from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2013 |
IN HER FIRST ANNUAL REPORT, in 1948, Electra Havemeyer Webb, founder of Shelburne Museum, expressed her desire for “a building or adequate space in one for educational programs and loaned exhibits.” The new Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, which will hold exhibitions, lectures, films, concerts, and workshops, even during the challenging months of Vermont weather, is the realization of her dream. Webb’s vision was bold and creative and Shelburne has been blessed with curators and directors who have appreciated her daring and added their own. The new building is one more example of that.
The Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education is Shelburne Museum’s first year-round facility for exhibitions and public programs. Opening August 18, the Pizzagalli Center includes five thousand square feet of galleries, an auditorium, and a classroom. The LEED-certified building is designed by Ann Beha Architects of Boston.
The center will serve as both a gallery space for temporary exhibitions, drawn from Shelburne’s diverse holdings as well as borrowed materials from other organizations and collectors, on a variety of topics. Shelburne enthusiasts usually think of the museum as a trove of folk and decorative arts, but Mrs. Webb also acquired fine American and European paintings. The new building will make it possible for the public to see the work of Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, Thomas Cole, Fitz Henry Lane, Mary Cassatt, and others. Again, Mrs. Webb, who was reluctant to make distinctions between high and low art, would surely be delighted.
The best way for Shelburne to celebrate the spirit of its mission as it embarks on this new phase in its history is to honor the inspiration of its founder. The inaugural exhibition at the Pizzagalli Center, Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale: The Best of Shelburne Museum, draws from among the 150,000 objects housed in the museum’s thirty-nine buildings. The essays that follow are part of the staff’s tribute to the vision of Electra Havemeyer Webb. There is a lot of joy at Shelburne.
Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale
By Jean M. Burks
Challenged to describe the unique museum she had created, Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960) used the phrase “a collection of collections.”1 Daughter of Gilded Age connoisseurs Henry Osborne (1847-1907) and Louisine Elder Havemeyer (1855-1929), Electra grew up in an extraordinary New York mansion on East Sixty-Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue decorated between 1890 and 1892 by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Samuel Colman-artists with highly developed aesthetic tastes. The furnishings reflected her father’s enthusiasm for Asian objects, his interest in early Middle Eastern and European glass and ceramics, and his appreciation for old master paintings, along with her mother’s passion for the emerging work of the French impressionists (see Fig. 4). The colors and textures, the diverse materials, and the myriad patterns all contributed to the connoisseurship skills and personal approach that Electra Webb would bring to the works she would acquire as an adult.
Electra Webb’s appetite for antiques was voracious, and she filled every possible space in her three households in Westbury, Long Island, New York City, and Shelburne, Vermont. “The rooms were over-furnished… then the closets and the attics were filled. I just couldn’t let good pieces go by-china, porcelain, pottery, pewter, glass, dolls, quilts, cigar store Indians, eagles, folk art. They all seemed to appeal to me.”2
In 1947 Electra Webb realized her dream of creating a museum where she could share her collections with the public. The 150,000 fine, folk, and decorative arts objects displayed in historic houses, trade shops, and gallery spaces at Shelburne reveal her fascination with color, pattern, whimsy, and scale-characteristics that, individually and together, define her unspoken aesthetic. The following four articles describe Mrs. Webb’s idiosyncratic, intuitive, and imaginative taste and feature both well-known masterworks and surprising treasures at the Shelburne Museum.
Color, collectors, and connoisseurs
By Jean M. Burks
The Shelburne Museum collection includes nine rare examples of furniture that Mr. and Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer commissioned from interior decorators Louis Comfort Tiffany and Samuel Colman for their new New York residence. The music room, which was decorated with reference to Far Eastern designs, included the armchair in Figure 7, part of a suite consisting of three settees, six arm- and side chairs, and two unusual tables. The set embodies the prevailing art nouveau style in the intertwined naturalistic plant and flower forms carved in low relief. As much attention was paid to the coloration of the finish as to the pieces themselves. “After the carving had been done, a fine gold leaf was applied and then slightly rubbed off leaving the relief a little bare, which made it look old and as if it had been handled for many years.”3 Today this armchair and other gilded pieces from the suite are reinstalled in the Memorial Building at Shelburne, which houses furnished rooms from Electra Webb’s 1932 New York City home.
