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Friday, November 11, 2011

Delaware Trip

Each year, the class goes to Delaware and always for the same reasons.  First and foremost, it enables the students to see the collections at Winterthur, the palatial estate that Henry Francis DuPont filled with arguably the finest collection of American antiques assembled under one roof.  The collection holds (by most estimates) about 85,000 objects and the house part of the museum (there are galleries as well) is divided into 175 rooms.  There is virtually no didactic material at all in any of the rooms (except for discretely placed binders with object lists and information)--instead, one relies upon the well-trained guides to take you through the house, inform you of the history of the collection, and place the furnishings into context.  I'm always stunned to see that there aren't more people at Winterthur on any given day.  It's easily accessible from NY, NJ, PA, and the Baltimore-DC area, and with 175 rooms, one can easily take tour upon tour finding new rooms, new displays, and noticing things you have never before seen.  It is an overwhelming tour each time, and I mean this in a good way.  DuPont's collection has a depth of materials that one cannot even begin to process and fully appreciate in the time allotted.

Our first day started with lunch at the cafeteria in the visitor center.  We were joined, as we have been in year's past, by a number of fellows from the Winterthur program, most in their second year, and anticipating the upcoming semester of thesis writing that awaits them.  From there, we took the garden tram tour over to the museum.  The grounds at Winterthur are as staggering as the collection.  Situated on close to 1000 acres of land, there is no way one can begin to process the extent of the land in a single visit.  Moreover, DuPont's sensitive plantings mean that each season the grounds take on a different character, as plants bloom in succession, and create a rich and variable tapestry of texture and color.

Although we arrived at the museum, our goal was to tour the library, see some of the special collections, and familiarize the students with the rich archival material that Winterthur holds.  In addition to the letters and papers of DuPont, including color photographs demonstrating the seasonal arrangements of rooms and their color schemes, the archives holds incredible treasures.  Jeanne Solensky, Librarian at the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, did not disappoint.  Students saw a number of important primary sources, from the inventory of Duncan Phyfe, to a manuscript written (and even illustrated) by Thomas Sully, to employee payroll ledgers from Gustav Stickley's United Crafts in Syracuse.  This year's group was especially interested in the collections on hand, and so, without even meaning to, we ran a bit late.

Other highlights included a first edition of Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, a beautifully illustrated book of trades published in Germany in the 19th century, and photographs of DuPont's cows--they were prize winning cows and he seems to have taken a portrait of each one he owned. 

There are few things finer than seeing things first-hand.  Here, students are pouring over Thomas Sully's Memoirs of a Professional Life from 1851.  From the lower floor of the library, we were gathered up and headed upstairs to see the painting conservation laboratory and talk with Joyce Hill Stoner about her work, the work of students in the program, and some of the important discoveries she has made in her career.

The University of Delaware and Winterthur do an incredible job of training the next generation of conservators, of researching the most effective way to clean and protect paintings, and of making themselves accessible for educators and their students.  The projects we saw in process ranged from the cleaning and stabilization of an American late 17th to early 18th century regional portraitist, the cleaning of a French 19th century work (pictured above), and the incredible work they are doing to repair tears and structural damage in canvas.  It provides the students an opportunity also to see the differences in approach between commercial conservation and academic museum style of conservation.  

While both adhere to similar professional standards regarding the reversibility of any work they do, and an approach that fills in gaps but does not obscure the original artist's surface, the academic / museum world has a luxury of time and depth of investigation that is rarely available in a commercial setting.  Understanding both sides of the practice (or at least two discrete dimensions of it) gives students a better sense of the limits and concerns involved in painting conservation, and exposes them to a broader range of options involved in the field.

From there, we headed back to the hotel, checked in, and dressed for the opening night of the Delaware Antiques Show.  I like the Delaware show a lot, not only as a place to visit, but also because it provides an exceptional teaching opportunity for the students.  Not only do they see different models of business and get to engage the dealers and the materials directly, but they also see a different model of show--one smaller in scale than the Winter Antiques Show which they will work at in January.  It's also a lovely opening, and had I not run into so many folks who are friends of the program (Elle Shushan, Leslie Keno, Carrie Barratt, Amelia Peck, and Tom Savage to name a few).  I might actually have found the time to take pictures of the show.  I am certain that we'll find some and promise to post these right away.

Day two of our two day jaunt to Delaware began with a lecture in the museum's furniture galleries by Brock Jobe.  Brock is among the most generous of scholars: an expert in his field who goes out of his way to share his knowledge and who reminds students constantly of how much they have learned in the short time they have been with the program.  This year was no exception.  His lecture begins with a quiz, gathering a number of objects from the collection, allowing the students to examine and discuss them, but insisting that they identify form, region, maker (or thoughts on maker), and then give the rationale for this.  

Brock's sessions with our students always teach them the importance of connoisseurship, and stress the value of looking--something that too often art history programs either ignore or (because they never leave the classroom) are incapable of doing.  In addition, the whole idea of connoisseurship often gets a bad reputation, yet it is an essential skill to build and develop.  Unless you can assess the object you're studying and know about it--what's right or wrong with it / the difference between overpainting and original work, or have the ability to spot repairs and alteration--all of your studies are rooted in assumption.  I stress connoisseurship not as an end itself, but as a tool you need to possess so that whatever work you do beyond connoisseurship is rooted in fact and observation, not just belief.  
Knowing where and when a chair was made is important--not only for establishing the value of an object, but because this helps document the effects of commerce on regional styles, it allows us to better understand how craft practices moved through the colonies and nation, and helps create a network of ideas in which interchange and fluidity mark the period, rather than static regions with little or no communication.

Once the students have settled on their answers, Brock makes them present the evidence, discusses their work with them, and reminds them how far they have come in their ability to analyze and understand American material culture since they began their educations in September.  He is a wealth of knowledge, gracious, generous, and a highlight of each year's trip.  

From Brock Jobe we moved directly into the museum tour, many students seeing the depth of DuPont's collecting practices for the first time.  I have been to Winterthur half a dozen times probably, but am always surprised by how much I don't know, how many objects I have walked past that capture my attention, and how many rooms I walk into for the first time.  Although furniture and American objects are the focus of the collection, Winterthur has important holdings in paintings, prints, and pastels (a pair by Copley--his self portrait and portrait of his wife come to mind) that are displayed within the rooms.  Winterthur transcends the average house museum not just in its size (or the size of the collection), but in its depth, in the personal nature of each tour, and in establishing a context for American life that is unrivaled anywhere in the United States.  Unfortunately, you cannot photograph while on the tour, but to get a sense of what we saw, just go and visit.  It's about the best way to spend a day in Delaware. 

1 comment:

  1. Incredible blog post. The information and experienced shared is amazings.

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