For ten years I have had the privilege of being invited to join small groups of American students of the decorative arts and architecture on their visits to English and Irish country houses. These have been organised by a great friend, J. Thomas Savage, who I first met when he was curator and director of museums for Historic Charleston Foundation and I was lecturing in that city in the 1990s.
Tom, as he is known to his very many friends, is a native of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. He received a bachelor’s degree in art history from the College of William and Mary, at Williamsburg, and a master’s in history museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York. He is the author of several books and many articles and he co-curated the exhibition “In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad, 1740-1860” at the Gibbes Museum of Art, in Charleston. He is a highly sought-after lecturer in the field of Southern decorative arts and architecture, frequently organising and leading study trips and tours across America, England, Ireland, and beyond.
From 1998 to 2005 Tom was senior vice-president and director of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, where he directed the Sotheby’s American Arts Course. He is a former board member of the Royal Oak Foundation, serves on the Decorative Arts Trust, and on the advisory board of Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation, and is also on the American Friends Committee for Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill. In addition, he served as a presidential appointee to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House from 1993 to 2002.
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
As director of museum affairs at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Tom oversees the collections, public programs, and marketing departments at this estate and museum in Winterthur, Delaware, in the United States. It houses one of the most important collections of Americana in the USA. The house was the former home of Henry Francis du Pont (1880–1969), member of Delaware’s industrialist du Pont family and a renowned antiques collector and horticulturist.
In the early 20th century, H. F. du Pont and his father, Henry Algernon du Pont, designed Winterthur in the spirit of 18th – and 19th -century European country houses. The younger du Pont added to the home many times, increasing its number of rooms nearly six times. After he established the main building as a public museum in 1951, he moved to a smaller building on the estate.
Initially a collector of European art and decorative arts in the late 1920s, H. F. du Pont became interested in American art and antiques. Subsequently, he became a highly prominent collector of American decorative arts, building on the Winterthur estate to house his collection, conservation laboratories, and administrative offices.
The museum has 175 period-room displays and approximately 85,000 objects. Most rooms are open to the public on small, guided tours. The collection spans more than two centuries of American decorative arts, notably from 1640 to 1860, and contains some of the most important pieces of American furniture and fine art. The Winterthur Library includes more than 87,000 volumes and approximately 500,000 manuscripts and images, mostly related to American history, decorative arts, and architecture. The facility also houses extensive conservation, research, and education facilities. The museum is also home to the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and the Winterthur/University of Delaware Art Conservation program.
The Henry Francis du Pont Collectors’ Circle was founded in 1984 by Museum donors with a keen interest in antiques and a commitment to preserving Winterthur’s reputation as the pre-eminent institution for the study of American decorative arts. Members’ gifts support the acquisitions that allow the collection to continue to grow as well as the scholarly pursuits that distinguish the Museum’s world-renowned curatorial staff.
Tour of English Country Houses
As you may have gathered from the lead-in, Tom Savage organises study trips for the H.F. du Pont Collectors’ Circle and his most recent trip took in a number of country houses in the Midlands and the North of England. Unable to attend the full nine days I joined his group on day five in York and had an action-packed and most stimulating time.
One of the main features of Tom’s tours is the special access that his huge knowledge and wide range of friends brings. Many are to houses that are not open to the public or to the seldom-seen areas of other well-known ones. The visits are often led by the owners themselves, curators or specialists and the group is given a chance to chat at length about the house or the objects within the collection. Invariably coffee, tea or a slap-up lunch are provided and dinners are frequently held in the most memorable of surroundings – Holkham Hall in the Summer of 2011 is one that immediately comes to mind.
The groups tend to comprise collectors, board members of American institutions or museums and the occasional English expert on one or other aspect of the decorative arts. The atmosphere is always jolly and the long time together gives everyone a chance to bond and to discuss what they have seen and to learn more. How exciting it was to be able to sit on the coach with one of the foremost American collectors of Chinese armorial porcelain having just looked at a number of fine examples in one house. At least once during each tour there will be an evening lecture and on this occasion Dr Adam Bowett spoke to us about his recent research into the work of the Royal cabinet-maker Gerrit Jensen. Even I, with scant previous knowledge, now feel confident of picking up some of the clues.
It would not be unkind to say that Tom likes his creature comforts and he ensures that the accommodation for his groups is always first class. Country houses; small boutique hotels and Grade II* Georgian town house hotels have hosted his tours. From experience I can say that to open ones curtains in the Chinese Room at Castle Ashby and to watch the morning mist clear is a memory that will stay with me. This might only be matched by watching the drawbridge being lowered at 7am at a moated Suffolk house as I waited to go for an early morning swim.
The parapet of stone lettering around the top of the house is dated 1624, and its Latin inscription runs as follows:
NISI DOMINUS CUSTOS CUSTODIVERIT DOMUM FRUSTRA VIGILAT QUI CUSTODIT EAM: NISI DOMINUS AEDIFICAVERIT DOMUM IN VANUM LABORAVERUNT QUI AEDIFICANT EAM
The words are based on the 127th psalm, ‘Except the Lord build the house they labour but in vain they who build it; except the Lord keep the house the watchman waketh but in vain.’
For a much longer article on Tom Savage’s tours see the Wall Street Journal