Garvan hunt-art collection set for auction


May 23, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Anthony (Tony) N. B. Garvan always was on the hunt. Whether searching for new ways to enliven the study of American civilization for his students at the University of Pennsylvania, or guiding, without a gun and on foot, his pack of beloved beagles in pursuit of a fox, or tracking down obscure books or delightful drawings of fox hunting, the sprightly, charming, lanky, witty and unpretentious Garvan could be counted on to corner his prey. At Christie's in New York on June 5, his widow, Beatrice Garvan, a retired curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is giving others the chance to chase after his cherished collection of sporting paintings and memorabilia. (For an auction catalog or sale details, call (212) 546-1000.)

Affordable auction

"It's going to be an extremely affordable auction," said Debra Force, a former student of Garvan's, who heads Christie's American paintings department. One reason: "Tony collected because he loved the subject, not because a picture was by a superior artist," she said. Christie's hopes that hunting enthusiasts and memento hunters will be bidding with the same energy with which the indefatigable Garvan pursued foxes. Decorators and folks looking to furnish their homes or offices in the taste of the sporty English gentry likely will be competing, too.

Collecting wasn't foreign to Tony Garvan (1917-1992), the scion of one of America's most distinguished collecting families. His father, Francis P. Garvan, donated to Yale University in the 1930s one of the foremost assemblages of Americana in honor of Tony's mother, Mabel Brady Garvan. Among the many antiques Tony inherited from his mother was a set of 12 dessert-size "cabinet plates" made circa 1815 at the English Derby pottery. Each has a different hand-painted gilt border surrounding fox-hunting scenes, likely after engravings by William Samuel Howitt. They'll be offered as two separate lots of six plates, with each group showing the progression of a hunt from start to finish, much the way Garvan would have liked it. Each lot is estimated to fetch $1,500 to $2,500.

Members of a hunt customarily assemble for a drink before commencing their chase. Sherry-filled "stirrup cups," vessels shaped like the head of a hound, horse or fox, are handed to the hunters on their mounts. Since these cups lacked handles and feet, they had to be drained before being put down on their rims, with the animal head pointing upward. Among Garvan's stirrup cups for sale is a ceramic one in the form of a greyhound's head, carrying a $600 to $800 pre-sale estimate.

The auction's prize lots are paintings. The most expensive offering is a pair of early 19th-century hunt scenes by British artist Dean Wolstenholme Sr.,, expected to fetch $20,000 to $30,000.

A portrait of a horse and its trainer, by American painter John Archibald Woodside (1781-1852), could bring $15,000 to $25,000, while an action scene titled "On the Scent," by Englishman John Nost Sartorius (1759-1828), is estimated at $10,000 to $15,000.

Garvan's paintings are relative bargains compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars generally paid for important works by the foremost sporting artists, George Stubbs (1724-1806) and Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959). Most of Garvan's drawings are expected to bring under $1,000 each.

Teaching tools

"Tony collected only those things that provided him with insight about the history of hunting," Mrs. Garvan recalled. "Staging a perfect hunt was like being a detective solving a mystery. Each hunt presented new challenges in terrain, weather, organizing people, and finding the fox. Tony was fascinated by how it all came together," she added.

Most of Garvan's paintings and drawings are action scenes of hounds and horses in hot pursuit. A social historian, he studied each work for clues about the type of people who hunted, where and why they hunted, and how throughout history hunts were staged. He viewed his collection in the same light he taught his students to use in approaching everyday objects: as a way to understand the culture of the people who used them.

Garvan regularly used his collection in the classroom, his widow remembered. One of his favorite teaching tools was his mid-18th-century George III horse measuring stick, a tall English oak rod with a metal "plum bob." On final exams he'd ask students to identify its use, but few could. Christie's estimates it will fetch $500 to $800.

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