Monday, May 19, 2008

The Very Best Place in Vermont; Or, More About Rich People Behaving Well

Continuing with my theme of superlatives (see "The Single Most Beautiful Teacup in the World" a few posts back), I return now to tell you about the Shelburne Museum, an international treasure tucked between Route 7 and Lake Champlain in the tidy, inviting village of Shelburne, Vermont.

We (kids and I) hauled down there from the Last House yesterday (only 90 miles from our house but a world away culturally). We went partly because it was "lilac day", or whatever the musuem marketing people called it, and because, like almost all Vermont children, my kids love it there and the lilacs made as good a reason as any to go again. There are hundreds of lilac trees on the grounds of the Museum and they are just about at their peak right now. It must be smelled to be believed. And as if that weren't enough, well. I'll let the pictures do(at least some of) the talking.

One Room (of many) in One Building (of many) at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont

This Summer, the Museum has a display of 19th century carousel animals in the Round Barn Where You Buy Tickets (Vermonters Get 1/2 price tickets - Thank You Mrs. McClure.Another Vermont benefactor putting her money to good use)..

Oh the Pottery! So many place settings and so much Staffordshire on display all over. Here's Blue Tea Pot extraordinaire picturing Lafayette at Benjamin Franklin's tomb (ca.1820). It's on display this summer at a minty little exhibition on Old/New, called Design/Rewind in the Vermont House. Jenny, are you paying attention?

The Shelburne Museum is the creation of Electra Havemeyer Webb (more on her below). Mrs. Webb had buildings of historical interest moved from where they were and reconstructed on the grounds of her museum. Every building, at least those that aren't serving as art galleries, is full of artifacts appropriate to the building.

Does anybody else remember that Werner Herzog movie, Fitzcarraldo? Klaus Kinski plays a European megalomaniac who forces South American Indians to drag a steamship over some mountains. I was forced to watch it in a film class in college. (That's what you get for taking film classes, I guess). Well, the Ticonderoga, which is an enormous and real old steamship, was dragged miles from Lake Champlain over specially built train tracks to rest on the grounds here. I was actively hostile at 20 to Herzog after Fitzcarraldo, but I have gotten over it. (I heard him interviewed about Grizzly Man a couple of times and he was so intelligent, but that's another post). Mrs. Webb was right to save this boat which is truly beautiful and a great favorite of us all.

I have been to the Museum many times but I always passed this little place by, until yesterday. It's called the Stencil House - see the interior shot below. Mrs. Webb saved it from demolition in Sherburne, New York. The stencilling is amazing. The nice white-haired lady who was staffing the place explained that itinerant artists some times came back year after year to finish a job (for a few dollars and room and board). There was an unusual chair in a bedroom that I remarked about. She explained that it was an "invalid chair" and that its sturdy construction with a high, barrel-shaped back and substantial arm rests could be used to tie in an old person who might not be able to sit up or might wander... The things you learn about history at a museum.

There's a nice, readable Wikipedia article about E Havemeyer Webb from which I culled the following:

Electra Havemeyer Webb began to collect "in earnest" in 1911, more than a decade before the founding of Colonial Williamsburg and nearly a half century before authentic American antiques would return to the major rooms of the White House. When she began to gather the remnants of an earlier America there was no National Register of Historic Places. Americans had yet to understand that their heritage was interesting and worthy of preservation. Before there was Henry Francis Dupont's Winterthur, Henry Ford's Greenfield Village, or even the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Electra Havemeyer Webb was an ambitious and well-known collector of Americana. She worked with the finest antique dealers of the era, including Edith Halpert and Harry Newman, to assemble encyclopedic and irreplaceable collections of American material culture. The honesty of everyday objects spoke to Mrs. Webb, and she used her significant resources to ensure their preservation. Today the museum's Americana collection is one of the world's finest.

Portrait of Mrs. Havemeyer and Her Daughter Electra. 1895. Pastel on paper, Mary Cassatt. This picture is on view at the EHW Memorial Building on the grounds of the museum and the photo comes from the EWH link at St. Michael's College to the right.

A few months ago I wrote here about my admiration for Paul Mellon and the National Gallery. Mrs. Webb had a pedigree as good as his and the money to match. Like him, she had a gift for collecting, which is its own kind of art form and not one that many can practice the way they did. (Oh, how I would love the chance!) They didn't collect the same things, which is probably a good thing for the museum-going public. (Remember MTV's celebrity smackdown with claymation figures? Havemeyer Webb v. Paul Mellon? I would laugh at it anyway).

OK. Kid 2 is clamoring for Club Penguin. Superlatives continue next time when we take up a discussion of the two best movies ever made, and, the two best scenes in the two best movies ever made. I can hardly wait.