So-called Harvard chest, Essex County, Massachusetts, 1700-1725. Pine, paint, brass; height 44 ., width 38 ., depth 20 ¾ inches. Gift of Katharine Prentis Murphy and Edmund Astley Prentis; Bohl photograph.
Mrs. Webb was drawn to vibrant color in everything she touched-American room settings, furniture, folk art, fine art, and textiles. One of her most influential colleagues was Katharine Prentis Murphy, who created mid-eighteenth-century rooms for various institutions including the New-York Historical Society (1950), the New Hampshire Historical Society (1958), and the Bayou Bend Collection in Houston (1959). When Mrs. Webb moved a 1773 house in Hadley, Massachusetts, to the museum in 1954, the two friends worked together to create colorful interior settings for seventeenth-century European and American decorative arts. While other distinguished collectors were stripping furniture of original paint to create a clean and pristine appearance on their antique pieces, Electra Havemeyer Webb was amassing all types of decorative surfaces, and preserving the finish, whether completely intact or not.
The rare chest in Figure 8, given by Murphy to the museum, is one of only six similar surviving case pieces from Massachusetts. Its decorative scheme emulates the japanned furniture fashionable in colonial America during the William and Mary period. The red, white, and yellow painted decoration covers what appear to be five drawer fronts, although there are really only two. The focus of the facade is a crimson sunrise embellishing each drawer face, surrounded by fanciful flowering vines and stairways leading to nowhere. The architectural renderings of two-story brick-faced buildings with cupolas were once thought to represent structures at Harvard College. For that reason this and the handful of related chests became known as “Harvard chests.” Their design source is much more likely to have been the artist’s imagination.
John Kenneth Byard of Norwalk, Connecticut, was another contemporary of Mrs. Webb’s who collected and sold early American furniture to a distinguished clientele. Accession records indicate that he sold her 133 pieces that represent some of the highlights of Shelburne’s collection, including a roundabout chair attributed to John Goddard (Fig. 6). Its deep red close-grained mahogany probably came from the Dominican Republic.4 Its two backrests are set at right angles, and its broad, low arms allowed a writer to draw the chair under the fall front of a secretary desk while retaining elbow support. The serpentine shape of the arms, interlaced design in the back splats, and the distinctive carving style of the ball-and-claw foot with undercut talons confirm a Newport, Rhode Island, origin. The chair is attributed to John Goddard because it closely resembles a roundabout chair he made for the prominent merchant John Brown, now in the John Brown house in Providence.
By 1941 Mrs. Webb was a regular customer at Edith Gregor Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New YorkCity. Halpert played a central role in the establishment of folk painting and sculpture as a distinct collecting category. She helped Abby Aldrich Rockefeller build the Colonial Williamsburg collection and worked closely with the Index of American Design, a Works Progress Administration initiative set up in 1935 to create a permanent record of outstanding examples of American craftsmanship. Mrs. Webb acquired weathervanes, trade signs, ship figureheads, and cigar store figures with original surfaces-more than seventy pieces-from Halpert for Shelburne. The whimsical whirligig of a lady painted in a blue colonial dress spinning at her wheel (Fig. 5) is thought to have advertised a yarn shop in eastern Massachusetts where it was found in the early twentieth century. It would have been placed outside the shop, where the wind could turn both the large and small wheels, animating the sculpture and attracting potential customers.
As Mrs. Webb began to focus her attention on paintings in the 1950s, she turned to Maxim Karolik, a Russian émigré who developed three major collections of American art that he gave to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As a collector, author, and lecturer, Karolik was associated with many important figures, including Ima Hogg and a host of museum curators and directors. One of Mrs. Webb’s important acquisitions from him was a mid-nineteenth-century painting by Joseph Whiting Stock, who recorded in his journal that he received $16 for a likeness of “Henrietta Russell corpse.”5 Stock created almost a thousand portraits of people from all over New England, but Jane Henrietta Russell represents one of his finer efforts (Fig. 9). In addition to her striking blue dress, of particular interest are the interior furnishings, with colorful depictions of a fanciful fabric rug or painted floor covering and a Grecian-inspired stool and sofa, all of which must have been especially appealing to Mrs. Webb.
