts house that took in the glorious views, Huntington turned from business to his life-long passion for books. Focusing on American and British history and literature, he swept up whole libraries of rare volumes and manuscripts, often at enormous prices, including a copy of the Gutenberg Bible bought for fifty thousand dollars in 1911, then the highest price ever paid for a book. By the time he began to collect art, in 1907, Hun­tington was spending his time with his uncle's widow, Arabella, one of the most important collec­tors of the day and the person who undoubtedly helped to sharpen his eye. The collection of eighteenth-century grand manner British portraits that Hun­tington assembled, as a complement to his interests in British literature, remains unequalled outside of England. In 1913 he and Arabella married and they continued to collect-broadening the collection to include her avid interest in French decorative arts.

Huntington's third great passion was for plants, derived in part from his desire to find ones that would grow well in South­ern California and so help fulfill the region's agri­cultural potential. The avocado seeds he brought home from lunch at his gentlemen's club eventu­ally led to what is generally credited with being the first commercial avocado growth in California. Huntington and his landscape gardener William Hertrich stalked local nurseries and imported plants from around the world to mold the ranch into a botanical garden of rare and exotic specimens, creating lily ponds, habitats for palms, desert plants, and roses, as well as a Japanese Garden, the formal North Vista, and the landscaping around the house.

Before his death in 1927 Huntington developed a plan to preserve his library, art collection, and gardens, envisioning the whole as a center for research and scholarly endeavor but allowing it to grow and change over time. And so it has: the library holdings now range from the eleventh century to the present and include photographs, prints, and ephemera as well as books and manuscripts, while the gardens constitute more than fifteen thousand varieties of plants in more than a dozen principal habitats, in­cluding an Australian Garden, Subtropical Garden, Shakespeare Garden, and, the most recent, Liu Fang Yuan, or the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, inspired by the centuries-old Chinese tradition of private gardens designed for scholarly pursuits-a concept that would surely appeal to Henry Huntington.

While Huntington himself did not focus on American art, it is in this area that the collection has taken some of its most dynamic steps forward in recent years-a logical expansion given his in­terests in American history and literature. Spurred by the 1979 gift of fifty important American paint­ings and funds for a gallery to house them, from a foundation established by Virginia Steele Scott twelve thousand and includes notable decorative arts and sculpture as well as paintings. Virtually the entire collection can be on display, thanks to the expansion of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries in 2009 and plans to expand them further in 2014. "Since we're a comparatively young collec­tion there are still many gaps to fill," says Jessica Todd Smith, the Virginia Steele Scott Chief Cura­tor of American Art, "but that is very exciting because every gap presents us with an opportu­nity." The perspicacious purchase earlier this year of a large carved organ screen by Sargent Johnson deaccessioned by the University of California, Berkeley-is a notable case in point; the first ma­jor piece by an African-American artist to enter the collection, it is the work of one of the finest sculptors of the Harlem Renaissance.

It is impossible to capture in a few paragraphs the breadth of the Huntington's holdings, and the air of inspiration and vitality found throughout its 207-acre campus. Perhaps another way to get a sense of it is to glance at the exhibition schedule-though this, too, is inadequate to the task: last year exhibi­tions ranged from the work of Sam Maloof and his circle to Francisco de Goya, from British Regency manuscripts and prints to aerospace in Southern California, and from ancient Chinese bronzes to the role of water in the early Spanish San Gabriel Mission. Just recently a major exhibition, Visions of Empire: The Quest for a Railroad Across America, 1840-1880, comprising letters, diaries, prints, and other rare documents, largely from the Library's holdings, opened in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery. Its theme brings us back to Collis and Henry Huntington.

Indeed, it is the links across the collections and the creative thinking these links inspire that make the Huntington such a vibrant place. They are one reason Hal Nelson and Antiques invited the art­ists introduced in the following pages to explore the Huntington together. "I think Henry Huntington would have applauded this project," Nelson says. "In creating this institution, he invited the public to share his passion for art, literature, history, science, and the beauty of the natural world. I believe he would have given a hearty thumbs-up to the artists we have chosen, and he would have been moved by the ways his legacy intertwines with theirs."

The grand loggia along the east side of the Huntington Art Gallery re­mains much as it was when built, to the designs of Myron Hunt and El­mer Grey, as the residence of Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) and his second wife, Arabella (1850-1924). The museum opened in 1928.


* See Susan Danly Walther, "The Virginia Steele Scott Gallery at the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 130, no. 2 (August 1986), pp. 270-279. Gustafson.

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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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