Christie's gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following individuals towards the production of this catalogue.
Ellen McDermott, Photography
Gary R. Sullivan, Clock Specialist, Sharon, Massachusetts
Morrison H. Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of the American Wing, the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Janice H. Carlson, Jennifer L. Mass, Catherine R. Matsen and W. Christian Petersen, Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory, Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware
Tony Smith, Conservation and Restoration of Fine Antique Furniture
Robert Mussey Associates, Boston
Keith Lackman of Lackman Furniture Restoration
Robert F. Trent, Independent Scholar and Historic Upholsterer
NATALIE K. BLAIR AND THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
By Morrison H. Heckscher
Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of the American Wing
In 1916, when Natalie Blair first began collecting American furniture, there was nowhere to go to learn about the subject. However, all that changed with the opening of the Metropolitan Museum's American Wing in 1924. Mrs. Blair was quick to realize that, as she wrote in her memoirs, "pieces now offered the collector can be compared to similar ones in museums and private collections and their relative desirability determined both as to their merit and condition." In particular she was
impressed with the wonderful collection Mr. Bolles formed and which is now in the Metropolitan Museum. Apparently he was only attracted by the best of its kind - and no seconds were allowed to creep in. In my first years of serious collection I used to compare each pieced offered me with its counterpart in this collection. If it came up to that standard - I never recall an instance where it excelled - then I would buy it and feel pretty confident I would not later see a better example.
That this was hardly a true characterization of Eugene Bolles as collector - the Museum only exhibited the crème de la crème of the more than 600 pieces assembled by Bolles and acquired for the Museum in 1910 through the generosity of Mrs. Russell Sage - does not alter the fact that this perception drove Mrs. Blair to seek only the very best.
Natalie Blair's formal association with the Museum began in 1923 with the modest gift of a blown, pattern-molded green glass hanging light and a 1741 Dutch Bible - donations made in anticipation of the opening of the American wing the following year. Over the next dozen years she made various loans, including objects for the landmark exhibitions of Boston japanned furniture in 1933 and New York furniture in 1934. In 1935 she discussed the future of her collection with Joseph Downs, since 1933 the curator of the American Wing, indicating that "whenever the time came that my museum rooms [figs. 4-7; in the attic of her house in Tuxedo Park] were to be dismantled," four groups of objects could definitely be left to the museum: the American pewter, ironwork, and lighting fixtures, and the chintz handkerchiefs with American subjects. She did not find it so easy to make up her mind about the furniture. The superb pewter was given in memory of her husband between 1940 and 1942, the ironwork between 1947 and 1949, and an irreplaceable collection of eighteenth-century English opaque glass with enamel decoration was part of her 1952 bequest.
In 1939, in anticipation of moving out of the Tuxedo Park house, Mrs. Blair lent the Museum sixty-nine pieces of furniture that had been selected by Downs. His focus was on rare and unique forms and on objects with their original paint or upholstery. (While he excluded from consideration the great Philadelphia and Newport pieces, his essay on the Newport school (The Magazine Antiques, December, 1947), illustrated principally with pieces from the Blair collection, is proof that he recognized the importance of this material.) Time has vindicated the perspicacity of his choices, many of which are today recognized as unique treasures.
In 1945 Mrs. Blair began to make annual gifts (for example figs. 2 and 3) from among the pieces of furniture that were on loan to the Museum. In 1950 she gave the great needlework-covered easy chair (fig. 1), which she had purchased in January 1927 for $3,300 from the New Jersey dealer Willoughby Farr. And in her will (she died in 1951) she stipulated that the Museum should get whatever furniture was still on loan there. Subsequently her daughters Natica and Joan gave or sold the Museum a few additional pieces. The census of pieces of Blair furniture in the American Wing now numbers fifty-five, of which sixteen were published in my 1985 catalogue of the American Wing's late colonial period furniture and thirty-six will be included in Frances Safford's forthcoming catalogue of the furniture of the early colonial period. These pieces, together with the pewter, ironwork, and opaque glass that Mrs. Blair also gave the Museum, are eloquent testimony to the intelligence and discerning eye of this great and generous collector.
