Friday, April 1, 2016

The Museum of Memories

One of a pair of English, hand-colored woodcut engravings, from Valentine Green's 'Death and Life Contrasted—or, An Essay on Man, An Essay on Woman' (1770, London) [Photo courtesy of Sotheby's]

I'd been ruminating, as usual, about how much our homes are like personal museums—they contain our history, but they also reflect our particular passions, obsessions, and personality in ways that extend beyond our physical self and expand our identity. 

          That got me thinking about Anita, who lives in a real, honest-to-God museum, not just a symbolic one—at least I thought she did until I read the headline last night:

IRVIN & ANITA SCHORSCH COLLECTION REAPS 10.3 MILLION AT SOTHEBY'S

          Anita and my art-historian father shared a passion for emblem books and their friendship took off from that point of common interest. Anita collected and my father, a leading iconologist, advised, although Anita had a doctorate from Princeton and was an exceptional scholar in her own right. I discovered she lived in a museum when we were invited to lunch at her home, Hidden Glen Farms, where we dined in a colonial Dutch Room, served by Swedenborgians.

          The photos that follow are mostly from Sotheby's 608-page auction catalogue and real estate listing. I've grouped the photos to highlight the contrast between the lived-in rooms (quoting Sotheby's description of their contents) with the emptied rooms. Like the picture above, "Death and Life Contrasted," this is a way of approaching mortality.


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
As I recall, these were not ordinary sheep. They were of colonial lineage.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
This formal boxwood garden is a colonial design.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Naturally, the American flag at the entrance was Colonial.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
"The entrance to Hidden Glen Farms, where visitors were greeted by a cast-iron dumb stove figure of a robed George Washington, by the Corona Stove Company, Albany, NY, 1848 [Sotheby's]."

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
"The Living Room at Hidden Glen Farms, comprised of predominantly Chippendale furnishings, showcases many of the stylish pieces in the collection, including the Potts Family Chippendale carved and figured mahogany bonnet-top high chest of drawers, carving possibly by 'Nicholas Bernard,' Philadelphia, circa 1765, and the important Patty Reed Chippendale carved and figured mahogany and needlework firescreen, Massachussetts, circa 1788 [Sotheby's]."

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

"The Living Room at Hidden Glen Farms also features elegant paintings by two of America's most renowned portraitists, Charles Wilson Peale's Mrs. Jane Hunter Ewing and John Singleton Copley's Mrs. Joseph Calef (Hannah Jordan) [Sotheby's]."

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
"In keeping with the historic tradition created at Hidden Glen Farms by Irvin and Anita Schorsch, the interior of the Chippendale carved and figured walnut bonnet-top secretary bookcase, Philadelphia, circa 1755, reveals and arrangement of 18th- and 19th-century books, a George III pair of sun spectacles, George I and George II silver tapersticks and a crewelwork pocketbook [Sotheby's]."

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
"Irvin and Anita Schorsch's reimagining of a 17th-18th century Dutch genre painting, Dutch Delft polychrome large punch bowl and blue and white charger, a Dutch brass two-branch candelabrum, a Dutch painted glass and fruitwood birdcage and fishbowl, and the Saltonstall-Lyman Family Pilgrim Century turned and joined oak, maple and pine court cupboard, probably Plymouth County, Massachussetts, circa 1680 [Sotheby's]."

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Antiques and The Arts Weekly
Anita particularly loved early English embroidered needlework caskets, like the sample above, being inspected by a prospective buyer at Sotheby's.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
There might have been upwards of 50,000 dollars worth of samplers and silk embroidery in what appears to be a bathroom.

Photo courtesy of Antiques and The Arts Weekly
Linda Eaton, Winterthur's senior curator of textiles, inspecting a 19th-century painted and silk-embroidered picture at Sotheby's.


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
"The Schorsches rarely utilized the formal dining room in their home, opting instead to eat by candlelight in the Dutch Room or Keeping Room. The dining room, with its corner cupboards filled with Staffordshire salt-glazed stoneware and agateware pieces, showcased an elaborate late 18th-century English tiered cut-glass epergne on the very fine and rare Federal inlaid and highly figured mahogany serpentine-front sideboard, attributed to John Shaw, Annapolis, Maryland, circa 1795 [Sotheby's]."

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Antiques and The Arts Weekly
Above, collectors pose in Sotheby's recreation of Anita's recreation of an early American dining room.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
"Irvin and Anita Schorsch added an 18th-century tavern room, called The Keeping Room, to their home, which included a large fireplace hearth replete with wrought-iron cooking implements, brick floor and hand-hewn beams [Sotheby's]."

"Edwin Brumbaugh designed the authentic Colonial walk-in fireplace with a beehive oven. Many, many loaves of bread have been baked for the family and friends over the years [Sotheby's]."

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
"Having acquired a number of 17th- and 18th-century objects, Irvin and Anita Schorsch decided to add a Hudson River Valley Room to their home, consulting with Charles Hummel from Winterthur Museum and staff of the Albany Institute of History and Art. Architect John Milner was hired to construct what became known as the 'Dutch Room,' and it contained a treasure trove of objects placed to emulate early Dutch houses in New York [Sotheby's]."