Colorful textiles, and quilts in particular, fascinated Electra Webb and she worked closely with Florence Peto, an influential author, lecturer, collector, and quiltmaker, to acquire the finest examples for Shelburne. Peto’s masterpiece crib quilt, Calico Garden, incorporates eighteenth- and nineteenth-century hand-blocked and copperplate prints, chintzes, and imported calicos (Fig. 10). All the materials are old except the white broadcloth background. Mrs. Webb purchased Calico Garden for the museum in 1952, and in 1999 it was named one of “The Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts.”6
Mrs. Webb’s aesthetic also had a significant influence on developing the taste of other collectors. Soon after her marriage in 1910 to J. Watson Webb (1884-1960) she began to remodel the Brick House-an 1850s farmhouse located on seven acres of her husband’s family estate at Shelburne Farms on Lake Champlain-which they used as a fall hunting lodge. She filled it with her growing collections of American furniture, ceramics, glass, pewter, folk art, quilts, and hooked rugs. Henry Francis du Pont credited his interest in collecting American decorative arts to his visit to the Brick House, where he was struck by the pine cupboard with its pink Staffordshire ceramics in the hall. Following Mrs. Webb’s death in 1960, her children gave him the cupboard and its Staffordshire, and today it introduces visitors to Winterthur Museum and Gardens. When the Brick House was restored to its 1938 appearance in 2003, the museum staff reproduced the original cupboard and appropriately distressed the finish. This author purchased period pink Staffordshire plates and hollowware in the same Military Sketches pattern that Mrs. Webb owned in the 1920s to complete the look.
Electra Havemeyer Webb continued to collect throughout her life, avidly acquiring pieces that “spoke” to her. Today, the fine, folk, and decorative arts at Shelburne provide visitors with Mrs. Webb’s passion and keen eye for color. More than one hundred are featured in the inaugural exhibition at the new Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education.
JEAN M. BURKS is Senior Curator at Shelburne Museum.
1 Electra H. Webb, “The Shelburne Museum at Shelburne, Vermont,” in The Antiques Treasury of Furniture and Other Decorative Arts…, ed. Alice Winchester et al. (Dutton, New York, 1959), p. 279. 2 “Museum Notes: What Started Me with the Museum,” Electra H. Webb papers, Shelburne Museum Archives, Vermont. 3 Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Louis Comfort Tiffany: Nature by Design (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Vt., 2010), p. 10. 4 Jennifer L. Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in America (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2012). 5 The Paintings and the Journal of Joseph Whiting Stock, ed. Juliette Tomlinson (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn., 1976), p. 43. 6 The Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts: Celebrating One Hundred Years of the Art of Quiltmaking, ed. Mary Leman Austin (Primedia, Golden, Colo., 1999). This prestigious list was the result of “The Ultimate Quilt Search,” a collaboration of four nonprofit quilting organizations: the Alliance for American Quilts, the American Quilt Study Group, the International Quilt Association, and the National Quilting Association.
Ingrained patterns at SHELBURNE
By Kory Rogers
A photograph of Shelburne’s rug room about 1960 captures Electra Havemeyer Webb’s eye for mixing and matching decorative patterns (Fig. 12). Measuring nineteen by thirty-three feet with a thirteen-foot ceiling, the expansive gallery showcased the museum’s collection of oversized area rugs and hall runners. Displayed both on the floor and hung on the walls like tapestries, the hooked, embroidered, and braided rugs became the backdrop for large-scale folk sculpture, including gilded American eagles and a rocking chair used as a trade sign, encapsulating the four tenets of Mrs. Webb’s collecting aesthetic: color, pattern, whimsy, and scale. This quixotic installation was one room in the Hat and Fragrance Gallery complex, which was designed by Mrs. Webb to celebrate the patterns found in quilts, coverlets, samplers, lace, rugs, costumes, fashion accessories, wallpaper, hat- and bandboxes, and other artifacts.
Hat- and bandboxes, American, 1825-1855. Photograph by J. David Bohl.