A CONNOISSEUR OF AMERICA'S PAST: MRS. J. INSLEY BLAIR AND HER COLLECTION
Mrs. J. Insley Blair (1883-1951) began collecting American artifacts almost a hundred years ago and became one of the keenest and most discerning collectors ever to have engaged in the pursuit. Her furniture and cultural artifacts, now dispersed among the galleries of museums, the homes of her descendants and the pages of this catalogue, reveal a passion for excellence virtually unparalleled in the field of American antiques. As the field was still in its infancy, she had no library of published references to consult and trained her eye by comparing potential acquisitions with similar items in museums. In many ways, she was ahead of her time and, in her questioning of authenticity, demand for good condition and pursuit of research, her concerns and priorities are more akin to those of today's collectors than those of her contemporaries. Nowhere is this more evident than in her recognition and appreciation of old surfaces. Her surviving notes frequently include a reference to an item's surface and as shown by the objects themselves, those that were "old" or "original" were left undisturbed. Her notes in themselves are also a remarkable testament to her foresightedness. In addition to research files compiled on individual items, she compiled an inventory in 1943 that gives valuable provenance information, data that is rarely available for other collections put together in this era. By preserving the patina of age and recording the details of her acquisitions, Mrs. Blair amassed a treasure trove rich with the sense of history. The portion of her collection that is included in this sale passed down in her family, remained untouched over the last half century, and until now has largely been hidden from public view.
Descending from an old New England family, Mrs. J. Insley Blair was born Natalie Bennett Knowlton in 1883, one of the four daughters of Henry Danford Knowlton and Mary Bennett Johnes. She was raised in New York City and upstate New York, just outside of Newburgh. In 1901, after winning the women's tennis tournament at the Tuxedo Club in Tuxedo Park, New York, she met J. Insley Blair (1876-1940), a banker and heir to a fortune made by his grandfather, John Insley Blair (1802-1899), in the railroad and industries. After a long courtship, the couple wed in 1912, and the following year, purchased a large tract of land in Tuxedo Park where they began the construction of their home, known as Blairhame (fig. 2, end pages). Built by Carrére and Hastings, the neo-Jacobean structure, reminiscent of an English country estate, was an appropriate setting for the Blairs and their lifestyle. The couple frequently entertained at home, hosts to grand parties as well as smaller gatherings. Both were fond of the outdoors, and as captured in family photographs, Mrs. Blair was a keen sportswoman-a tennis player, golfer, fisherwoman, skier, ice skater, and canoe paddler (figs. 4-9, see lots 628-630). They were also avid travelers, making several trips to Europe and, in a yacht hired for the occasion, Cuba. Closer to home they frequented the Restigouche River in Canada (fig. 6), the Adirondacks and Bar Harbor, Maine (fig. 5), where Mr. Blair's father, Dewitt Clinton Blair owned the summer cottage "Blair Eyrie." But, aside from an apartment in New York City, Blairhame in Tuxedo was their only residence and remained their primary home throughout their lives. They had two daughters, Natica (1913-1955) and Joan (1915-1998), who inherited the portion of the collection in this catalogue. Upon the death of Mr. Blair in 1939, Mrs. Blair moved into a smaller cottage on the estate. She died twelve years later in her New York City apartment. Blairhame, donated by her daughter Joan in 1957, now serves as the Tuxedo Park School.(1)
Like many collectors of her era, Mrs. Blair began by furnishing her new home with European antiques. As she states in an undated manuscript, she bought only English furniture until 1916, but after quickly realizing the marketplace was inundated with recent manufactures, she turned her attention to the field of American furniture, which, in her view, lacked such "faking in-toto."(2) However, other factors also had some bearing on her decision, specifically her family history and patriotic sentiments.
Her father, Danford Knowlton, was an influential congressman from New York City, and the Knowltons were descended of prominent French-Indian and Revolutionary War figures Lt. Daniel Knowlton (b.1738), and his brother, Colonel Thomas Knowlton (1740-1776). Thomas Knowlton fought at the battle of Bunker Hill, and fell in action at the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776, his death noted by General Washington as "the greatest loss."(3) This unit, "Knowlton's Rangers," which also included Nathan Hale, was formed as the country's first intelligence corps and is still honored in the Knowlton Award of the Military Intelligence Corps Association.