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
  
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
The bulk of Anita's library will be auctioned by Sotheby's later this year; among all these books are a few reference books and emblem books that were gifts from my father's library. They will have new life in the hands of scholars and collectors who can make use of them now, but it still feels cold: an empty library.

          Erik Gronning, Head of Sotheby's American Furniture and Decorative Arts Department, gushed, "My concept of ‘living with antiques’ was forever transformed after experiencing the Schorsch Collection firsthand at Hidden Glen Farms. This is a collection for the ages; one that invoked the spirits of the antiques gods of yesteryear..."  


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
          (Someone smoked these pipes and wore these spectacles two hundred years ago.)

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
          (A child put her doll to sleep in this bed 200 hundred years ago.)

          Most of us look at these rooms of antiques and get depressed, groaning, "How ugly, and where do I put my feet up? Where do I get comfy and express myself?" On the other hand, can you imagine living in those rooms, sleeping in the 17th-century bed of a 17th-century person, writing at the desk of an 18th-century writer, knowing the provenance of each item, quietly thrilling at the touch of objects that had been made and used in another century, possessed by people who were once just as real and important as you and I but who died long ago?


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

The circa-1750 Queen Anne bed, pictured above, originally belonged to Revolutionary War General John Thomas, and had also belonged to Anita's oldest son, Irvin III, as a child.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

          I imagine Anita beheld the rooms of her house with a proud sense of responsibility to history, and to the history of every individual who had possessed any of those objects. She was methodically reimagining their lives, the keeper of their flames. I don't think Anita was invoking "the spirits of the antiques gods of yesteryear" as much as invoking specifically human spirits from a particular time and place. It was an obsession, and a true labor of love. Anita was a caretaker of lost souls.

       
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
          (Someone loved this woman from a family named Folwell, loved this gentleman with the kind eyes, and grieved their deaths, two hundred years ago.)


          Surely I'm not entirely projecting my own personal obsession with rescuing the spiritual past onto Anita. I had first heard of Anita in college, a little before my father and she became acquainted. I was studying expressions of mourning in Colonial American folk art and read Anita's book, "Mourning Becomes America: Mourning Art in the New Nation" and was inspired to start my own collection of mourning jewelry. When my father eventually introduced me to Anita I felt like a groupie. She invited me to tag along with my parents to the opening of her Museum of Mourning Art in Drexel Hill, outside of Philadelphia.

Arlington Cemetery at Drexel Hill, The Museum of Mourning Art
    [Photo courtesy of Wikipedia]

Photo courtesy of Bob Kramp
Yes, Anita actually built and filled a museum of mourning art at Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, outside of Philadelphia—her family-owned, nondenominational cemetery on 200 acres of land. The museum was completed and opened to the public in 1990, in a structure that replicates Mount Vernon. The building is approached by a circular drive bordered by posts and chains, just like those that line George Washington's actual estate in Virginia. The Washington motif is significant because the collective grief over his death in 1799 had a tremendous impact on representations of death in American art and dramatically affected mourning practices.



Photos courtesy of Sotheby's

          The auction’s last two lots, pictured above—a gold brooch (sold for $47,500) and a ring (sold for $30,000)—are both said to contain strands of George Washington’s hair. "There's no way to prove it but the provenance is very good," Alessandra Merrill of Sotheby's told Antiques and The Arts Weekly.


          Inside the Mount Vernon replica is a chapel modeled after the Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. The museum is now closed because half its contents were auctioned at Sotheby's. 

Funeral carriage/horse-drawn hearse   [Photo courtesy of alistasi.com/Rue Morgue Magazine]
Photo courtesy of citypaper.net

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

Photo courtesy of ghost-lounge. blogspot.com
Photo courtesy of scenery.xiyouok.com


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
One of the few remaining cemetery guns in the world. In the 19th-century "resurrection men" stalked cemeteries in search of fresh corpses to sell doctors for dissection. Cemetery guns were placed at graves and rigged with tripwires to discourage grave robbers.
[Photo courtesy of Museum of Mourning Art, Arlington Cemetery]


Mourning art with hair ornamentation                                 [Photo courtesy of scenery.xiyouok.com]

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's


Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

          
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

When the museum first opened, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Irvin as saying, "The museum was designed to be uplifting, not depressing. We expect groups to come on tour, by appointment. And when they see how beautifully the cemetery is landscaped and kept, they will be impressed. Funeral Directors have asked if they can use Arlington in their advertising and people are already asking if they can hold a wedding here."

          Conversely, Charles Hummel, curator emeritus and adjunct professor at the Winterthur Museum, who had consulted on the design of Hidden Glen's Dutch Room, wrote, "The decision to offer their collection at auction is in keeping with the way that Irvin and Anita Schorsch conducted their lives. They were givers, not takers. This sale, then, represents their final effort at sharing" (from the Hyperallergic article).

