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Saturday, December 16, 2017

From Hamblen to Hollywood, Britain Eyes America

Claverton Manor, home of the American Museum in Britain. Courtesy The American Museum in Britain. Claverton Manor, home of the American Museum in Britain. Courtesy The American Museum in Britain.

BATH, UK – America, as it looks from the other side of the pond, is examined in contrasting exhibitions celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American Museum in Britain in Bath this year. The results may surprise you.
 
Monroe Mania
With the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death approaching in 2012, tributes are rolling in. “Marilyn – Hollywood Icon,” on view through October 30, satisfies public curiosity about the doomed diva while making a compelling argument for cinema as America’s greatest 20th century art form. The show has been a massive hit with visitors.
 
“Devotees are coming in great droves,” acknowledges the museum’s curator, Laura Beresford, who organized the display that showcases film costumes and personal gowns assembled by the Channel Islands collector David Gainsborough Roberts. The show includes two of Monroe’s hottest numbers, the “wiggle” dress that established her blonde-bombshell reputation in Niagara in 1952 and the red-sequined gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes of 1953.  A brass figure of a dancer, a rare keepsake from M.M.’s orphanage days, joins original photographs and posters in the display.
 
“The girl who extolled the virtues of diamonds died $400,000 in debt.  She owned very little. Most of her money was spent on a great circle of hangers on,” laments the curator.
 
Fabulous Folk Art
Monroe memorabilia contrasts with the folk art that is at the heart of the American Museum in Britain’s 15,000 object collection, the finest of its kind outside the United States. Most of it was acquired in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the museum’s founders, Dallas Pratt (1914-1994), an American psychiatrist and heir to a Standard Oil fortune, and John Judkyn (1913-1963), an English antiques dealer who became an American citizen.  The partners established the museum with the goal of improving Anglo-American relations and heightening awareness of American folk art, not well understood outside of the United States.
 
“Here in Britain, the emphasis has been on the folk, not on the art. We have contextualized these pieces in a gallery setting,” Beresford says of the museum’s new Folk Art Gallery, installed in a recently renovated neoclassical picture gallery. In “Fab@50,” on view through October 30, fifty folk-art treasures, some rarely shown, are scattered throughout the period rooms at Claverton Manor, the Grade II stately house that is home to the American Museum in Britain.
 
Known for brokering the Gunn Collection to the New York State Historical Association, Southport, Ct., dealer Mary Allis advised Judkyn and Pratt on the their purchases for Claverton Manor. When Judkyn died in a road accident in France in 1963, Allis presented the museum with a penetrating portrait by the deaf-mute itinerant, John Brewster, Jr.  Folk sculpture, including cigar store Indians and a ship’s figurehead, came from Helena Penrose, a Tarrytown, N.Y., dealer who supplied Henry F. DuPont, among others.
 
Museum highlights include a gilded copper Indian weathervane much like the one that New York collector Jerry Lauren bought for $5.8 million in 2006 and a Susan’s Tooth. Among the first pieces of American scrimshaw to be studied, Susan’s teeth, engraved by Frederick Myrick aboard the Susan of Nantucket in 1828 and 1829, enjoy iconic status among collectors. In August 2010, Cape Cod dealers Alan Granby and Janice Hyland paid $200,600, a record at auction, for one at Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, N.H.

The itinerant painter Sturtevant J. Hamblen (1817-1844) is represented by the oil on canvas portrait of Emma Thompson. “He tried so hard but ended up selling gentlemen’s trousers,” the curator says of her favorite artist.
 
Written by Laura Beresford, Folk Art from the American Museum in Britain is an informative and lushly illustrated guide to the museum’s enviable holdings. It joins Classic Quilts: The American Museum in Britain, also by Beresford.
 
Judkyn, Pratt and their milieu will come into sharper focus later this year with the publication of A Kind of Archaeology:  Collecting American Folk Art, 1876-1976 by Elizabeth Stillinger.  A companion to her well-thumbed reference, The Antiquers, this exhaustive new volume from University of Massachusetts Press studies folk art’s most ardent enthusiasts, from the pioneers Henry C. Mercer and Edwin AtLee Barber to Jean Lipman and Mary Allis.

Write to Laura Beach at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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