Mrs. Blair had a special admiration and affection for George Washington, a figure she regarded as the embodiment of the American ideals of democracy, freedom and order. She was deeply patriotic, and at this time in the midst of World War I, her desire to tell the American story influenced her collecting interests. In addition to Charles Willson Peale's magnificent portrait (lot 547), Mrs. Blair acquired likenesses of Washington in a variety of media-from paintings and prints to chalkware and textiles (see lots 548-551; fig. 10). Another thematic area of interest was New York. Just as she was particularly supportive of the City's institutions, she collected wares associated with or depicting New York, such as the views of City Hall seen in figs. 12, 13.
Aside from a few exceptions, such as the Charleston "French" chair in lot 533, Mrs. Blair's furniture collection was a comprehensive survey of high style forms made in New England and the Mid-Atlantic States from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries. Her 1943 inventory, which includes the month and year of purchase, allows for a study of the evolution of her taste. While examples of all styles were purchased throughout her collecting years, certain trends emerge. As she stated in her manuscript, she acquired European antiques exclusively from the time of her marriage in 1912 to 1916, when she started collecting American furniture. Interestingly, many of her earliest purchases of American-made furnishings were made of maple, such as the dressing table, Dunlap high chest and slat-back armchair in lots 518, 541 and 515, all of which were bought in 1918 and 1919. A recent convert to Americana, Mrs. Blair may have been particularly fond of its distinctive look during these years and such items would have been noticeably different from her earlier purchases. The early 1920s were the years in which she bought most of her outstanding examples of seventeenth century furniture, such as the "Brewster" great chair she later gave to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 11). At the same time, she started buying Chippendale forms made of mahogany, such as the Philadelphia high chest in lot 528, which she obtained in 1921. Though not all represented in this catalogue, her Chippendale furniture included the forms most desired in the 1920s and today's marketplace, such as Newport block-and-shell and Boston bombe pieces.(4) With the booming economy, the mid-1920s, were the years when she made some of her most important and expensive acquisitions. In 1925 and 1926, she bought the Queen Anne armchair in lot 522, the Taunton chest in lot 519 and the sideboard in lot 579, for which she paid the incredible sum of $17,000, the highest price she paid for any piece of furniture. The twenties were the hey day of her collecting years and by the 1930s, with a growing disillusionment of the marketplace, her purchases became more infrequent. As she wrote to Irving P. Lyon in 1933, "I have indeed kept my interest in old time furniture and furnishings but of recent years, much of the fun was taken from Collecting due to the terrific and absurd prices, and also the many trick methods employed and the many 'raw deals' that went on all about me."(5) Yet she continued to make important acquisitions, such as the turret-top table in lot 516, and she increasingly turned to furniture in the Federal and Classical styles, as seen in the card tables in lots 580 and 593 and the inlaid armchair in lot 576.
As indicated by her disdain for the English antiques world, Mrs. Blair was a rigorous collector who placed a premium on condition. While there were fewer outright fakes in the Americana marketplace, there were still pieces to be avoided. As she wrote: "The chief danger in those days was buying cripples-genuine enough pieces- with new legs- or feet- or drawers, or old tops and bases that did not belong together but fitted to match."(6) She was a meticulous record keeper, and in handwritten files, catalogued her collection to a standard comparable to today's museum publications. Most impressive are her notes on condition and, while she rejected items with significant restorations, lesser repairs and replacements were duly recorded. She was tenaciously accurate and did not shy away from what she perceived to be the truth, even when doing so might have made an item more valuable. For example, when Fiske Kimball, then Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, published a chair closely related to those in lot 535 and attributed it to Benjamin Randolph, she remarked, "I don't think his evidence is sufficient!"(7) Furthermore, once she had acquired a piece, she frequently sought more information on its history and among these files is considerable correspondence relating to provenance.
