At Home Among Treasures

John and Berthe Ford's renowned collection of Tibetan, Nepalese

and Indian art is going to the soon-to-be-reopened Walters Museum.

September 30, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

When the doorbell rings, John and Berthe Ford are not ready. But they're old hands at leading tours of their home. Berthe puts ice tea and cookies on the long dining room table and rushes to the door. Her visitors, docents from the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, troop inside.

They are suddenly in an elegant, live-in museum of Asian art.

On a blueprint, the room around them would merely be noted as a grand foyer, but it is also entryway to a world of aesthetic splendor created by the Fords and filled with sensual beauty and exotic treasures. To the right lies the sculpture gallery. It is home to a ninth-century sandstone Indian sculpture depicting a full-breasted woman, mango tree and monkey of such voluptuousness that it is as though the animal and vegetable kingdom have merged into a single entity about to burst with roundness.

To the left, the "Chinese room" is furnished with an imperial throne, decorated with gold and cloisonne, adorned with a four-clawed dragon and surrounded by cabinets filled with delicacies of jade and malachite. Here is a 17th-century, smoke-colored jade carving of a fish swimming in lotuses that has been converted into a snuff bottle. There, an ivory vessel sized for an insect. It's a cricket cage, the height of fashion for the affluent 18th-century Chinese woman who would have worn it on her wrist, her pet cricket chirping as she walked.

"Like a portable radio," Berthe says.

This is the Ford residence. From the exterior, it is a large but unremarkable home in Guilford, stately and austere. Its interior is a perfectly scaled museum filled with Asian treasures, many of which will go on exhibit beginning Oct. 20 at the Walters Art Museum, part of that institution's celebratory reopening after three years of renovations.

Assembled over four decades, the Ford collection is considered one of the two most important private holdings of Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian art in the country. "Collecting is seeing, desiring to own, to learn about the work, to preserve it and to place it in a way so that you can enjoy it to the fullest extent," John says. "That's what we have tried to do."

The docents may be the last visitors the Fords lead through the house before the Walters show opens. The exhibition, titled "Desire and Devotion" and organized by Walters curator Hiram W. Woodward Jr., will include 150 Indian and Himalayan works, from an 18th-century Tibetan ritual box made of silver, gold and turquoise to an 18th-century Indian miniature painting of the Hindu god Shiva. It will remain on view in Baltimore through 2002 before traveling to other cities. And, when it returns to Baltimore, the Fords will present some 200 Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan sculptures and ritual objects of bronze, terra cotta, stone and ivory, Indian paintings and Tibetan religious paintings to the Walters for its permanent collection.

With that one gift, the Walters holdings in these arts will be transformed from insignificant to among the best in the country. "It puts the Walters on the map," says Pratapaditya Pal, consulting curator for the Art Institute of Chicago and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., who has written extensively about the Ford collection.

The Smithsonian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, among others, have excellent collections in this area. "Now the Walters has to be included among this list," Pal says.

The Guilford home already has been sold; by Oct. 20, the Fords will be living at a new Baltimore address. "I didn't want to be subjected to an empty house," says Berthe. "I didn't want to feel the void in not seeing those great objects that we have lived with for so long."

For now, however, there's a tour to be given.

John waves half of the docents upstairs; Berthe leads the others toward the sculpture room on the first floor.

Collecting was de rigueur

The Fords met at the Walters Art Museum. John is an interior designer with degrees from the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and an eye for perfection.

He moved to the Guilford house 46 years ago with his parents, the late John G. and Marian M. Ford. His godfather, Edward Choate O'Dell, also lived with the family.

John's father, a car dealer, and his mother collected Chinese decorative arts; his godfather, an attorney, civil engineer and organist, was a connoisseur of Chinese snuff bottles and founder of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society. (John now is the president of the snuff bottle society.)

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