THE ANTIQUERS is a well-documented and sympathetic account of those who early realized the patriotic and esthetic value of the arts of the United States. For many years collectors wishing to have handsome houses looked to Europe for their furniture and ornaments; even up to the First World War French and English furnishings were the hallmark of elegance and good taste. Elizabeth Stillinger tells, in this excellent book, of the pioneers and visionaries who found that their won country had produced a wealth of fine funiture and allied decorative arts that were there to be collected and displayed.
Stillinger describes the collectors of America in chronological order, beginning with those who collected for reasons of patriotism and historical record, and others who deplored the shoddiness of the machine age and came to appreciate the worth of early handmade objects.
The names are hardly household ones: Cummings Davis and the enchanting name Ben: Perley Poore. One late 19th-century photograph shows Cummings Davis in 18th-century costume wearing his long, 19th-century bear, another depicts the drawing room of Ben: Perley Poore showing a mixed but fine collection of American furniture.
Stillinger moves on to the collectors who were influenced by various centennial exhibitions in and around 19875: they occurred in New York, Albany and Washington, among other cities, and had a profound effect on their many visitors. About this time the first books on American furniture, silver and china made their appearance.
Next Stillinger presents some of those who first accepted Americana as art: Judge A.T. Clearwater, Franchis H. Bigelow and Henry W. Kent, among others. In 1924 the Metropolitan Museum unveiled its American wing, which proved to be tremendously popular and, to this day, has one of the finest collections of American decorative arts in the country.
In this section of The Antiquers there is a charming description of that anti-ERA group, the Walpole Society, a roster of distinguished collectors whose invitation to membership is still highly prized. Not only were there no lady members, but rarely did the group ever visit a collection amassed by a woman. Stillinger tells of the visit that the society made, in 1940, to see my mother's house, described by one of the members as "a delightful little place, close by the road," where I live today. The visit was shortly after an extensive enlargement of the house and the purchase and recovering of a wing chair in New York for a newly created bedroom. By some miscalculation the work was delayed and the chair was delivered two hours before the august group was due to arrive. When delivered, the chair was found to be too large to make the curving, narrow staircase, and in one agonizing hour the window of the bedroom was removed from its frame, the chair carried up a steep incline, placed in the room, and the window reset in its frame. A snapshot of the visit exists -- one woman in a male group, a hectic but happy morning.
The last section of The Antiquers tells vividly of the flowering of the great collectors: names that will forever echo in the halls of Americana: Du Pont, Garvan, Webb, Murphy, Hogg, Lockwood, Halsey, Crowninshield and Rockefeller: a formidable group competing with many others, of less wealth, perhaps, but equal in knowledge and love of the subject. There is a recent tendency to down-grade the performance of some collectors of this period on the grounds that they held a romantic view of their forefathers and that the rooms they created were not an accurate mirror of the way the average American lived. Stillinger deals with this concept with intelligence and sensitivity and ends her book with the sentences, "Our perception of the past need not agree with theirs for us to share their passion for American antiques. We caught the essence of their vision, and it enriches our own." I applaud her perception.
The period between the two World Wars was the shining hour of American antiques collecting. The handful of top collectors formed a virtual club: it was a friendly rivalry, and often one collector offered to help another. This is illustrated by a letter, quoted in the book, from Francis Garvan to H. F. du Pont offering to trade furniture for silver. In the late '30s I sat at a cocktail party with a group of the top collectors and realized that they had their own language. One looked up, during a pause, and said, "You know, she bought it." A few nodded sagely, a few more were surprised, but no one thought to ask what was "it" and who was "she." That week, in New York, "it" was one known piece of furniture, and "she" was one known collector.
A chapter in the book on dealers would have been appropriate, as their story is yet to be written. I. Sack and C.w. Lyon are mentioned, but Ginsburg and Levy of New York, S. Winick of Hartford and many others figured in those early days and go without notice. These men were students of furniture who taught many new collectors the intricacies of wood and construction. In the late 1920s J. A. Lloyd Hyde appeared on the scene, principally as a dealer in crystals, procelains and the decorative arts. A formidable collector in his own right, his distingushed and knowledgeable hand is still felt in the American world of arts. I wish he had been mentioned.
Stillinger closes her book in 1930. There have been many distinguished collectors since that date, and perhaps she will continue the story as it has unfolded. Her book is a fine social history of 80 years of collectors and is a valuable addition to a facinating saga. We look forward to "The Antiquers, Vol. Two."