The Robert Lehman Collection
One evening in June 1914, Osbert Sitwell attended a concert in London at which Richard Strauss performed his Sonata in E-flat for piano and violin, Strauss playing the piano and Lady Speyer the violin—much as John Singer Sargent depicts her with her Stradivarius in the portrait he painted in 1907. Writing afterward about Lady Speyer and her wealthy American-born financier husband, Sir Edgar, Sitwell says that their grand mansion in Grosvenor Street
sheltered the sort of art collection that is seldom seen in England but is more common in America. Many of the items might have been chosen by a magpie who had found himself a millionaire: some were dark in tone, it is true—yet all glittered and were rich in luster. There was something in the atmosphere, too, that recalled the public rooms of an expensive liner. French staircases, German woodcarving, Augsburg plate, crystal vases from China, Persian tiles, and some of the furnishings of Marie Antoinette’s boudoir, all these were united by the taste of the owners for objects of luxury.1
What Sir Osbert apparently means by an American sort of art collection is one that displays paintings and sculpture in a luxurious setting of splendid decorative arts. He could, of course, have found much the same thing nearer home, with the Sassoons at Houghton Hall or in Park Lane, for example, or with the Camondos in Paris on the rue de Monceau. The English prototype of all such collecting is Hertford House in London, where the opulent Wallace Collection has been displayed to the public since 1900. But the American “squillionaires,” as Bernard and Mary Berenson liked to call them, were often richer and not infrequently more ostentatious—and of riveting fascination to English nobility for the heiresses they might provide as spouses. What is interesting is that Sitwell thinks of such comprehensive collections as American rather than as English or European.
Beginning with J.P. Morgan and Isabella Stewart Gardner, a lengthy succession of very wealthy nineteenth-century American “buccaneer collectors,” as Kenneth Clark once termed them—Henry Walters, Henry Clay Frick, Henry Huntington, Charles Lang Freer, Andrew Mellon, Joseph Widener, to name the most eminent—formed large collections of paintings that they then displayed in an ambiance of elegant, expensive decorative arts. There were, of course, other notable collectors—the Havemeyers, the Lewisohns, the Cone sisters, the Clark brothers, Guggenheim, Kress, Phillips, etc.—but they collected paintings almost exclusively. In the twentieth century, fewer comprehensive collections were formed, but one of the largest of all time was that of Robert Lehman, so eminent that it was given a special exhibition at the Orangerie in Paris in 1957, the only American collection ever to be afforded that honor. Lehman was probably the last of the magpie millionaires.
Such comprehensive collections may…
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