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 five figures.

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.

Jeanmarie Andrews

Executive Editor

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