January 8, 2010 | Several years ago I visited the Reverend Peter Gomes, Harvard University's chaplain and professor of Christian morals, to interview him about the way he had furnished Sparks House, the residence Harvard provides for its preacher. I was struck by the exuberance of his rooms, their voluptuous colors—golds, reds, and greens—their antiques—Yankee, French, Scottish, English—the dramatic spiral stairwell lined with wallpaper inspired by that in Gunston Hall in Virginia, the pieces of Canton and Rose Medallion that remind Reverend Gomes of the old Yankee houses in Plymouth where he did chores as a teenager. These rooms feel alive, held together by the nimble mind of this African American minister who is as hard to classify as his sense of decor. Although I know that material things are morally neutral, I was still bound to ask the Reverend Gomes how such elaborate furnishings fit with his calling. As I consider the Winter Antiques Show and its exceptional charity, the East Side House Settlement in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, I am reminded of Gomes's answer: "I do believe that God is the author of beauty," he told me. "It is not beauty that distracts us from God. It is beauty that affirms the presence of God." He has much more to say on the subject, which is why I am pleased that Gomes will be the keynote speaker on January 22 at the Winter Antiques Show, where I am confident that his remarks will illuminate the whole of the antiques season in New York—from ceramics at the National Academy Museum to Americana at the Metropolitan Pavilion to the Pier shows—with a sense of the mission of things of beauty.
December 11, 2009 | There is a great deal of fretting these days about the future of collecting and the dearth of young collectors. Were there ever many young collectors? Probably not. It takes the perspective of age (as well as the accumulation of capital) to do what the best antiques collectors do: value a folk art painting or a tall-case clock for the image it gives us of the past, the picture of what we were, against which we can measure what we have become. That, for the most part, is not a young person's game. So I didn't worry recently that there were not throngs of well-heeled thirtysomethings strolling the aisles at the splendid San Francisco Fall Antiques Show. Their time should come, if all goes well.
November 13, 2009 | Here is a point that had somehow eluded me until now: eighteenth-century American furniture—a John Townsend chest-on-chest, a Philadelphia tea table—was already bold, original, and world class while American painting was still struggling for stature and its own voice. This discrepancy dawned on me while reading Carrie Rebora Barratt and Barbara Weinberg's article in this issue about the stories American painters put on canvas to pump up the importance of their calling. Such anxieties seem peculiarly American. The chief business of the American people, one of our presidents memorably lamented, is business; the practical value of a high chest had an obvious appeal to a pragmatic Yankee patron while an oil on canvas was bound to be a harder sell, at least in the beginning.
A new country required something new, but how was the artist to balance the inescapable influence of Europe with the originality a republic seemed to require? The blast of fresh air that blows through John Single…» More
October 23, 2009 | A few months ago Eleanor Gustafson and I spent a day as guests of Historic New England. We had wanted to see what I like to think of as the bookends of that organization's historic houses—the 1938 Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, with its spare, modernist decor and bracing use of industrial materials, and the rambling, mysterious Beauport in Gloucester, where Henry Davis Sleeper invented romantic clutter and reinvented interior design during the almost thirty years he worked on it from 1907 to 1934. Of the latter we will have much to say in a future issue. The Gropius House is pertinent here because it reminds me that the Bauhaus, subject of Christopher Long's wonderfully clarifying article in this issue, was a school, not a tyrannical aesthetic imposed by a group of Weimar era killjoys. However alienating the international style eventually became, the Bauhaus as represented by the house Gropius designed for his wife and daughter, is a warm and pleasant reminder of the school's best ideals: beauty joined to function in a timeless design.
There was one thing about the visit that puzzled me, however. Among the furnishings designed by Marcel Breuer is a badly pitted lacquered plywood and chrome-plated tubular steel side table. This is not the kind of furniture that was meant to be restored, and Gropius's daughter Ati Gropius Johansen has argued that it should be replaced by a good new version. Historic New England is not so sure, but I think she is right. With modernism crispness is all, or nearly all. This is not the furniture that Thomas Messel values in Meredith Etherington-Smith's article, where the craftsmanship cannot be duplicated and the passing years only add to the beauty of a piece. Neither is it the luxurious silver furniture of Versailles described in this issue by Florian Knothe, created to burnish the aura of the Sun King. Breuer's designs were meant to be mass-produced for the masses and, to my mind, the patina of age seems beside the point and does not become them.
September 25, 2009 | One of the things I admire about Electra Havemeyer Webb was her instinctive sense that the cultural designations of high-, low-, and middlebrow were silly. I do not mean to suggest that Webb was a prophet of late twentieth-century multiculturalism or that she could have argued for the relative merits of a beautifully carved duck decoy vis à vis a fine Degas. She couldn't, and she wouldn't have seen the point. For her, the decoy and the painting were both objects of astonishment and delight, but she knew that while the latter was justly praised, the former was likely to be overlooked. Thus the long journey to establish her multibuilding Shelburne Museum with its irreverent assemblage of the overlooked—decoys, hatboxes, tools, rowdy circus ephemera, ceramics, glass canes, and everything else that struck her as important and in need of rescue, including some really big items such as a lighthouse and a side-paddle-wheel steamer.
Several months ago I was discussing Electra Webb and the resilience of the Shelburne with my friend Tom Armstrong, former director of the Whitney Museum. That talk resulted in a plan to take eight artists up to the museum to see what they each made of the collections. We did just that with the, to me, astonishing and delightful results you can read about in Eleanor Gustafson's article, "The present learns from the past."
Pickle Dish, American China Manufactory (Bonnin and Morris), Philadelphia, 1771-72. Soft-paste porcelain with lead glaze; height 4 3/16, width 4 1/2» View All