Society marks 150 years of collecting Md.'s history

October 30, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Two years ago, Maryland Historical Society curator Gregory Weidman spotted a small table with a scene painted on it of Mount Vernon Place, which is just a block away from the society's Monument Street location.

"It was by Harry Evans, a Baltimore African-American artist," says Ms. Weidman of the piece, which she saw in the society's gift shop. "It had been created the year before, in 1991, but it was in the 200-year-old Baltimore tradition of furniture with local scenes painted on it. And it shows our own neighborhood. So I bought it for our collection."

A year-old piece of furniture isn't the typical object one expects to find in the Maryland Historical Society collection. But then, what is typical? The great Federal period red-painted settee? The cigar-store Indian? The more than 130 portraits by the famous Peale family of painters (the largest Peale collection anywhere)? The 1950s black metal patio chair?

How about the largest 19th-century American silver collection in the country (about 3,000 pieces)? Or the largest collection of Baltimore mid-19th-century album quilts anywhere (28)? Or Cal Ripken Jr.'s cap and bat?

In fact, the historical society's collection is so wide-ranging, it has no typical object.

The society will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a gala on Saturday. Since its doors opened in 1844, the society's museum distinct from its library) has amassed a collection of some 100,000 objects. In that time, the collecting taste of the society and its donors has undergone major shifts.

"In the 1840s, when we first opened, people looked at history with a capital H," says Weidman. "There were major objects about major historical events. One of the first items to enter the collection was Charles Willson Peale's painting of 'Washington and His Generals After the Battle of Yorktown,' given by the great Baltimore collector Robert Gilmor and showing Marylander Tench Tilghman, who was Washington's aide-de-camp.

"But at that time there was a more general interest in all aspects of history, including natural history, so we had South Sea seashells. And there were such items as Indian arrowheads from the Southwest. Any sphere of history in the broadest sense."

Well, not quite any sphere. The museum may be best known today for its decorative arts collection, but it was slow to start that collection.

"At the end of the 19th century we began a decorative arts collection, and at that time the interest was in things with important historical associations," says Weidman. "In 1893, the first item of furniture to enter the collection was a Philadelphia Queen Anne side chair owned by George Washington. It had nothing to do with Maryland."

The society got a big boost when it moved in the late 1910s from its former home, the Athenaeum at St. Paul and Saratoga streets, to its present site. With more space for showing objects, it could attract major donations and soon got four: the collections of Eleanor S. Cohen, J. B. Noel Wyatt, Mrs. Francis T. Redwood and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bonaparte (he was the grandson of Napoleon's brother Jerome Bonaparte and Betsy Patterson Bonaparte).

"These collections included hundreds of items each and objects of every shape and size, from major paintings, furniture, silver and textiles to everyday household goods," Weidman says. "These were comprehensive family collections, and they were the basis on which we built the subsequent collections."

In subsequent years, the museum's collecting focused less on the historical associations of a piece and and more on its aesthetics. It also focused on Maryland -- either something that was made here, or something with a tradition of having been owned here.

While about 90 percent of the 1,000 to 1,500 objects the museum acquires each year are gifts, it also makes purchases. "We have been able to save Maryland treasures that might have gone out of the state," says Weidman, "such as [Maryland native] Charles Willson Peale's portrait of his mother [also a Marylander], painted in the 1770s."

Another acquisition that saved a Maryland piece for Maryland was of an extremely important pre-Revolutionary Chippendale dressing table, which a second-hand furniture dealer found some years ago in the farmhouse of a 92-year-old black woman. He bought the contents of the house for $100, and -- not knowing what the dressing table was -- took it to a furniture stripper.

"The stripper told him he had better find out what he had before doing anything to it," says Weidman, "which is when he called us. We were interested, and got first refusal of it. But he took pictures of it to New York, where Sotheby's, Christie's and [the well known antiques firm] Israel Sack were all interested. Albert Sack made an offer for it, and thought he had it."

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