Published: July 13, 2004
SHELBURNE, VT. – Nestled among the rolling hills of the Champlain Valley and often called Vermont’s Smithsonian, the Shelburne Museum is looking better than ever after the completion of several years of diligent preservation, conservation and renovation. The process, in which technology and tradition have blended seamlessly, has culminated in the reopening of enhanced galleries and new displays featuring a plethora of dazzling objects not previously on view.
Featuring four centuries of art, Americana, architecture and artifacts, the Shelburne is regarded as one of the nation’s most eclectic museums. It boasts 39 galleries that include 25 Nineteenth Century buildings and more than 150,000 objects. Outstanding examples of folk art, toys, decorative arts, textiles and transportation vehicles are exhibited in tandem with paintings by artists ranging from Monet to Grandma Moses. One of the more unusual rdf_Descriptions displayed on the grounds is the 220-foot-long restored side-wheel steamer Ticonderoga.
Founded in 1947 by Electra Havemeyer Webb, the museum owes its originality to her discerning eye. So for that matter does the acceptance of folk art as a respectable form.
After Electra married James Watson Webb in 1910, his parents, Dr William Seward Webb and Eliza Vanderbilt Webb, gave them an abandoned 1847 brick farmhouse on their property in Shelburne with commanding views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.
Under Electra’s careful hand, the farmhouse, called Brick House, was by the 1920s transformed into a 40-room country house set in elegantly landscaped grounds sloping to Lake Champlain. She restored and expanded the house as she continued to gather folk art over the next 40 years, filling its rooms with her amazing and extensive collections.
Her collections always exceeded the space available. She jammed them into the rooms, the attic and even the indoor tennis court. She herself admitted, “The rooms were over-furnished…then the closets and 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.”
Visitors to the Webb home in Vermont were struck by the Webbs’ folk art collections and the ways in which they were displayed. Henry Francis du Pont came, as did the Flynts, and they went home to eventually establish Winterthur and Historic Deerfield, respectively.
A Nineteenth Century pine cabinet so captivated du Pont that he began collecting American folk art and went on to found Winterthur, where the cabinet is on prominent view. A 2001 reproduction of it is filled with pink Staffordshire and is on view in Brick House. The house encapsulated the early Twentieth Century interest in early American design and material culture.
Electra extraordinary eye was the driving force behind the museum and the larger interest in the simple, homely objects that are today coveted objects of folk art. She loved their bold forms, their colors and interesting surfaces at a time when collectors and dealers were busy “refinishing” grungy pieces. She lent them a respectability that ultimately transformed folk art into a serious arena.
Now the Webbs’ former brick farmhouse is on public view for the first time, thanks to the efforts of museum president Hope Alswang and chief curator Henry Joyce.
Brick House itself is significant documentation of Electra Havemeyer Webb’s collecting aesthetic. It was there that she experimented with unusual installations of American decorative and folk art. Here are hallways decorated with rustic wood paneling inlaid with colorfully painted disassembled hatboxes, lamps made from butter churns and arrangements of witch’s balls throughout the house. Floors are covered with colorful antique hooked and rag rugs. Rooms were given specific themes: one bedroom displays dozens of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century silhouettes; another is filled with quilts and other historic textiles displayed on the walls and ceiling.
Electra’s initial folk art purchase, the Nineteenth Century cigar store figure that she called “Mary O’Connor,” is on display, as is the ornate desk of Cornelius Vanderbilt, her husband’s great-grandfather. Pewter by Richard Lee, a craftsman active in Springfield, Vt., between 1788 and 1816, is on view along with paintings and watercolors by Luigi Lucioni, a family friend who visited often.
Brick House served as one of the Webbs’ country homes (the others included places on Long Island, in New York City and the 50,000-acre summer camp in the Adirondacks), becoming their primary residence in 1947 when James Webb retired. It was then that Electra embarked on the creation of her museum.
