The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford has completed the acquisition of 50 pieces donated by the late prominent arts and crafts collector Stephen Gray. The bequest is made up of early Gustav Stickley furniture, metalwork, prints and pottery selected by Atheneum curators from Gray's collection.
The donation sprung out of a 2008 exhibit at the Atheneum At Home with Gustav Stickley: Arts and Crafts from the Stephen Gray Collection. Shortly after that show, Gray began talks with Atheneum curators to donate many of his items.
In 2009, the museum received the first part of Gray's gift, 18 pieces of Stickley furniture, including two pieces now on view in the Avery building: a Harvey Ellis arm chair with metallic inlay and an Eastwood chair and footstool.
The final gift of 32 items, completed in March, includes more Stickley furniture — including the 1901 "'Poppy' Table, Model No. 26" and a "Joiner's compass" desk lamp — and ceramic vessels and tiles from Newcomb College, Gates-Teco, Grueby, Marblehead and Rookwood potteries; a jonquils vase by Marie de Hoa LeBlanc of Newcomb College; and a goose bowl by Albina Mangini of the Saturday Evening Girls-Paul Revere Pottery.
Among the artists represented in the bequest are Gustav Baumann, Dirk Van Erp, Elizabeth D'Arcy Gaw and Marion Mahony Griffin.
Gray died in 2013. "It's difficult to say how big his collection was because he was constantly upgrading. He may have had something, but he would find a better example and sell another piece to buy the next one," said Alyce Englund, the museum's Richard Koopman Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts. "The collection was evolving up to the last weeks of his life. He was still bidding on things at auction."
The 2008 exhibit was co-curated by Betsy Kornhauser, who was chief curator of American paintings and is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Linda Roth, who currently is the Charles C. and Eleanor Lamont Cunningham Curator of European Decorative Arts.
Roth describes entering Gray's home to view his collection for the first time: "I was flabbergasted. I first walked into what he called the Great Room and saw his enormous dining table and chairs, fantastic chandelier and bookcases and cabinets around the room, all hosting the most remarkable collection of pottery. ... Every room brought new discoveries. Most striking perhaps was the way he created perfect ensembles with furniture, lighting fixtures, pottery, metalwork and prints. Everything was balanced and beautiful. It was a truly unforgettable experience."
Englund said that before the Gray donation, Arts & Crafts items were "underrepresented" at the museum. She praised the quality of the pieces in the bequest.
"There's one in particular I am fond of. There is a bowl designed with a repeating band of waddling geese, a wonderful graphic design. It was done by Albina Mangini. She was a member of the Saturday Evening Girls, a social reform movement," Englund said. "These women established a literary program to educate the kids living in the Boston North End slums. They tried to give them skills and training in trades so they could support themselves and bring themselves out of poverty. Then the book group turned into a pottery group, the Paul Revere Pottery. She was one of the most successful designers."
The Atheneum is currently undergoing renovations and many of the galleries are closed. Some are scheduled to reopen next year. But Englund said that the reinstallation of American art will happen later than that, "in the years to come."
The Arts and Crafts movement in decorative arts, which was active from around 1860 to 1910, was an embrace of hand-craftsmanship as a reaction against industrialization. It emphasized simple forms, lines and materials, quality designs and traditional artistic inspirations such as flora and fauna. Two of the most prominent North American centers for the movement were Boston and Deerfield, Mass.