One night at a party, at least a quarter of a century ago, the game was to look quickly at 40 objects on the table, turn away and write down as many as you could remember. Caroline Simmons remembers that her partner, Duncan Phillips, remembered every piece correctly.
The game last night was to remember as many Duncan Phillips stories as possible. A reception at the Phillips Collection followed by a dinner at the Ritz-Carlton for 185 individual patrons and couples began a year of celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Duncan Phillips. With his wife Marjorie, Phillips opened his art collection to the public, the first American modern art museum, in late 1921 in their own home at 1600 21st St. NW.
Carolyn Deaver and Wilda Lois Lewis were cochairmen of the patrons dinner last night. At the reception, a preview of the centennial exhibition, guests wandered through the Phillips Collection and admired the installation, hung to the founder's own preferences. In the first north gallery of the 1897 house, a gold-leafed and painted screen by Charles Prendergast stands where it did shortly after the Phillipses bought it. The screen attracted fond glances from those who remembered it in Marjorie Phillips' own drawing room on Foxhall Road. The Phillipses were crowded out of house and home by their art collection and moved in 1930 to Foxhall Road. The screen now belongs to the Phillipses' son Laughlin and usually stands in his Georgetown drawing room.
Laughlin Phillips, in between greeting ambassadors, headed by the dean of the diplomatic corps, Swedish Ambassador Wilhelm Wachtmeister and Countess Wachtmeister, talked about his first memories of the house. "I was only 6 years old when we moved to the Foxhall house," he said. "But I remember when we lived here, Mother made an effort to keep me out of the public galleries. So I climbed the statue in the circle. When I was very young I felt there was a large important subject that they talked about all the time but I didn't understand." He soon learned. "My mother was determined to teach me to draw. She stuck a piece of charcoal in my hand before it made sense."
Embattled lobbyist Michael Deaver, accompanying his wife the cochairman, recalled how President Reagan had been taken with western art: "He loved the show at the Museum of American Art," he said. "Once he'd seen Catlin Indians, he came back and had the whole White House covered with them. He even gave Anwar Sadat a Catlin as an official visit gift." Duncan Phillips, the grandson, remembered his grandfather, though he was only 7 when the collector died in 1966. The young Duncan remembers the museum founder as a great storyteller and "kind of a ham. He used to embarrass my grandmother when they'd ride through a small town called Duncanville, Pennsylvania, on their way to their summer home. He'd stand up in the convertible and bow on each side."
David Lloyd and Carmen Kreeger, who have proved it's still possible to assemble a great art collection, remember how pleased they were when the elder Phillips came to see their own art collection. "I remember he was aghast at what we'd paid for our Bonnard," Kreeger said. That reminded Carmen Kreeger of how they started their collection in the summer of 1959. They went into a gallery to buy one small Renoir -- and bought 11 paintings.
And the evening proved that Duncan Phillips was right when, all those years ago, he laid down his credo for the museum: "Instead of the academic grandeur of marble halls and stairways and miles of chairless spaces, with low standards and popular attractions to draw the crowds . . . we plan to try the effect of domestic architecture . . . an intimate, attractive atmosphere . . . a beautiful home. To a place like that, I believe people would be inclined to return . . . and to linger as long as they can."