A Family Remembers: Francis J. Purcell II Devoted His Life To Beauty

Photo: R. Scudder Smith

 PHILADELPHA, PENN. — Early in his career, Francis J. Purcell II (1941–2014) worked in the stock market, serving in various capacities. There a colleague introduced him to Steven J. Jussel of Arthur S. Vernay Inc, an antiques business at 124 East 55th Street in New York City.

At Vernay Galleries, young Francis apprenticed as a salesman and jack-of-all-trades. He sold English furniture, works of art and architectural interiors. His contributions to running Vernay’s large town-house showroom at times included cleaning the establishment’s exterior steps and polishing its brass railing. His devotion was so noteworthy that Hal Laeger, who worked in the promotions department at McCall’s magazine, felt obliged to write to Jussel in November 1967.

“It’s not often that I’m impressed enough by a retail salesman to write his boss about him — but I found your Mr F.J. Purcell II so exceptional that I’m compelled to offer a few words of commendation.”

Laeger explained that he had recently visited the shop in search of a tall clock and that it was Purcell who had guided him through the artfully arranged showrooms, speaking with “authority” and “in a most enlightening manner.”

He concluded, “As you are no doubt aware, your building presents a rather forbidding prospect to the first-time visitor. It is particularly fortunate, then, that a salesman like Mr Purcell is able to establish an immediate feeling of welcome, putting a customer — especially a new customer — at ease.”

The former Vernay building today bears plaques proclaiming “Eleanor’s Building” and “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” These famous quotes are often included in episodes from the BBC’s television program Rumpole of the Bailey and refer to barrister Horace Rumpole’s comment about his wife. Ironically, this was Francis’s favorite program.

Further duties saw Francis as an active Army Reservist at this time.

He and Victoria married in 1964. After his son, Francis III, was born in New York City, he wanted to have his family grow up in the country. Thus the family moved to Bucks County, Penn. Upon his depar-ture, Arthur S. Vernay, Inc, extended an open invitation to return to the firm at any time.

On weekends spent searching for a house, Francis noticed that many old farmhouses were being torn down or were for sale. After a thorough tax document research, Francis was able to slowly acquire ma-terials for a replication of William Penn’s country home, Pennsbury, in Fallsington, Penn.

Once in Pennsylvania, he tired of the long commute to Manhattan and took a job with the ornamental plaster concern Felber Studios, in Horsham, Penn., where he headed sales and design and became vice president. Purcell arranged for Tavern On The Green in New York City to have its ceilings colored and defined with a beautiful three-dimensional plaster treatment.

After Felber Studios was sold, Francis opened his business dealing in period American mantelpieces in an old restored barn in Titusville, N.J.

As the business grew, he opened a shop in New Hope, Penn. His showrooms featured American, Eng-lish and French antiques along with Eighteenth Century American fireplaces. Purcell also volunteered his knowledge at the Parry Mansion and at the Trent House in Trenton, N.J., and began participating in antiques shows. The first shows he did were at the New Jersey State Museum and the New Hope Historical Society.

He later did shows in Alexandria, Va.; Baltimore, Md.; Wilmington, Del.; Philadelphia.; New York; Connecticut; Massachusetts; and Palm Beach, Fla. Over time, he had the pleasure of conducting busi-ness with Winterthur, Colonial Williamsburg, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Mansion, the White House and many private clients.

Purcell loved to garden. When customers were not in his shop, he could be found in his flower beds along the Delaware River. They contained about 100 rose bushes. His favorite roses were Mr Lincoln and Mediland. Beside the water, on a steep hill of roughly 20 feet, he created a wonderful deep-cut path for Victoria to view the bountiful roses, lilies and other perennials. His residence and gardens were on the New Hope Historical Society’s garden tour. On visits to see his children at camp in New Hamp-shire, he often stopped at the Elizabeth Park rose garden in Hartford, Conn.

Another passion of Francis’s was reading about antique automobiles. He was able to walk to the New Hope Antique Car Show and also attended the classic auto exhibition in Pebble Beach, Calif.

When Francis III joined the business, they opened a four-story shop in Olde City, Philadelphia. There Francis II and Francis III had showrooms and continued to participate in antiques shows.

In semiretirement, Francis and Victoria moved to the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. Now, instead of viewing sunrises, they watched the sunsets. Settling into his new home, he enjoyed the river while battling pulmonary fibrosis. He underwent a lung transplant in August 2009. He was the oldest recipient in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s program.

Francis Purcell was devoted to his family and business. He is dearly and sadly missed by Victoria, his wife and best friend of 50 years; his son and daughter, Francis III and Mary Lynn; and his grandsons, who, at camp this summer, are disappointed not to receive Pop’s warm letters and wonderful drawings.

The business he founded is carried on by Francis Purcell III, who this spring participated in two shows simultaneously, the Antique Garden Show and Sale at the Bronx Botanical Garden and the Philadelphia Antiques Show. Following tradition, the younger Purcell requested show badges for his father, who wore them around his neck during his final week.

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