The collector Industrialist had passion for beauty and importance of Oriental treasures

May 02, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

Perhaps the most discussed piece in the Walters collection o Asian art is the splendid 18th century "Peach Bloom" vase. Stolen -- and recovered -- in 1988, it sits in its new case in the Chinese Library of Hackerman House, an example of the Ch'ing Dynasty porcelain that alerted Western connoisseurs to the color nuances and modulations that were possible in ceramics.

The eight-inch high vase had already acquired a world-class reputation by the time William Walters paid $18,000 for it at a New York auction in 1886, setting a record price for Oriental porcelain.

"The 'Peach Bloom' vase became the basis of a newspaper feud between the New York Sun and the New York Times," says William Johnston, associate director of the Walters Art Gallery. "The New York Sun began to promote the vase as one of the most perfect examples of art, while the New York Times ridiculed the vase and published a limerick about it.

"Walters believed it was a major piece when he paid $18,000. He had paid more than that for paintings, but it was an awful lot at the time for a piece of porcelain."

What was more distressing for the Baltimore businessman was the press attending his purchase.

"William Walters tended to avoid publicity. And his son Henry became pathological on the subject," says Johnston who is writing a history of the Walters family and their collection.

When Hackerman House, the Walters new museum of Asian art, opens Sunday, visitors can gain further insights into the tastes and times of William Walters (1819-1894), one of the first American collectors to recognize the beauty and importance of Oriental art.

The new museum has permanent installations of roughly 1,000 pieces, roughly one seventh of the museum's Asian holdings. It contains one of the world's few private collections of Asian art to survive virtually intact from the 19th century. Set off against the elegance of the historic mansion in Mount Vernon Place, the collection reveals elements of connoisseurship common to the pioneering generation of Asian art collectors.

Along with the help of his son Henry (1848-1931) -- the Walters formed a passionate father/son collecting team -- William Walters amassed roughly 4,000 Chinese and Japanese objects by the time he first displayed his holdings to the public in 1884. He bought the art from international expositions, from the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and from various dealers in Europe, where he trained and refined his eye on some of the great collections.

Because father and son often traveled together to buy art, Asian art curator Hiram Woodward Jr., has had trouble identifying all the objects in the Asian collection that can be credited directly to William Walters' selection.

However the ethos of Hackerman House, completed in 1851, tends to call attention to the man who moved quickly from modest beginnings in Liverpool, Pa., to make one of 19th century America's greatest fortunes.

William Walters arrived in Baltimore in the 1840s with a little education -- no one knows how much exactly -- a little experience in smelting and iron work, and a lot of ambition.

He went into wholesaling: first flour, then liquor. Before long, on Lombard Street, he built the largest wholesale liquor warehouse in the country. After the Civil War, he joined other investors in buying up a series of bankrupt Southern railway lines, which eventually formed the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. He was also a founding director of the Safe-Deposit Co., precursor to the Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust and one of America's most noted breeders of Percheron horses.

Johnston says Walters remained something of an enigma to many of his Baltimore contemporaries. Like many self-made 19th century industrialists, he was married in the Presbyterian Church and buried in the Episcopal; no one knows what church he was born into.

"He was known for being close-mouthed, extremely punctilious, astute, keeping his own counsel, and was probably fair. We don't have many pictures of him as a terribly young man, but as an older man he already seems to mask his face with his mustache. People referred to the glint in his eyes peering out from this heavily bearded face. And everyone remembers him as being short, although his passport application has 5 foot 6 inches, so he was not particularly short for those days.

"And when his wife was alive and he was first collecting, there's sort of a kindliness about him which disappears with time."

Ellen Parker Walters, from a distinguished Philadelphia family, participated in her husband's collecting. While the Walters family was abroad during the Civil War, however, she died from a cold she caught at the Crystal Palace. It was then, Johnston says, that Walters' collecting become a pursuit rather than a pastime.

L It's not clear what inspired him to become an art collector.

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