The Hat and Fragrance Gallery owes its name to the collection, of course, but also to the aromatic herbal sachets once used to preserve early textiles.1 The structure as it exists today evolved over a period of ten years from 1947 to 1957 into a series of contiguous single-story galleries designed to resemble the exterior of rural New England’s continuous architecture, in which additions were tacked on as needed. The oldest portion of the Hat and Fragrance complex, known as the “Town Barn,” was built in 1800 by Captain Benjamin Harrington as a distillery for his inn in Shelburne.2 Constructed of hand-hewn timber with plank siding, the barn was later used for storage by the municipality of Shelburne, which gave it to Mr. and Mrs. Webb in 1947 in gratitude for their donation of a new town hall to replace the first, which had been destroyed by fire. The barn was used for storage and a carpentry shop until 1951, when a series of galleries was constructed on the north side of the structure for the installations of hatboxes (see Fig. 14), quilts, and needlework. Officially, Hat and Fragrance opened to the public in 1953. Subsequent galleries, including the large rug room, were added beginning in 1955, and renovations to the complex and exhibitions continued until 1957.3
When asked to describe the Hat and Fragrance Gallery, Mrs. Webb explained, “I [had] to have a unit that I could create myself…[and] that I could sort of go a little wild inside.”4 She left her “wild” aesthetic imprint throughout the building’s interior. Pattern was applied onto every surface from floor to ceiling and on everything in between. An early proponent of “upcycling,” Mrs. Webb salvaged wood from old fencing and leftover stock from a defunct box factory to use as flooring and wall paneling throughout the galleries. Pickets of “mellow, weathered” pine from Shelburne Farms were “set into geometric shapes and sanded to a dusty rose, [to] make an enticing background for the various collections.”5 A photograph taken during the construction of Hat and Fragrance about 1953 captured Mrs. Webb standing in front of a fan design built into the walls of what was then the main entrance gallery. Although hard to discern in the photograph of the rug room (Fig. 12), the walls are covered in a mosaic of maple, birch, and beech veneers arranged in a tiered pyramid pattern framed by upper and lower friezes. The “seasoned stock” from the defunct box factory was “clear and free” of knots because it had been intended to be used as veneering for wire-bound boxes.6 In addition to the walls, the entire gallery interiors received decorative treatment: the floors were artfully arranged in a checkered pattern; the exhibition case furniture was clad in striped veneers; built-in wall cases and ceilings were covered with cheerful Nancy McClelland wallpapers.
The so-called “quilt room” at the Brick House is a prime example of Mrs. Webb’s approach to unusual wall treatments (Fig. 15). The walls are covered in many patterned pieced fabrics carefully arranged into architectural elements-chair rails, engaged pilasters, and cornice molding. Even the ceiling is tented with a patterned textile.
Electra Havemeyer Webb was continuously experimenting with exhibition techniques and changing and refining museum displays from season to season. Her installations were designed to give visitors visual access to a wide range of patterns. The room she created to house her voluminous collection of hat- and bandboxes (see Fig. 13) was meant to dazzle and overwhelm visitors with the magnitude of its contents (more than two hundred pieces) and its profusion of patterns. Because the curved surfaces of the oval pasteboard and wood boxes made it difficult to see the entire pattern run, Mrs. Webb had damaged boxes steamed flat so they could be hung on the wall, making more of the patterns accessible.
An early collector of quilts, Mrs. Webb was one of the first to exhibit them on the wall as if they were paintings, allowing visitors to see their stitched patterns head-on. She also devised a “cutting-edge quilt display…that made use of large, lightweight, hinged boards on which textiles could be mounted and through which the visitor could leaf with ease, like pages in a book”7 (Fig. 16). A brochure bearing Mrs. Webb’s signature was recently discovered in the museum archives, suggesting a possible source of inspiration for her innovative quilt pages.8 The pamphlet advertising “Multiplex Display & Selling Equipment” featured a wall-mounted system of “swinging wing panels” designed to display merchandise “attractively grouped to style, quality, color combination and price.” Two racks of thirteen pages each, front and back, provided Mrs. Webb with space to exhibit fifty-two quilts, each folded advantageously to show off the most intriguing aspects of its design.
In 1956 Mrs. Webb engaged the services of the theatrical set designers at Novelty Scenic Studios of New York to engineer one of her more technologically advanced displays, an automated lift system for rugs. Installed in 1957, the button-operated rug lift consisted of fourteen pulley-drawn eight-by-five-foot panels raised and lowered by fourteen individual motors. As is apt to happen with mechanical devices, the rug lift was plagued by technological difficulties that ultimately resulted in its being dismantled.