          Maybe so, I hope so. But my heart says no. I want to imagine a conversation, in a manner that conveys both practical and spiritual urgency, where Anita states her desire to have her collections cast back out into the world again upon her death. It's entirely possible such a conversation occurred. It could not have been easy for her sons, and yet, what a relief...to be instructed to respect the boundary between past and present, between her life and theirs.

          I notice that several years before his mother's death, one of the sons published an article titled "Five Essential Questions to Ask Your Senior Parents." In it, he writes, "It’s important for you to not only know who is managing your parents’ investments, but also to have an understanding about your parents’ values and desires regarding the distribution of their assets. You may be surprised by the discussions you can have with your parents about the future and the legacy they wish to leave [italics mine]." 


It turns out my heart was dead wrong: During the sale, Irvin III spoke with Antiques and The Arts Weekly, "I got a few treasures. I hope that other family members picked up some things of sentimental interest" (from MyInform article). Furthermore, the over-a-thousand lots offered had no reserve price (meaning many items were sold at far below their estimated sales price instead of being held back and returned to the heirs). I guess inheritance tax on 10 million dollars worth of antiques would also be incentive to sell.


Why is it I'm constitutionally unfit to sell my family home and let go of some of my parents' collections, and excessive "stuff"? Unlike Hidden Glen Farms, my house is a 1910 Dutch Colonial in suburban New Jersey, and it's falling apart. I can't afford to make repairs and barely manage the property taxes. Selling and downsizing is a financial necessity for me, yet I continue to struggle at an impasse.

          For the Schorsch heirs, money is decidedly not an issue—Anita's children are billionaires in their own right. (Although a few months after Anita's death, Investment News published a brutal article about the financial problems of son Nicholas, "How Nick Schorsch Lost his Mojo.") The family is loving and close, large and devoted. I have fond memories of Anita and Irvin's tradition of bringing their many grandchildren caroling to my parents' house at Christmastime before they continued to McCarter Theater to watch The Nutcracker. Yet in record time (under a year!) the children were able to dispose of three museums' worth of their parents' stuff (there was also a beach house filled with nautical antiques), and place the family home on the market. Obviously, they don't associate the memory of their parents with their parents' stuff. They are presumably able to honor their parents' memory in meaningful way—without confusing the material and the spiritual.

          I respect it, of course—and even envy the sense of freedom from material and emotional burdens—but I can't help but grieve for Anita's collections, so lovingly and earnestly amassed over decades. What a rare, generous person she was—who spoke so beautifully at my father's memorial service—but my memories are too ephemeral. I look at a picture of that prim, elegant, almost shockingly curvaceous highboy that I believe had been a particularly cherished possession in her bedroom, and I recall her Jackie O-vibe, the low, steady sound of her voice, fiercely intelligent and self-assured, sometimes witty, and always calm and poised.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
I find it impossible to prevent myself from re-collecting Anita's dispersed collections in my own way. The pictures of the empty rooms of her house are so moving and evocative, like a body without a spirit. Another person might look at them as awaiting new life, new inhabitants, new memories. That's a wonderfully inspiring way of viewing, it's just not my way. I prefer the abandoned rooms beside images of the lives they once so graciously housed.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's

The Sotheby's real estate listing for Hidden Glen Farms ends with this photo, captioned, "These 11 sheep are available and have expressed a wish to remain."

The only picture of Anita I could find on the internet was
buried beneath images of antique furniture [Google+]


Bibliography:

"A Farm Sale Like No Other," by Laura Beach, MyInforms.com.
http://myinforms.com/en-us/a/23339478-a-farm-sale-like-no-other/

"Five Essential Questions to Ask Your Senior Parents," by Irvin Schorsch III, The Huffington Post, June 7, 2011.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/irvin-g-schorsch/senior-parents_b_868837.html

"Irvin and Anita Schorsch Collection Reaps $10.3 Million at Sotheby's," by Laura Beach, Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
http://www.antiquesandthearts.com/a-farm-sale-like-no-other/

"Mementoes of Grief Go to Auction from the US's Only Museum for Mourning Art," by Allison Meier, Hyperallergic, January 20, 2016.
http://hyperallergic.com/269109/mementoes-of-grief-go-to-auction-from-the-uss-only-museum-for-mourning-art/

"Mourning-Art Museum Opens at a Cemetery," by Lita Solis-Cohen, The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 23, 1990.
http://articles.philly.com/1990-09-23/news/25877044_1_enameled-rings-mourning-art-hearse

Mourning Becomes America: Mourning art in the new nation, Anita Schorsch, Main Street Press, 1976.

"Museum of Mourning Art: Arlington Cemetery exhibit dedicated to death and grieving," Atlas Obscura.
http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/museum-of-mourning-art 

The Schorsch Collection: An Eye for Americana 
http://www.sothebys.com/en/news-video/slideshows/2016/schorsch-collection-hidden-glen-farms-interiors.html#

Sotheby’s Auction Results—Property from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch: Hidden Glen Farms
http://www.sothebysrealty.com/eng/sales/detail/180-l-4091-kqwy7r/hidden-glen-meadowbrook-pa-19046

Sotheby's to Offer One of the Greatest Collections of Americana Ever Assembled: PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF IRVIN AND ANITA SCHORSCH

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