The present learns from the past


Robert H. Cumming

Electra Webb could have used artist Robert Cumming in 1952. Several of his recent drawings (one is shown opposite) offer an easier way to transport the Colchester Reef Lighthouse to the Shelburne Museum grounds than the one she had to orchestrate. But as Grace Glueck, reviewing a show of Cumming's work at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote in the New York Times on April 17, 1998, "anything...can happen in a picture by Robert Cumming....His deadpan setups...often approach the surreal," as they do in Lifting a Lighthouse, where a conversation about weather vanes being stolen by a helicopter from rooftops, a photograph in the Brick House of a World War I observation balloon, and the sight of the lighthouse awaiting its new foundation came together.

Cumming, who lives in Whately, Massachusetts, exhibits widely and has works in numerous major American and international museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Kyoto Museum of Modern Art, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark. He works in many mediums—drawing, oils, sculpture, etching, photography (William Wegman of the photogenic weimaranars was a college friend and a graduate school roommate), and he even engages in performance art and makes furniture. Silhouettes­—or more precisely Scherenschnitte, cut-paper art that  in the United States was primarily made by Pennsylvania Germans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—are also in his repertoire. Indeed, it was an exhibition of some twenty-six of these at the Janet Borden Gallery in New York late last year that put him on the list of artists to invite for the weekend.

As it turned out, Cumming was the one artist in the group who had made several previous trips to the museum over the years. "There is always more to see," he says, and "each time you come, you come with a different perspective." Moreover, this was the first time he had been to the Brick House. "I loved the use of furniture and art and even the wallpaper there, not to mention the silhouettes by August Edouart that hung on so many walls. My tiny guest bedroom [which had been Electra Webb's home office] had an absolutely beautiful chest of drawers and writing desk." In his even tinier bathroom he was charmed by a lithograph entitled The Hill of Science, which depicts a young man, waving goodbye to his mother as he starts up an endless stairway to scientific achievement. The first few steps are labeled, "Virtue," "Perseverance," and "Patience," which, ironically, brings us back to the story of the lighthouse, for it embodies all three.

When a friend, Ralph Nading Hill, told Webb that the lighthouse, built in 1871 in the middle of Lake Champlain, was to be demolished and suggested that she get it for the museum, she told him he was crazy. But he persuaded her to go have a look. "Luckily I told my daughter-in-law where I was going," Webb told the Williamsburg audience in 1958, "because if that little boat had floated away, we'd have starved to death in this lighthouse....We got there and climbed up the reef, climbed up the ladder, he opened the door, and you've never seen such cobwebs....They were so thick that he had to go ahead of me and push them!" But she gritted her teeth and climbed to the very top, where, it comes as no surprise, she declared, "I have got to have the lighthouse!"

The disassembly and removal eventually required building a temporary dock, measuring, tagging, and recording every element, then loading it all onto two steel barges to carry to the shore. But the biggest prob­lem came from the insurance company. As Webb recounted at Williamsburg: "Mrs. Webb," she was told, "you cannot do this. We cannot insure you for marine insurance as well as land insurance." But "I was going to get that lighthouse!" she said. "I went down to the museum one day and our boss foreman came up to me and he said, ‘Mrs. Webb...I am resigning and I am taking with me 5 men.' Well, you can imagine how aghast I was, and before I could answer, he turned around to me and he said, ‘my 5 men and I are going to take the lighthouse down for you,' and... ‘when we get it to the land we are going to give it to you and to the Shelburne Museum, and if you want us back we want to come back into the employ of the Shelburne Museum.' Now it is men like that... [who] made the museum."  Perseverance, patience, and virtue.

Next: Chris Lehrecke

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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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