Although Mrs. Webb’s installation of Hat and Fragrance was innovative for its time, audiences and the way they view objects have changed dramatically. Accustomed to viewing art against the setting of plain white walls, they found the mosaic wood-paneled walls distracting. In 2005 the museum completed a major renovation of the Hat and Fragrance Gallery made possible by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. The patterned mosaic walls, with the exception of those in the new sampler gallery, were preserved and covered with drywall to create a smooth, unified substrate for rotating exhibitions of quilts and rugs. In keeping with Mrs. Webb’s innovative spirit, Shelburne was one of the first institutions to adopt LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology, which does not produce UV rays, lasts up to fifty thousand hours, and uses a fraction of the electricity of fluorescent bulbs, making it ideal for textiles and their sensitive dyes.9
Electra Havemeyer Webb’s love of decorative patterns combined with her playful sense of design is an inextricable part of Shelburne Museum. Pattern, a preference for bright colors, whimsy, and an interest in exaggerated scale are reflected throughout the museum’s campus in the architecture, objects, installations, and soul of Shelburne.
KORY ROGERS is Curator of Design Arts at Shelburne Museum.
1 Shelburne Museum Guide to the Collections (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt., 1993), p. 28. 2 Catalogue book number 4.8, Shelburne Museum collection catalogue records for Hat and Fragrance, Shelburne Museum Archives. 3 For a complete history of the Hat and Fragrance Gallery please refer to the building finding aide, Shelburne Museum Archives. 4 Quoted in Lauren B. Hewes and Celia Y. Oliver, To Collect in Earnest: The Life and Work of Electra Havemeyer Webb (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt., 1997), p. 34. 5 Ralph Nading Hill and Lilian Baker Carlisle, The Story of the Shelburne Museum (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt., 1955), p. 28. 6 Catalogue book number 4.8, Shelburne Museum collection catalogue records for Hat and Fragrance. 7 Jean M. Burks, Beyond the Bed: The American Quilt (Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, N.Y., 2013), p. 24. 8 Hat and Fragrance Building File, Shelburne Museum Archives. 9 Richard Kerschner, “Preventive Conservation for Cultural Properties in Historic Buildings: Practical Environmental Control and Lighting at Shelburne Museum,” lecture, New England Archivists Fall Meeting at Simmons College, November 14, 2008.
Whimsy: The spirit of play at Shelburne
By Sara Woodbury
From her first folk art purchase of a cigar store figure in the early twentieth century, to one of her final acquisitions, Andrew Wyeth’s Soaring, in 1960, the unexpected defined Electra Havemeyer Webb’s collecting. Throughout her life she pursued objects that affected her aesthetically and emotionally, whether it was a coverlet, a house, or a turn-of-the-century carousel. It is only apt, then, that the museum she founded would be equally capricious. From an apothecary shop to impressionist paintings, whirligigs to glass witch balls, the holdings of Shelburne Museum elude straightforward categorization and infuse it with a whimsical sense of place.
Nine Pins, Pennsylvania, c. 1867-1900. Carved and polychromed wood; height 11 ½, width 19, depth 4 . inches. Bohl photograph.
As a collector Mrs. Webb relied on instinct rather than scholarship, stating that, “I would be less than frank if I did not admit that I buy first and do the research afterwards.”1 She was especially interested in functional objects, and some of Shelburne Museum’s best-known collections consist of useful items such as ceramics, furniture, and quilts. As the other essays here emphasize, however, usefulness does not exclude playfulness, and many of the museum’s utilitarian objects feature bright colors or unusual patterns that give them a whimsical appearance.
Some pieces in the collection, though, do have decidedly playful functions. Tin whimsies, for example, such as Bowl of Flowers (Fig. 17), were intended as humorous souvenirs for the tenth wedding anniversary, a marital milestone that received significant attention during the nineteenth century. With illness, childbirth, and accidents curtailing the average lifespan, the tenth anniversary was considered an important occasion, and was celebrated with a tin wedding party, a lighthearted and mildly self-deprecating event. At these parties guests would present the couple with gifts of tin, usually oversized hats, shoes, or other everyday objects, but they could also be tailored to the couple’s personalities or idiosyncrasies.2 The anonymous recipient of this bowl of flowers may have been a gardener, for instance, but if nothing else, the shiny spiral-stemmed blossoms would have made for a memorable presentation.
