Four men and a Museum at Claverton, Bath

When BRLSI began planning its Perspectives on America series for this year it emerged that, by happy coincidence, 2011 was also the 50th anniversary of the founding of the American Museum in Britain at Bath. And by further happy coincidence newly-appointed BRLSI Trustee Dr Richard Wendorf, formerly Director of the Boston Athenaeum, was also the newly appointed Director of (no prizes for guessing) the American Museum. So it was as a representative of both institutions that Dr Wendorf spoke to a capacity Elwin Room audience on Four Men and a Fortune – the Making and Remaking of the American Museum.
The fortune, it turned out, was orginally that of Henry Huttleston Rogers, one of the partners in Standard Oil.  Inherited by his grand-daughter Beatrice (of whom the Museum has a very fine portrait), it then passed to her son Dallas Pratt, who one day met British designer and antiques dealer John Judkyn. The two formed a lifelong partnership, settled near Bath, and had the idea of a museum to ‘further the understanding of American culture and deepen and stengthen the lasting ties between two nations’. Premises were hard to find, so when Claverton Manor came up for sale they went for it, despite its being larger than they’d planned for, and the only museum of Americana outside the USA was born.
They gave themselves two and a half years to transform the house (which was in poor repair) into a series of rooms representing aspects of early American life, and began by recruiting the ‘third man’, Ian McCallum, as its first Director. An architect, he oversaw the conversion of the building, while also exercising his legendary party-giving skills, playing host to the actress Ethel Merman and the Queen Mother at Claverton Down. The fourth man was Nick Bell Knight, one of the finest furniture restorers in England, who’d worked extensively for Judkyn in his antiques business. He said he’d have preferred a ten-day week, but he got the Museum’s furniture imported, restored and installed by the deadline nevertheless, and the museum opened to the public on July 1st 1961.
The period room-based format of the Museum hasn’t changed since its inception, so a tour of today’s museum is also one of the founders’ work. Dr Wendorf showed slides of the rooms, starting with the 17th century New England ‘Keeping Room’, through 18th Century New Hampshire and Connecticut to fine crafts in Philadelphia, Shaker rooms in Maine and the Pennsylvanian ‘Dutch’ (actually a corruption of ‘Deutsch’). The Greek Revival room, set in New York, contains American furniture from 1820, the date of Claverton Manor’s construction, while the final display, the New Orleans bedroom, shows the giant ‘dinosaur’ bed with crumpled linen as if its occupants had just left.
Dr Wendorf then drew some gasps by announcing that he was going to ‘betray the entire intention of the museum’ – but quickly explained that by this he meant that he was going to show some of the collection’s 15,000 individual exhibits out of the context of a room tableau, as would be the case in a more conventional museum. These included a plate portraying George Washington as an angel, a fine portrait of General Sir Henry Clinton (who, we learned, did not have a good Revolutionary War), items in silver, pewter and glass, Delft flower ‘bricks’, the Museum’s famous quilts collection and its most famous single item, a three-legged Shaker candle stand once descibed as ‘the most perfect item of furniture ever made in the United States’.
The Museum is still growing, and Dr Wendorf showed photographs of the development of the stable block into an education centre with outdoor amphitheatre, as well as a clip from a new promotional video in which the faces of Americans from the Museum morph seamlessly (and rather beautifully) into each other. And in 2011 its special exhibition looks to the (relatively) recent past, with an exhibition of costumes and artifacts owned or worn by Marilyn Monroe – including, sadly but very personally, the prescription drugs container, in the name of “Mrs Arthur Miller”, found with her at her death. The legacy of the four men (and that Standard Oil fortune) is clearly flourishing at Claverton Manor.
• The American Museum in Britain is currently closed for its Winter break, but re-opens in mid-March. For information, visit www.americanmuseum.org. BRLSI’s Perspectives on America series continues until May 31st, with our next lecture this Thursday (3rd February) at 1pm, when Jane Rose of the American Museum will speak on The Elusive Joshua Johnson,  African-American Portrait Painter.

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