The library of the Huntington in San Marino is large and stately, its walls lined with oversized 18th century French tapestries depicting wealthy noblemen and women frolicking in bucolic settings.
"This is all Arabella," says art historian Shelley Bennett, as she enters the room in the Huntington mansion. The tapestries, "The Noble Pastoral," were bought by Henry Huntington at Arabella Huntington's urging, before they were even married.
He paid $577,000 ($13.8 million in today's dollars) for them, more than the total construction cost for the 60,000-square-foot beaux-arts mansion ($480,000), now the centerpiece of the Huntington Library, Arts Collections and Botanical Gardens.
"The way Henry tries to court Arabella is through art," adds Bennett, whose new book "The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age," about three generations of Huntingtons and their relationship to art and philanthropy. The tapestries dictated the proportions of the room, which is L-shaped, and Arabella also selected the 18th French sitting room furniture and small bronzes of mythological river gods on two shelves.
It was all a bit scandalous.
Henry, a married man, was besotted with Arabella, his uncle Collis' widow. Shortly after Collis' death in 1900, he separated from his wife and moved into the Metropolitan Club, three blocks from Arabella and her mansion on 57th Street in New York. He proposed marriage after his divorce was finalized in 1906, but she put him off until 1913.
Bennett writes about all this in her book, an unusual biography which takes on the four major players of the Huntington saga – Collis, the 19th century railroad tycoon; Arabella, his much younger second wife; Archer, her only child (said to be from her first marriage but more likely their child, born out of wedlock), and Henry, Collis' nephew and right-hand man in the running of the Southern Pacific railroad — and Arabella's third husband.
Bennett's imagination was sparked when she read an article by Mitchell Codding, executive director and president of the Hispanic Society of America, an institution founded by Archer in 1904. A footnote mentioned that they had the letters and diaries of Archer Huntington in their holdings, ones that had never been fully inventoried or published. When she stepped down as the Huntington's curator of European art in 2007, she became senior research scholar and launched her book project.
She culled manuscripts, documents and photographs at the Hispanic Society in Manhattan, the Collis P. Huntington Archives at Syracuse University, and a number of other archives and research facilities. The book includes 200 illustrations, many never published before.
"It's a major contribution on the Huntingtons," says Codding. "There really has not been a work addressing all of them in a scholarly fashion based on archival research. What's been written on Arabella is by writers interested in more sensational details."
While the book includes sensational details, it ultimately focuses on their art collecting and creation of a cultural legacy. Because of the Industrial Revolution and Westward Expansion, they lived at the first moment in American history when mega-wealth was possible. Collis and Henry were both involved in the building of the transcontinental railroad and real estate investment in California.
They knew how to make money, they had to learn how to spend it. That included learning to live graciously and in keeping with their elite position in life, acknowledging social responsibilities and currying the public's favor through donations to charities and lending their paintings for public viewings.
Somehow Arabella, who was born in humble circumstances and whose mother ran a boarding house in Richmond, Va., managed to figure it all out. While she indulged in shopping sprees for lavish jewelry and fashion, she also had an eye for Renaissance and Old Master art, and later French decorative art and British paintings. She received no formal education that we know of and yet, says Bennett with admiration, "she read avidly, she became very fluent in French, she learned Spanish. She was a very smart woman."
In 1889 Collis bought property at 2 E. 57th Street, and Arabella, by now his wife, had to approve of everything from architectural plans to the interior design and the art. Murals were commissioned from Elihu Vedder, major paintings were purchased from Europe. A Los Angeles Times reporter wrote from New York in 1891: "The most interesting and magnificent of the newer houses will undoubtedly be the fine Italian palace being erected on Fifth avenue ... by Mrs. And Mr. Huntington, the former as active director, the latter in the very important role of the payer of the bills."
When Collis died, she inherited what would be today's equivalent of half a billion dollars; Henry got half of that. Most of the art Collis and Arabella had collected was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, including Old Masters such as Frans Hals and Vermeer (the famous "Woman With a Lute"). Meanwhile, Archer had became fascinated with Spanish culture during a European trip at age 12, and began collecting books, manuscripts and artwork from the Hispanic world. Early on, he knew that he would one day establish an educational institution.
The house that Henry and Arabella built in San Marino would become known for its French decorative arts and English paintings in the "grand manner." Bennett's tour of the house ends in the Thornton Portrait Gallery — a ballroom-sized hall created in 1934. Here are swooningly romantic, full-length portraits of English nobility and celebrity, major works by the likes of Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.
After Arabella's death in 1924, Henry continued "in the groove," says Bennett. "His last purchase was 'Pinkie.'" "Pinkie" is the nickname of the girl in a pink hat and flowing dress painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence and one of the treasures of the Huntington. The other, of course, is "Blue Boy" by Thomas Gainsborough.
"There's nothing in England that rivals the collection of 18th century grand-manner paintings that we have here," says Bennett. "We have the cream of the cream."