Mrs. Webb also collected games and other toys, with one of the most significant examples being a ninepins set acquired from Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York (Fig. 19). A popular precursor to modern-day bowling, ninepins was introduced to America by English and Dutch colonists and was played in both indoor and outdoor settings. In Shelburne’s unusual set, six smiling faces, some in medieval headgear, peer out of oversized boots, giving the pins a decidedly mischievous appeal. While this set might originally have been intended as a game, during the early twentieth century it assumed a new life as an esteemed work of folk sculpture. In 1931 the set was featured in the seminal American folk art exhibition held at the Newark Museum. A few years later, in 1937, the ninepins were recorded in watercolor for the Index of American Design.3
The ninepins set and tin whimsy flowers are just two examples of the many objects that are inherently fanciful in both form and function in Shelburne’s collection. Yet individual objects constitute only part of Shelburne Museum’s playful identity. Equally important to its whimsical sense of place are the unexpected ways in which these objects have been installed. Where else, after all, can we find a steamboat docked in a grassy landscape, a horseshoe-shaped barn filled with nineteenth-century carriages, or a hunting lodge replete with taxidermied animals (see Fig. 21), all within the same museum campus?
One of the most emphatic demonstrations of Mrs. Webb’s eclectic taste is Variety Unit, named for its myriad collections. Built originally around 1835 as a farmhouse, Variety Unit is an example of so-called New England continuous architecture. Around every corner in this labyrinthine structure, a different collection awaits curious visitors. One room on the first floor contains trivets, for example, shaped into such diverse forms as spiders, birds, and abstract sunbursts. Glass objects, from pressed goblets to colorful walking canes, also occupy rooms on the first floor, while on the second floor, dolls and automata await (see Fig. 22). Still other collections abound in the building, but whether it is a Staffordshire plate or a wooden food mold, all these disparate objects underscore Mrs. Webb’s capricious taste, and together help create a museum environment that leaves visitors guessing about what awaits them next.
The seemingly arbitrary (though very deliberate) installations at Shelburne Museum reflect a key component of Mrs. Webb’s approach to design. She was less interested in maintaining historical accuracy than in conveying “the spirit of life in the past.”4 She was keen on presenting collections in visually exciting ways, and, in addition to layering color and patterns, she grouped seemingly unrelated objects together to give her arrangements a sense of spontaneity. Indeed, when asked about how she and her staff had created the museum’s distinctive campus, Mrs. Webb stated, “I have found that beautiful antiques, buildings, structures, or even a sidewheeler, will ‘place themselves.'”5 By suggesting that her objects “place themselves,” Mrs. Webb implies that they possess agency-that they appear to choose where they want to go, and engage with visitors on their own terms.6
This animated, capricious quality not only characterized the museum’s campus but also defined the look of its earliest catalogues, books, and other forms of self-publicity when the museum was establishing its institutional identity. One particularly idiosyncratic example is Richard Lawrence Greene and Kenneth Edward Wheeling’s Pictorial History of the Shelburne Museum, published in 1972. On page 64, photographs of eagle weathervanes, trade signs, and sculptures appear to perch and hover in a pen-and-ink drawing of a forest scene (Fig. 20). The resulting image gives the figures an animated quality and presents the museum as an almost enchanted place where folk art is endowed with a life of its own.
Such lively visuals underscore Mrs. Webb’s vision for Shelburne. While she intended it to educate visitors about nineteenth-century American life, particularly life in Vermont, she also wanted to make that past approachable. To that end she infused the museum with a sense of whimsy and playfulness that would appeal to multiple generations. As Charles Messer Stow, one-time antiques editor for the New York Sun, remarked during the founding years of Shelburne, “the animating spirit of the museum will place a strong accent on youth and play.”7
Like any organic creature, Shelburne Museum has adapted to its changing environment and audiences over the last several decades. It has added galleries to accommodate new collections, periodically rearranged its installations, and refined its self-presentation. Undoubtedly it will continue to evolve with the opening of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, which invites an exciting array of new challenges and opportunities in terms of exhibitions and programs. Yet a sense of whimsy will likely remain a defining aspect of its identity. Shelburne Museum invites us on a journey into the unexpected, and just as Mrs. Webb trusted her objects to “place themselves,” it leaves us to choose our own adventures.