It was never a simple process: historic buildings were moved to a 45-acre site about three miles from Brick House and by 1960 there were 23 of them. That year the Webbs added a newly constructed painting gallery, their last project, as they both died that year. Their son, J. Watson Webb Jr, continued his parents’ work until his death in 2000 when Brick House passed to the Shelburne Museum.
A $700,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities allowed the museum to embark on a major renovation and restoration project of its antiques galleries. It enabled the museum to address the curatorial challenges posed by Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century buildings that were not designed to house art.
The only building original to the Shelburne Museum site is the circa 1835 Greek revival farmhouse that was in place when Electra bought the property in 1947. That building has been reopened after lengthy conservation and renovation. Known originally as Weed House, it is now called the Variety Unit Gallery because of the remarkable array of decorative arts on view within. It was expanded over the years with a series of typically New England one- and two-room additions.
The Variety Unit Gallery houses entire rooms from the Webb homes on Park Avenue in New York City and at Old Westbury, N.Y.; ceramics, porcelain, glass, pewter and scrimshaw. And that is just the first floor.
Electra Havemeyer Webb’s prodigious collection of dolls, dollhouses and dollhouse furniture and music boxes take up the second floor.
Her doting grandmother began giving her dolls for birthdays and other occasions in the 1890s. The child treasured them so much that she did not play with them; she saved them in a collection – the first of many. That collection evolved over the years into one of most significant in the country, comprising more than 850 objects. They were among the first collections she installed in the Variety Unit. They comprise bisque, china, cloth, papier mache, Parian, wax, and wooden dolls from all over the world.
The newly reopened exhibition showcases 400 of Electra’s finest dolls dating from 1800 to 1920 and they, too, have been extensively researched and conserved. Eight dollhouses and their furnishings are on view ranging from a circa 1820 English gothic revival house to a New England clapboard house built in the 1950s by Duncan Monro, the museum’s chief carpenter, with miniature furniture modeled after pieces in the museum collections.
The dolls on display are organized chronologically according to the material from which they were made. One of the earliest is the Queen Anne example dated 1742 and made in England. The wooden bodies of Queen Anne dolls were typically turned on a lathe, the facial features were carved shallowly, the doll was coated with gesso and the face painted. These dolls have distinctive almond shaped eyes and the example on view has beautiful mortise and tenon joinery.
Wax dolls on view demonstrate the two distinct methods used in their production. German wax dolls were made by applying a coat of wax to composition heads and limbs. English wax dolls made before the 1870s were of poured wax, a technique adapted from Roman Catholic production of effigies and votive offerings from wax.
Parisian doll makers M. Jumeau and M. Bru produced bisque dolls, such as the group on view. Early Bru dolls had kid bodies, the later ones were wooden and jointed, an innovation credited to Bru. The elegant dolls were kitted out with lavish trousseaux that included everything and anything a fashionable lady might require: underwear, corsets, dresses, fancy shoes, kid gloves, jewels, combs, fans and parasols. An entire industry flourished in the Passage Choiseul area of Paris just to outfit these fashion plates, and a case in the doll exhibition called “What’s Underneath?” is devoted to the exquisite pantalets, chemises, corsets and other undergarments made for them by seamstresses, milliners, jewelers and other artisans of the era.
An exhibit of 20 intriguing and very entertaining automatons made in Paris between 1880 and 1914 is on view for the first time in the renovated exhibit space. The 2- to 3-foot animated mechanical devices played music and were enjoyed equally often by adults and children. Those on view include a drunken chef about to cook a cat, a pig pulling a chef into an oven, a clown playing with a ball and a woman pumping water at a well.
Also on view in the renovated Variety Unit Gallery is the Shelburne’s collection of glass canes that includes such Nineteenth Century examples as several with corks fitted on the bottom so they could be used as brandy flasks. Because of their fragility, glass canes were made for ceremonial or decorative purposes. A gift of 24 canes last year brought the Shelburne’s collection to 167, making it the largest public cane collection in the United States.
The Shelburne Museum is on US Route 7. For information, 802-985-3346 or .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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