The boy who loved ANTIQUES

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2012 | 

"While my childhood friends were engrossed in Boys' Life, Mad Magazine, and racier fare, I eagerly anticipated next month's issue"

When my friend Betsy Pochoda invited me to write a brief celebratory essay marking the ninetieth anniversary of The Magazine Antiques, she extracted a promise that I would take a personal approach and recount a story known only to a few close friends and family. At the age of fourteen, I was sent to Saint Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware, now forever identified with the movie Dead Poet's Society, which was filmed there. In those days the younger boys were housed in cubicles efficiently organized with closet, drawers, and storage in blond wood that even then I recognized as inspired by Shaker design. Before lights out on that first night away from home and after parents had long gone, the masters checked in on each of their new charges. The scene was a bit chaotic as adolescent antics were quelled and the occa¬sional stiff but quivering lip of a homesick boy was calmed. When the late Robert Dobson, director of admissions and my corridor master, drew my cubicle curtain aside, he found me happy as a lark, propped up in bed and read¬ing quite unashamedly the current issue of The Magazine Antiques. "Do you like antiques?" he asked. "So do I." Finding a kindred spirit among masters on one's first night at boarding school is no mean feat, and in my subsequent years at Saint Andrew's, Bob drove me to incalculable antiques shows, historic house tours and museums, and to my weekend "job" as a guide at the Historic Houses of Odessa, then administered by Winterthur. He also shared his subscription to this magazine.

My father J.T. Savage, sister Mina, and me in the garden of the Governor's Palace. Mina shared little, if any, of my youthful enthusiasm for Williamsburg.

 

 

The truth is that I had been a fan of Antiques for many years before heading off to Saint Andrew's, and it is more than a little sobering to realize that I have been an avid reader for more than half of the magazine's existence. While my childhood friends were engrossed in Boys' Life, Mad Magazine, or racier fare discovered in a father's secret drawer or "borrowed" from the barber shop, I eagerly anticipated the next month's offerings of Israel Sack and David Stockwell, the dealers whose ads took pride of place upon turning the cover page and constituted as luscious a centerfold as could possibly be imagined. For me, the chests and legs and drawers that made my little heart race were of mahogany and walnut and yellow pine.  As a kid consumed with old houses and old things, childhood on the Eastern Shore of Virginia was pretty close to perfect. Evidence of seventeenth- and eighteenth-and nineteenth-century habitations survived in abundance.

There was Garden Week in Virginia to look forward to each April, and Colonial Williamsburg, to which I required-and was granted-a twice yearly pilgrimage, was a little over two hours drive.  My youthful immersion in all things historic and Tidewater was close to perfect but I wanted to know more. The Magazine Antiques became my magic carpet. At the newly opened Eastern Shore Public Library, I was granted permission to check out six issues of the magazine on each of our family's biweekly visits. Favorite issues were checked out twice a year but I made it my youthful quest to systematically devour as much of the published run as I could digest. In its pages I could visit Deerfield, Philadelphia, Winterthur, and even Europe and envision the purchases I would make one day when I imagined myself a collector published in that holy of holies "Living with antiques." My only disappointment was not finding any of the local historic houses on Virginia's Eastern Shore that had inspired my obsession.


The day my letter of acceptance to the College of William and Mary arrived will always be cherished as among life's happiest. At last I would have Colonial Williamsburg-all day, every day and maybe even work in the restored area. I was hired as a costumed interpreter at the end of my freshman year and trained for my first four exhibition buildings in preparation for the bicentennial summer of 1976. Not surprisingly, I aced the written examination because I could recite verbatim the entire January 1969 issue of The Magazine Antiques devoted to Colonial Wil¬liamsburg's newly opened Peyton-Randolph House, Wetherburn's Tavern, and James Geddy House, not to mention the two previous issues devoted to the historic town, March 1953 and November 1955. In my junior year I was selected to participate in "The Arts of Colonial Virginia," a two-semester course taught by the Colonial Williamsburg curators. Here

