Published: June 13, 2006
Until a few weeks ago, it had been secured in a police evidence locker in New Haven, Conn., for the better part of a year. But since May 1, a 6-foot-long Angel Gabriel weathervane has been back in the public eye, the centerpiece of “Silhouettes in The Sky: The Art of the Weathervane.”
On view through October 31, the Shelburne Museum’s summer exhibition gathers 50 high flyers from a collection assembled mainly by the late Electra Havemeyer Webb, who founded Shelburne Museum in 1947. Webb, who died in 1960, bought most of the examples late in her life from Edith Halpert, Adele Earnest and other leading dealers of the day.
One of the best stashes in the country, Shelburne’s weathervanes are rarely displayed as a group. Selected highlights were shown together between 1987 and 1990, when “An American Sampler: Folk Art From The Shelburne Museum” opened its seven-museum tour at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It has been more than a decade since Shelburne mounted a special exhibition on the subject, said senior curator Jean Burks, who organized the show.
While many of Shelburne’s best weathervanes are well known tocollectors, the Gabriel is largely a new discovery. Called “OldGabriel” by townsfolk, it was made in 1822 in Crown Point, N.Y., 37miles from Shelburne on the western shore of Lake Champlain, byblacksmith Henry Forster. The iron for the piece was probably minednearby. Forster’s design is unusual: though the angel istwo-dimensional, its trumpet was modeled in the round and itswings, which span more than 3 feet, are attached at a 45-degreeangle.
Until the theft of “Old Gabriel” in November 2003, when thieves replaced the original with a clumsy copy, the weathervane had flown above White Church and its two predecessors for 181 years. As reported in Antiques and The Arts Weeklyat the time, the weathervane was recovered in June 2005 when Mike Garlenski of Ridgefield, Conn., offered the sculpture to New Haven dealer Fred Giampietro, who recognized the stolen piece and immediately notified police. Giampietro had previously offered White Church Association $100,000 for the work.
Garlenski at the time told Antiques and The Arts Weeklythat he inadvertently acquired the Gabriel after buying an eagle weathervane on eBay from a seller who arranged to meet him in Port Jervis, N.Y. The seller offered Garlenski the Gabriel on consignment. A year after “Old Gabriel’s” recovery, federal authorities are still investigating the theft, Investigator Marshall Rocque of the New York State Police Barracks in Westport, N.Y., said recently. Several other weathervanes were also reported missing along the New York-Vermont border in late 2003.
“We are extremely fortunate to have this magnificent weathervane on view,” says Burks, who was contacted by Joan Hunsdon, who offered to loan “Old Gabriel” to the Shelburne Museum. Hunsdon is Crown Point’s historian and an officer of both the White Church Association and the Penfield Museum, which documents the town’s Nineteenth Century role in the iron industry. The sculpture is currently a highlight among the several dozen Eighteenth through Twentieth Century weathervanes on view.
“Silhouettes in The Sky” begins in the museum’s lipstick red1901 Round Barn, moved to its present site from East Passumpsic,Vt., in 1985-86, and concludes in the Stagecoach Inn, built inCharlotte, Vt., in 1783 and moved in 1949. Redesigned in 2002, thegalleries of the Stagecoach Inn, in addition to weathervanes, housecigar store figures, trade signs, ship’s carvings and folkpainting. Having the weathervanes evenly divided between the twolocations gets visitors to different ends of the museum campus,said the curator.
“The Round Barn is the first point of contact for visitors to Shelburne. It’s great architecture, but a problematic exhibition environment,” said Burks. “Our conservation department won’t let us put anything in it that is sensitive to humidity and temperature. Ceramics and glass are safe, but their scale isn’t right. One thing that immediately comes to mind as suitable for this space are weathervanes. We probably have the largest collection in the country.”
Burks grouped the weathervanes, mostly of New England origin, under the headings “Barnyard Beasts,” “Equestrian Enthusiasm,” “Fancy Forms,” “Ocean Occupants,” “Freedom Figures,” “American Indian Images,” “Mythological Monsters” and “Modern Miracles.”