SARA WOODBURY, formerly a curatorial fellow at Shelburne, is now curator of collections and exhibitions at the Roswell Museum and Art Center in NewMexico.
1 Quoted in Kathryn Grover, “Electra Havemeyer Webb and Shelburne Museum,” Shelburne, Vermont, 1999, p. 46, Shelburne Museum Archives. 2 Jean Lipman, Elizabeth V. Warren, and Robert Charles Bishop, Young America: A Folk-Art History (Hudson Hills Press in association with the Museum of American Folk Art, New York, 1986), p. 180. 3 Henry Joyce and Sloane Stephens, American Folk Art at the Shelburne Museum (Shelburne, Vt., 2001), p. 6; Virginia Tuttle Clayton, Elizabeth Stillinger, and Erika Lee Doss, Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2002), p. 201. 4 Grover, “Electra Havemeyer Webb and Shelburne Museum,” p. 151. 5 Electra Havemeyer Webb, “The Shelburne Museum and How It Grew,” speech delivered at the Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum, January 30, 1958, Electra Havemeyer Webb papers, Shelburne Museum Archives. 6 For a more thorough discussion of the agency of images, I recommend W. J. T Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005), pp. 28-56. 7 Quoted ibid., p. 133.
Things great and small: Scale at Shelburne
By Thomas A. Denenberg
Electra Havemeyer Webb possessed a keen sense of scale, collecting objects large, small, and in prodigious quantity. Her aspirational spirit, witnessed by such heroic feats as moving historic houses, a covered bridge, a lighthouse (Fig. 23), and a steamboat to create the Shelburne Museum in the decade after World War II, balanced deeply held interests in the minutiae of collecting and an eye for seriality. Mrs. Webb, the daughter and confidant of renowned collectors, stands out for the way she composed a series of experiential environments in which to display and interpret one of the premier collections of art, Americana, and design in the United States. Simultaneously intimate and grand, her vision has delighted visitors for over sixty-five years.
Miniature hat and dress shop made by Helen Bruce (b. 1880), New York, early 1950s. Painted wood, paper, fabric, glass, metal, and ceramic; height 28, width 39, depth 12 inches. A dealer and collector of miniatures, Bruce owned an antiques shop in New YorkCity during the 1940s and 1950s. It is likely that she and Electra Webb became acquainted at that time. This vitrine is about four times larger than the thirty-six other scenes and fan cases that Bruce created for Mrs. Webb.
After “over-furnishing” her houses with “china, porcelain, pottery, pewter, glass, dolls, quilts, cigar store Indians, eagles, folk art” for close to three decades, Mrs. Webb founded the museum in 1947.1 Locating it in the village of Shelburne, alongside Route 7-the state’s principal north-south artery-ensured public exposure for the endeavor, but it also presented a challenge, as the landscape reflected the typical commercial development of the automobile age, complete with stores, filling stations, and other modern distractions. Mrs. Webb’s response was to create an ideal village of her own, comprised of a mélange of relocated (mostly) nineteenth-century structures and historically suggestive modern buildings on an invented landscape that included two man-made ponds and a road system designed to create a narrative experience of crossing over an 1845 covered bridge and leading to a meeting house. Mrs. Webb designed this landscape to house her “collection of collections” in an environment of creatively restored dwelling houses, taverns, barns, and other buildings gleaned from the New England countryside.
She consulted museum professionals throughout the early years of the museum, among them Kenneth Chorley of Colonial Williamsburg. She also engaged Umberto Innocenti (1895-1968) of the eminent New York landscape architecture firm Innocenti and Webel to design the grounds of her museum. She interpreted these plans loosely, and, working from a model, moved maquettes of historic structures around while bulldozers were shaping the land to fit her vision. A dedicated team of local craftsmen made this invented village real, often employing modern infrastructure to create an experience where the spirit of an idealized past trumped authenticity.