In addition to quality, the range and quantity of Mrs. Blair's collection was truly remarkable. While furniture appears to have been her primary interest, she acquired significant holdings of ceramics, glass, textiles, pewter, and ironwork as well as a wide range of ancillary objects, such as ship models (lot 587) and historic wallpapers. In addition to furnishing the living spaces (figs. 14, 15), some of the collection was displayed in museum-like settings in the attic rooms of Blairhame (see preceding essay by Morrison H. Heckscher, figs. 4-7). Even though she had already given away many objects, the best snapshot of the entire collection is evident in two inventory notebooks, which she compiled in 1943. One dedicated to furniture and the other to everything else, the notebooks record each item, where and when it was purchased, how much she paid, its current location and if noteworthy, condition and provenance information. By this time, she had closed up Blairhame, with much of the contents of the museum rooms placed on loan at the Metropolitan Museum and the rest of the furnishings stored in two large rooms in a newly built annex.
Throughout her life, Mrs. Blair promoted the awareness of American history and its artistic legacy, lending and donating items to several New York museums and seminal exhibitions. She was a key figure in Americana circles and was one of the seventeen sponsors who served as the vetting committee for the pioneering loan exhibition to benefit the Girl Scouts in 1929. With the death of Mr. Blair in 1939 and her removal to the cottage, she closed up Blairhame and started giving large discrete groupings of her collection to local institutions. As discussed by Morrison H. Heckscher in the preceding essay, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a significant beneficiary. Her husband had been a keen collector of Chinese ceramics and it is probably with his interests in mind that she gave the New-York Historical Society a selection of over 200 examples of historical Staffordshire in his memory in 1940 (fig. 12). Revealing the anxieties of the first years of World War II, she also offered the same society the large basements of Blairhame to store their treasures should the bombing reach New York.(8) In her last years, she moved into her apartment in New York City and passed away suddenly on November 17, 1951. With her death, she supplemented loans and donations given during her lifetime with bequests. As stated in her will, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she gave her furniture that was already on loan, to the New-York Historical Society, she gave additional ceramics, glass and textiles (fig. 10), to the Museum of the City of New York, she gave over 50 paintings and prints depicting New York (fig. 13) and to the Cooper Union, she gave a large quantity of lighting fixtures.(9) Her daughters received the rest of her estate and while they gave additional gifts in her memory and sold a part at auction in 1954, the remainder of her collection was passed down to her descendants.(10) Thus, the items offered in this catalogue represent a portion of a vast and impeccable collection put together by one of the greatest collectors of American antiques.
(1) Morrison H. Heckscher, "Natalie K. Blair's 'museum rooms' and the American Wing," The Magazine Antiques (January 2000), pp. 182-185.
(2) Undated manuscript, the Blair Collection Papers, p. 4.
(3) David McCullough, 1776 (New York, 2005), p. 219.
(4) For some of the high style Newport pieces collected by Mrs. Blair, see Joseph Downs, "The Furniture of Goddard and Townsend," The Magazine Antiques (December 1947), pp. 427-431.
(5) Letter, Mrs. J. Insley Blair to Irving P. Lyon, January 29, 1933. Lyon Family Papers, the Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library (Col. 62, Box 7).
(6) Undated manuscript, the Blair Collection Papers, p. 4.
(7) Fiske Kimball, "The Sources of the Philadelphia Chippendale, III. A Chair with the Label of Benjamin Randolph," The Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin, vol. XXIII, no. 117 (December-January, 1927-1928), pp. 15-19.
(8) Letters, R.W.G. Vail, Director of the New-York Historical Society, to Mrs. J. Insley Blair, June 23 and 28, 1942, New-York Historical Society Archives. Although two representatives visited Blairhame in 1942 and deemed it a suitable place for storage, the removal of property does not seem to have occurred.
(9) Will of Natalie K. Blair, July 6, 1950, the Blair Collection Papers.
(10) Some of her collection was sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York, American and English XVIII Century Furniture, November 19, 20, 1954. See also The New York Times, January 17, 1954, p. 96.