Exhibit takes stock of state treasures

February 20, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Curators sought out objects of truly unusual interest to display in "Maryland Public Treasures," opening today at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Such as the weather vane called "Little Heiskell," which perched atop the Hagerstown city hall from the Revolutionary War period until 1935 and is now in the Washington County Historical Society. Thought to have been made by the German tinsmith Benjamin Heiskell, who came to America in the mid-18th century, it became the town's mascot. Its bullet holes attest to the accuracy of Civil War sharpshooters.

Or the charming 1789 Charles Willson Peale portrait of Ann Proctor, a little girl sitting in a chair and holding a doll. The portrait, from the Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, will be shown with the doll itself, which has also been preserved.

And then there's the silver chalice and paten used in the communion service at Christ Church, William and Mary Parish, Wayside, in Charles County. It was made by William Fawdery of London in 1700 or 1701.

"Think of it. It's been used for almost 300 years," says William Voss Elder III, BMA consultant curator of decorative arts and one of the show's two curators along with Sona Johnston, curator of paintings and sculpture before 1900.

"Maryland Public Treasures" brings together 60 objects -- from paintings to furniture, silver to manuscripts, from a weather vane to a rocking horse -- gathered from every corner of Maryland. The curators believe the show is a first, for it brings together objects from Baltimore City and all 23 counties. The objects all come from collections with some public access -- not only museums and historical societies, but also colleges and universities, libraries, churches and historic houses.

"I've thought about how we could do something that would involve every part of the state, and reflect our interest both in decorative arts and across the board," says BMA director Arnold L. Lehman, explaining why he initiated the project. "[In the past] we have done very little to in some sense engage the whole state."

A year and a half ago, county guides in hand, Ms. Johnston and Mr. Elder set out to find what was available. Putting it together was difficult, Ms. Johnston says. "We had to have something from every county, but we didn't say there has to be equal representation of this kind of thing and that kind of thing. We had to . . . pick what was the best."

They found the expected -- including the Great Seal of Maryland in silver from the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis (1648), and the 1624 Letters Patent from King James I of England making George Calvert the first Baron Baltimore (it was his son, Cecilius Calvert, who sent the first ships to establish the colony of Maryland 10 years later).

And they found the unexpected -- such as a painting, "Hillside with Snow, Twilight Study" of about 1874, by the great American artist and designer John LaFarge. The painting is from Emmitsburg in Frederick County, and belongs to the collection of St. Mary's College. The curators didn't know, and it's a good bet most Marylanders don't know, that La Farge attended St. Mary's before pursuing his remarkable career in New York.

Also from St. Mary's is a work by another great American artist, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It's a bronze profile portrait of Sarah Redwood Lee, daughter of La Farge's St. Mary's classmate, Charles Carroll Lee. La Farge no doubt brought Saint-Gaudens and Lee together.

The curators found oddities, too. At the Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, they came upon a silver bowl presented in 1905 to the USS Mayflower by the Russian delegates to the Portsmouth, N.H., peace conference that ended the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Made by Faberge, it's a drinking bowl that features a figure of a medieval knight in armor.

Above all, the curators found the appropriate. "We wanted to get things that are important to the area," says Mr. Elder.

They sought items that reflect the history, life and people of a particular place, including:

* The Hugh Bolton Jones 1880s painting of "Pungies and Schooners Drying Their Sails in St. Michaels" from the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Talbot County.

* The Frederick Volck 1866 bust of John Work Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the man for whom Garrett County was named, from the Garrett County Historical Museum in Oakland.

* And, from Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary's County, an early 19th-century mourning miniature from the Plater family, who owned the plantation.

This is an unusual piece. Mourning pictures typically showed family members grieving over a grave of a lost one, often a child, under the drooping branches of a weeping willow. Here, the willow branches are painted on the back of the glass covering the picture, and the "shadows" of the branches are painted on the ivory miniature behind. This gives the picture extra depth. The "ground" beneath the mourners' feet was apparently

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