Windows on the past: Watercolors of long-vanished houses and gardens

Water-colours of interiors, of which so many were painted particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century, possess, in a special manner, the virtue of bringing a place to life in the mind of the beholder, thanks to the diligence with which they reproduce every piece of furniture and every household object, every minute detail of carpets and curtains, and the feeling of light and shade in a room. It might be said that by means of this objective diligence they capture the soul of things, preserving them as a botanist preserves a flower in a herbarium, or an entomologist a butterfly. Like those Japanese paper flowers which, when put in water, disclose an exuberance unsuspected in a piece of dry straw, or like the genie in the bottle of the Arabian tale who becomes gigantic when he emerges, so do these little pictures of interiors expand in the beholder’s imagination.2

The exhibition’s curators—Gail S. Davidson and Floramae McCarron-Cates—have designed a show that plays up the pictures as both evidence and time machines. They have placed objects from the museum’s collection alongside paintings showing similar items, and visitors are provided with magnifying glasses for close-up views of any of the painstakingly rendered articles that capture their attention. “These works hold their own in both fine arts and decorative arts contexts,” Davidson says. And, in fact, some of the Thaw works were shown at two earlier exhibitions in New York City, one at the Morgan Library in 1985 and one at the Frick Collection in 1992, which played up their status as works of art in their own right.3 The Cooper-Hewitt Museum show uses them to “trace the evolution of the domestic interior from the more formal to the more personal,” Davidson explains. “We’re using them to dis-cuss changes in both style and function over time.”

Eugene Victor Thaw, a retired art dealer, and his wife, Clare, have built up several important collections and donated them to museums including the Frick Collection, the Morgan Library, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the Fenimore Art Museum, and others.4 Thaw credits Praz’s seminal study, An Illustrated History of Furnishing, first published in English in 1964, as well as John Cornforth’s English Interiors 1790–1848: The Quest for Comfort, published in 1978, with sparking his and his wife’s interest in these works. “Cornforth published several paintings by a woman named Charlotte Bosanquet,” Thaw recalls. “She came from a large family and she traveled around the various houses of her relatives painting them. The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford has two albums assembled by her. Not long after reading that book, we found a piece by her in an antiques shop off the King’s Road for just twenty-five pounds [Fig. 6]. After the publication of those two books, these kinds of paintings just started turning up, especially in England. Whenever we saw one that was charming, or that we liked, we’d try to buy it.”

In the decades since the Thaws began collecting them, these paintings have become quite rare, and the ranks of dealers specializing in them have dwindled. Charles Plante in London, who has specialized in architectural drawings and prints for twenty years, is the preeminent dealer, but even he finds fewer examples these days. Of some three hundred pictures on display in his booth at the Olympia International Art and Antiques Fair this past June, there were just twelve such watercolors.5 “I like the ones by known artists from the pre-photography era, pre-1850, best,” he says, “but they just don’t turn up that often.”

Davidson stresses that the Thaw gift is the most important donation to the museum’s Department of Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design in almost four decades. Its addition makes the Cooper-Hewitt’s holdings in this area arguably the largest of any institution in the United States.

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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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