Angus Wilkie considers his friend Seward Kennedy’s fascinating collection of art and objects, acquired from across the globe
Seward Kennedy assembled his ‘cabinet of curiosities’ over a period of more than six decades, seeking out treasures from across the world, which came to layer the surfaces of his residences in London, Paris and New York City. Kennedy, who was a successful lawyer, rejected the title ‘collector’, instead seeing himself as a custodian of remarkable objects. These are 10 of the most exceptional.
Seward Kennedy was guided solely by instinct and inner dialogue, buying objects and artworks because they captivated him. He nurtured a passion for all representations of animals and hung this image, by Outsider artist Edward Patrick Byrne, over his brass four-poster bed.
The merlion is a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. Standing sentinel outside Kennedy’s Park Avenue bedroom door, this phantasmagorical form always seemed otherworldly. We often debated its country of origin and I once offered (to no avail) to buff the protective layer of soot covering its surface so as to appreciate more fully the carving and patina of its incredible curlicued tail.
Seward began to explore Indian art, and Tantric art in particular, in the late 1960s. He was doubtless encouraged by his close friendship with George and Jean-Claude Ciancimino, who held several exhibitions of Tantric works at their London galleries.
An engineer by training, Seward had a practical side and appreciated tools and scientific instruments, as well as base materials. He delighted in the early signature and decorative quality of this 17th-century implement, which hung from a nail in the entrance hall.
This unusual 19th-century bronze mould was used to make carnival masks. It’s a particularly intriguing object, and speaks to Seward’s interest in form and function, as well as his affinity for artworks and objects that represent the human face. Ironically, he kept its striking Janus-face hidden from view; I had never seen it until now.
The graphic balance and commanding scale of this elegant Japanese bronze vase cannot be overstated. Unusually for Seward, it was displayed alone, placed on the top of an 18th-century English mahogany architect’s table as an eye-catching feature in his Park Avenue living room.
Antiquities always captivated Seward. In the 1950s and 1960s he worked as a lawyer for Mobil Corporation, travelling extensively in Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. He had a strong interest in ancient civilisations, and sought out small-scale relics. It was an interest that continued to preoccupy him until his death in 2015.
‘Fantastic’ is a word Seward reserved for his most prized possessions. Nothing could better describe this pair of rare Chinese scholar’s objects, comprising tortured burrwood emerging from malachite, and a large stone on a rootwood stand.
Practical furniture was scarce in Seward’s world. This barley-twist stool, simple and inviting with its upholstered seat decorated with a needlework pineapple, was one of the few signs of ‘common hospitality’ I can remember. One never got too comfortable — perhaps Seward intended to keep visitors on their toes.
This vase, by celebrated potter Dame Lucie Rie, is a rare nod to the contemporary. Its tactile surface reveals traces of the artist’s hand, and it sat comfortably alongside Seward’s other acquisitions, as if to say, ‘One must always be full of surprises’.