There are many old favorites: among them a 54-inch-long woodmermaid, carved by Warren Gould Ruby, who holds a wooden comb andgazes at herself in an attached metal mirror; two sheet-iron fishwho swim in opposite directions; and “To, Te,” a painted sheet-ironfigure of an Indian depicted in a semiabstract profile reminiscentof Picasso’s almond-eyed sirens. The syllables “To, Te” appear insilhouette along the banner on which the Indian, bow and arrow inhand, kneels. “To, Te” stands for “totem of the Eagle” and was anemblem of the Improved Order of Redmen, an early Nineteenth Centuryfraternal organization devoted to the principles of Americanliberty.
Burks’ own taste runs to a 7-foot-long copper, brass, zinc and iron fire pumper attributed to J.W. Fiske Company; and a more primitive, sheet zinc, brass and iron locomotive fitted with a sunburst lighting rod.
“I love weathervanes that celebrate American ingenuity,” the curator explained. She added, “I hope that people will have new favorites after visiting the show.”
A recent addition to the collection is a needle-nosed iron swordfish found in Perth Amboy, N.J. The museum purchased it from New Hampshire dealer Jane Workman in 2002.
Many of the weathervanes illustrated in the slim catalogwritten by Burks and published by the Shelburne Museum are byunknown makers. A few are the work of well-known manufacturers ofthe late Nineteenth Century, among them L.W. Cushing & Sons andCushing & White of Waltham, Mass.; Rochester Iron Works Co. ofRochester, N.H.; Harris & Co. of Boston; as well as J.W. FiskeCompany of New York City.
“Even in a mass-produced weathervane there was a lot of handwork. We want visitors to understand how molded copper weathervanes were made, beginning with carving a pattern from wood; creating a hollow, two-sided iron mold; putting sheet copper inside of the mold; then painting the piece. If you had a sheet-iron tail, that was a separate process,” said Burks, who included patterns and molds in the show.
Of special interest, given Christie’s January sale of a Goddess of Liberty weathervane attributed to William Hennis of Philadelphia for a record $1.08 million, is a 46-inch-tall Goddess of Liberty carved and painted wooden pattern made by Henry Leach for Cushing & White. Webb purchased the pattern from Halpert in 1941.
Owning patterns and molds could be useful, as Halpert,director of New York’s Downtown Gallery, knew. Halpert acquiredL.W. Cushing & Sons’ Nineteenth Century components for making”Hindoo,” a stylized racehorse weathervane modeled after the 1881Kentucky Derby winner. In 1955, Halpert presented Webb with areplica, on view in “Silhouettes in The Sky,” of the original.
Encouraged by Halpert to regard weathervanes as art, Webb cared little about the history and provenance of her pieces, a disappointment, perhaps, to visitors interested in documentation. When Webb’s first assistant, now in her 90s, recently visited the museum, she recalled that her former boss did not even like labels on her pictures.
“Webb wanted you to look at the art. She was also a great decorator. I’ve never seen any photographs of weathervanes in her houses, but I have a feeling that she moved them around on a regular basis. It was just her personality,” said Burks.
What Webb loved was color, form and scale. Said the curator, “She especially loved scale, objects that were very small and objects that were large. I think scale is one reason why so many people respond so to weathervanes. Many of these sculptures are huge when you get them down off a building.”
Electra Webb, said Elizabeth Stillinger, author of aforthcoming book on early collectors of American folk art, “was,along with Henry du Pont and Henry Sleeper, one of the two or threemost visually motivated collectors of her era and one of the mostgifted at making very charming visual arrangements.”
Moving beyond Webb’s aesthetic approach, Burks said, “We wanted to tell the story and put it into context. I wanted to show people that weathervanes were more than a bunch of roosters. They were handmade as well as mass-produced. They were cultural barometers reflecting popular interests of the day.”
“Old Gabriel’s” next stop has yet to be decided.
“‘He can’t can go back on top of White Church. He’s gotten fairly fragile and his value is unbelievable,” Hunsdon said recently by phone.
Noting that the White Church Association has been offered $350,000 to $450,000 for the historic vane since its recovery, she said, “Most of us are sentimental and not that much motivated by the money. We have a nice local museum and would like to have our weathervane here, but, like most museums, we’re small and lack money for the proper security. For the moment, we’re happy to have ‘Old Gabriel’ safe and sound at the Shelburne Museum.”
The Shelburne Museum is on Route 7. For information, 802-985-3346 or www.shelburnemuseum.org.
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