Moving the steamboat Ticonderoga from Lake Champlain to the grounds of the museum-an overland journey of just over two miles-stands as one of the great gestures in the history of American museums. Not content to collect paintings of steamboats (she gathered some nine examples by John and James Bard), Mrs. Webb purchased an actual vessel in 1951 (Figs. 1, 3), which she initially used as an excursion vessel. In 1954 she decided to move the Ti to her museum, precipitating an elaborate engineering project that saw a special railway constructed from a basin on Lake Champlain to a dry swale on the grounds of the museum. Throughout the winter of 1955 the ship moved over hills, crossed streams, and rode on a special railway carriage through the woods until she reached her eventual resting place. In the early 1960s, the Ti was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Although Mrs. Webb is best remembered for the large-scale reconstruction of her museum village, her initial love was for the miniature, in dolls and dollhouses. “I feel,” she wrote of her dolls, “that I started at about ten years old.”2 Over the course of her life, she came to accumulate some five hundred dolls and, even after becoming known as a leading collector of folk art and American paintings, she insisted that “the largest collection I wish to install [at the museum] is my dolls and dollhouses.”3 Susan Stewart, writing of the dollhouse, notes the irony of the object-a plaything at least ostensibly for a child, but designed to delight adults. Dollhouses, she continues, are about wealth and nostalgia. “Occupying a space within an enclosed space, the dollhouse’s aptest analogy is the locket or the secret recesses of the heart.”4 They allow us to revise-literally replay-our pasts and make whole some emotional lacunae.
A dollhouse given to Electra Webb by her friend the actress and comedian Zasu Pitts (see Fig. 27) demonstrates their shared sense of mirth and is but one example of a miniature world at Shelburne-a world that also includes miniature sleighs and carriages, toys of all stripes, sophisticated nineteenth-century automatons, and a series of miniature rooms created by Helen Bruce (see Fig. 24). Less well-known than the miniature rooms commissioned by Mrs. James Ward Thorne for the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1930s, Bruce’s rooms reflect Webb’s interest in color, pattern, whimsy, and scale.5 Whereas the Thorne rooms allow the visitor a vicarious peek into a clinically perfect interior, the Bruce rooms are “over-furnished”- a distillation of Electra Webb’s taste for a romantic view of the past.
The grandest expression of Webb’s interest in the miniature came toward the end of her life when she purchased the remarkable circus of Roy F. Arnold. A paper executive from West Springfield, Massachusetts, Arnold received national attention in 1954 when Life magazine chronicled his remarkable hand-carved circus parade. Five hundred and twenty-five feet long when fully installed, Arnold’s circus was constructed with the aid of four other men and included representations of the most ornate circus wagons in American history. Arnold’s masterpiece captivated Electra Webb to such a degree that she constructed a semicircular building in which to display it in its entirely, even going so far as to investigate installing a conveyor belt to heighten the visitor experience.
As an example of contemporary folk art, the Arnold circus took its place at the Shelburne Museum alongside a nationally renowned collection of untutored creative expression. From the very first tobacconist figure that she purchased as a young woman-an acquisition that elicited parental disapproval-Webb acquired with ecumenical spirit. Trade signs, folk carvings, plain portraits-all found a home at Shelburne. Mrs. Webb particularly enjoyed the humorous potential of oversized nineteenth-century trade signs. A huge, fancy-painted rocking chair that once graced the top of a furniture factory became a favorite prop for photographs of family and friends (see Fig. 27). A pair of spectacles that originally drummed up business for an optician could be found displayed next to oversized tableware or several large teeth (see Fig. 18)!
Electra Webb’s playful sense of scale ensured that visitors to her museum would learn their history lessons with a knowing wink. Her intentions, however, were serious. She employed radical changes in scale to disrupt expectations and to suspend disbelief. She wanted visitors to come away with an appreciation of the aesthetics, craftsmanship, and ingenuity of their ancestors just when such attributes seemed to be rapidly disappearing from the American scene. Her use of scale proved to be but one strategy for conveying a message of American exceptionalism in the modern era.
THOMAS A. DENENBERG is the director of Shelburne Museum.
1 Lauren B. Hewes and Celia Y. Oliver, To Collect in Earnest: The Life and Work of Electra Havemeyer Webb (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt., 1997), p. 18. 2 Quoted in Jean M. Burks, The Dolls of Shelburne Museum (Shelburne Museum, 2004), p. 2 3 Ibid., p. 3. 4 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 1993), p. 61. 5 Celia Y. Oliver, “Helen Bruce, Electra Webb, and Their Miniature Vitrines,” Piecework, vol. 6, no. 3 (May/June 1998), pp. 50-54.