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Mind of a Collector
It always intrigues me to discover the kinds of objects
that fill the rooms and cupboards and shelves of the
private and public homes we feature. Instinctively,
most of us collect something. For years egg cartons
filled with my carefully chosen rocks and seashells
resided in my parents’ attic. (I still have few on a
shelf at our house now.)
Those who have the knowledge and means often pursue
the earliest, most colorful, largest, smallest, quirkiest,
and/or rarest forms of the object that first caught
their attention. Several articles in this issue explore their
approaches to collecting.
In Exeter, New Hampshire, Historic New England’s
1709 Gilman Garrison House serves as a time capsule of
the Colonial Revival period within the solid log structure
built as a fortress against the wilderness.
Trying to re-create the past through his antiquarian
lens in the early 1900s, the last private owner, William
Dudley, collected the kind of furnishings he envisioned
his Gilman ancestors might have placed in the new section—
the 1770s parlor, which had been subsumed by
commercial enterprise a century later, and the chamber
above it. The museum director admits that the mix of
three centuries’ worth of objects creates interpretive
challenges and elicits puzzled questions from visitors.
In contrast to relying on his imagination, the late
William du Pont made it his life’s work to learn as much
as he could about the things he collected as well as their
makers and owners, many from the Delaware River
Valley he called home. He often revamped his collection,
selling objects and whole groups of furnishings to
acquire, ideally, the rarest forms he could find.
We learned about du Pont through the Queen Anne
line and berry highboy his estate recently bequeathed to
Winterthur Museum, where he served on the board for
years (he and Henry Francis were cousins). The one-of-a-kind
piece merits recognition for the delicate curves and
arcs and berries that decorate its drawer fronts.
The inlaid designs originated in Wales, brought
here by some of the earliest immigrants to Penn’s
colony, and the furniture found favor with well-to-do
Quakers, whose religious beliefs discouraged ostentatious
displays of material goods. The fine craftsmanship
and subtle decoration of these early-1700s boxes, chairs,
and chests suited that conservative aesthetic, and families
handed down the pieces for generations. Limited in number,
when examples hit the market they usually sell for
When David and Jane Wright found the perfect
creek-side property in Tennessee to build their home,
they designed the exterior in the garrison style, acknowledging
the region’s frontier history. They don’t consider
themselves collectors, though David has his share of
muzzleloaders and powder horns, while Jane has a penchant
for ceramic teapots, which line the tops of the
kitchen cupboards and shelves in other rooms.
But most of the objects in their open-plan interior
reflect the craftsmanship of the many friends they’ve made
through decades of participating in living history events
and through David’s work as a renowned history painter.
“Our friends have contributed to many of our furnishings,
so they all have special meaning to us,” David
said. “We recall that special meaning when we use and
view the furnishings.”
Few of my collectibles are antiques, but each piece
represents a loved one who owned it, a special place we
visited, or a talented friend who made it—each connection
personal and meaningful.
Whatever the rationale, those who collect—and
those who share their collections with us—enable us to
learn about and appreciate our history and the tangible
pieces that remain.
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