were all the rock stars from the magazine come to life: my early mentor Graham Hood, John Austin, John Davis, Wallace Gusler, Mildred Lanier, Joan Dolmetsch, and the youthful Brock Jobe and Sumpter Priddy. The surprises that awaited the twelve of us each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon- a John Coney sugar box, a newly discovered Virginia chair originally in the Governor's Palace, a Chelsea porcelain figure, or a rare English needle¬point carpet-were more exciting than Christmas morning and much more frequent.
Fortified by articles from these pages, I embarked for the Summer Institute at the Museum of Southern Decorative Arts and a summer internship at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Joining an extremely distinguished coterie known as "Winterthur Rejects" in 1979, I quickly turned to articles on Cooperstown and environs in preparation for a rewarding graduate school tenure close to all the riches of the Hudson River valley not to mention the holdings of the New York State Historical Association. Participation in the Attingham Summer School and meeting my dear friend the late Helena Hayward in 1980 was a life-changing event. My favorite house of those three remarkable weeks, Mawley Hall in Shropshire, was already well known from the June 1972 issue. But seeing it come to life in all its considerable and three-dimensional baroque splendor was a revelation for which Clifford Musgrave's article had not prepared me. Little did I imagine on first reading about it back at Saint Andrew's that I would ever see such a house or become friends with the Galliers-Pratt family and make a dozen subsequent visits with special groups. As I write this, I am beginning to realize the power and influence of this extraordinary publication. It has been a roadmap, a solace, an inspiration, and a friend. The fostering of friendships is perhaps the greatest by-product of The Magazine Antiques. Three of its editors I have had the pleasure of knowing well. The late Allison Eckardt Ledes had a joie de vivre and capacity for friendship that makes all of us smile every time we remember her. Her cheerful powers of persuasion are such that Betsy Pochoda is one of the few people on earth to whom I would agree to spill my guts in this dangerously self-indul-gent piece. But it is Wendell Garrett who has been with me the longest-as a frequent visitor during my Charleston days, as a cherished and much beloved colleague at Sotheby's, and as an inspiration and giving friend to each and every graduate of Sotheby's Institute of Art. I met Wendell first at the Natchez Antiques Forum in Mississippi, a yearly gathering that he has guided and continues to guide into its thirty-fifth year. The offer for three Cooperstown graduate students to attend the forum in November was most welcome as frosts announced winter's arrival in New York while Natchez still harbored magnolia blossoms. The exoticism of the excursion into the Deep South was heightened by the fact that my classmates Connie Collins and Jayne Stokes had rarely, if ever, ventured south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Our first stop was New Orleans and my polite inquiry to the Lamothe House Hotel there, requesting a room for a single gentle¬man and one suitable for two ladies to share, was met with a sultry reply worthy of Blanche DuBois, "Honey, all I got left is the Scarlett O'Hara Suite," to which the only possible reply was, "I'll take it."

I proudly posed with my sister Mina and mother, Jean Savage, in front of the Governor's Palace on my tenth-birthday weekend at Colonial Williamsburg in October 1966.

 

 

 


You would think a night at the Lamothe House in the Scarlett O'Hara Suite and several Cajun martinis would prepare one for Natchez, but its history and charms are overwhelming and its mysteries deep. After the near-death experience of having Pilgrimage pageant crinolines attack upon opening their guestroom closets at Mistletoe Plantation, my classmates, attired in black cocktail dresses and single strands of pearls, joined me at the welcome reception at Linden given by Jeanette Feltus. All our senses were spinning as we entered a scene that put the barbecue at Twelve Oaks to shame. And there holding court was not Ashley Wilkes, but Wendell Garrett, as much at home as in his native California, his beloved Boston, or his adopted New York. In minutes and in his presence, we felt at home, too, such is this wonderful man's ability to make the humblest graduate student feel a major contributor to the world of antiques and decorative arts.
It was Wendell who suggested to Betsy Pochoda that I write an article about Eyre Hall on Virginia's Eastern Shore for the September 2009 issue. As the house and family that have probably inspired me most and longest from childhood, it was a great honor to add this venerable habitation to the list of distinguished properties in this magazine. On the ninetieth anniversary of this august publication, there are really just two words I wish to have remembered from this reflection. Thank you. You gave one little boy the inspiration to pursue a career that has rewarded and continues to reward beyond imagination.

J. THOMAS SAVAGE is the director of museum affairs at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

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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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