Personal possessions make for good company. Often, they also suggest of their owner a three-dimensional portrait, curios and ephemera imitating layers of paint. In the case of Seward Kennedy, his teeming and tangible cohorts were a plentiful kingdom of Antiquities, Chinese, Indian, European, African, Tribal and Oceanic fare. Thousands upon thousands of idiosyncratic objects layered as thick as impasto on tabletops, shelves and in tumbled piles throughout his two residences on Park Avenue in New York City and Norland Square in London’s Notting Hill. In many ways, the accumulation became his identity and, in the spirit of the Ancients, Seward might have preferred to be entombed with the hoard rather than surrender a single piece.
Raised a proud and thrifty Yankee in New England, Seward was an artistic youth and awarded prizes at school for photography. He developed his own negatives, always made things with his hands – an assiduous restorer of objects and amateur draughtsman his entire life. Noticeably too, he was prone to silence and shy, yet marvelled at the craftsmanship of the material world. His fascination knew no bounds, as if his life were compelled by a search for connections to humanity through objects, not people. All curious shapes and wayward forms, the nitty-gritty tactile, something strange and unfamiliar – tribal clubs, facial masks, earplugs and ornaments, fetish and found objects – these held his gaze as nothing else.
And as if by animal instinct, Seward was clearly driven to amass. Upon graduation from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and New York University Law School, his professional career as a lawyer for Mobil Corporation was a formidable success. He travelled extensively in the late 1950s to Cairo, Athens, Istanbul and Nicosia, cities that were a seedbed to his natural curiosity. Fascinated by myriad cultures, he sought tangible representations that he could afford devoting free time to a perusal of other worlds. During his formative years as an itinerant lawyer, Seward quietly nurtured a parallel and never-ending quest for disappearing cultures.
By the early 1960s, he maintained residences in London and Paris, adding New York City to his roster in 1971. His great friends and mentors were the Cianciminos, two siblings newly established in London as dealers on the King’s Road. These clever brothers (George and the late Jean-Claude) were legendary tastemakers whom Seward adopted as, “Style Police.” In no time, 18th century Italian and Iberian furniture, Chinese scholar’s objects, Tantric art and Modernist brass sculpture found its way from their chic emporium to his flat on Cheyne Walk. Seward’s eclectic finds co-mingled with gutsy contemporary furniture designed, no coincidence, by George Ciancimino. Steel bookcases with smoky glass shelves, marble-topped chrome tables, luxuriously upholstered suede sofas and club chairs set a dramatic stage. The newly minted client was completely consumed by their vision and friendship.
Of course, Seward connected with other people too, particularly any similarly smitten sleuth hungry to trade emerging knowledge and connoisseurship. The decades of the 1970s and 80s were rife with an emergent elite curious about crosscurrents of civilization. No rumour that outside Seward’s offices on Berkeley Square, during lunch hour, a constant string of dealers peddled up to sell him something exquisite. Yet he discriminated and not everyone left happy. Although profoundly acquisitive, Seward chose judiciously too. At 89 years of age, infirm but undeterred, he bought several pieces a mere two weeks before he died. A frisson of discovery at his fingertips was pure sustenance.
Certain people sense a dialogue with the inanimate world. They believe objects have a soul, even prosper, like people, on strength of character. A creator imbues beauty, time bestows patina and character, and the relationship of one object to another creates a lofty dimension. Seward Kennedy’s imagination inhabited that rarefied world. A custodian, he guarded objects for their inherent beauty, invention and purpose; equally, he dreaded their lack of appreciation and disappearance.
I first encountered Seward in the final decade of his life. Visiting his dimly lit Aladdin’s cave, I peered eagerly at the chaotic panoply of shape and form huddled under protective layers of dust. The cumulative effect, the indefatigable passion revealed in such inordinate collecting, was astounding. I have purposefully avoided using the word “collecting” until now as that word clearly hit a nerve with him that day, “I am not a collector, and this is not a collection!” As objects beckoned my grasp, I touched, admired, asked questions with palpable excitement. Beneath each piece I tentatively handled a pale halo appeared; I knew to replace each one on its ghostly silhouette. It felt as if I were eavesdropping on his soul.
Just as he intended, Seward Kennedy’s spirit, that original mind and lofty sensibility, still whispers. I daresay there may be an after-life, after all?