A Medievalist in the Archives: Exploring Twentieth-Century Medievalism at Glencairn

Glencairn Museum News | Number 1, 2019

Portion of an elevation drawing for the west wall of Glencairn's Great Hall, dated July 30, 1931 (revised Dec 30, 1931). Note how Raymond Pitcairn's collection of medieval sculpture was designed to be part of the fabric of the building from the very beginning.

Figure 1: Glencairn Museum, former home of Mildred and Raymond Pitcairn, 1928–39, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Photo: Glencairn Museum.

Figure 2: Aerial view, Hammond Castle, 1926–29, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo: Philip Greenspun, 2006 (http://philip .greenspun.com/copyright/).

Figure 3: Medieval stained-glass window installation and mosaic arch, Great Hall, Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jennifer Borland.

The Great Hall of Glencairn comprises a seemingly infinite array of objects and materials (Figure 3). About fifty medieval artworks, grouped into conglomerations, are embedded into the walls or placed in specific positions for display. Additional medieval capitals rest atop bookshelves, and sculptures sit on the balcony railing (Figure 4). An abundance of stained glass is incorporated into the walls, including fragments of medieval glass purchased by Pitcairn, modern replicas created by the artists working for him, and all-new window designs created specifically for Glencairn. In addition, throughout the large hall are medieval-inspired elements that are not replicas but channel the medieval through an Arts and Crafts aesthetic: the huge mosaic arch; numerous carved stone columns and capitals; and hand-hewn wood elements such as bookshelves, doors, and furniture, often painted with medieval designs (Figure 5). The highlight of this handmade medievalesque decoration is the high ceiling, the beams of which are encrusted with dazzling glass mosaics that enlarge the famously complex interlace patterns of the early medieval Book of Kells (Figure 6). At Glencairn, past and present collide in the juxtaposition of imaginative medievalist style and “authentic” medieval things.

 

Figure 4: Great Hall, 1928–39, Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jennifer Borland.

 

The Gesta article was the culmination of several years of research we conducted on Glencairn and Hammond Castle. Most of my research on Glencairn was spent exploring object records and letters in the archives. I was primarily focused on the Great Hall; I wanted to understand better how it was designed, and what role the medieval objects played in that planning. That research pushed me into several areas I had not previously explored: American medievalism, specifically as it is manifest in early twentieth-century architecture; the history of collecting objects and artifacts from the European Middle Ages in the United States; the practices and networks of various art dealers, including Joseph Brummer, Henri Daguerre, Georges and Lucien Demotte, and René Gimpel; and American industrialism and its relationship to both philanthropy and imperialism.

Figure 5: Detail of bookshelves, Great Hall, 1928–39, Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jennifer Borland.

Figure 6: Ceiling mosaic, Great Hall, 1928–39, Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Photo: Glencairn Museum.

“Medievalism,” can be generally defined as “the ongoing process of recreating, reinventing, and reenacting medieval culture in post-medieval times,”2 and both Glencairn and Hammond Castle are intriguing examples of this phenomenon (as is Bryn Athyn Cathedral, of course). In fact, medievalism was extremely prevalent in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century North America, evident through trends like the popularity of Arthuriana, anti-industrialization and the craftsmanship ethics of the Arts and Crafts movement, building of medieval-style cathedrals such as St. John the Divine in New York (begun 1892) and the Washington National Cathedral (begun 1906), as well as the collecting and display of medieval art.3

 

Figure 7: Bryn Athyn Cathedral from the north, 1913–28, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jennifer Borland.

 

Medievalist projects like Glencairn and Hammond Castle have often been criticized for their disregard of historical identification as kitschy or, worse, intentionally dishonest. But we believe that these two buildings provide a heightened experience of historicized space; they preserve cultural memories at the same time as they construct new ones, creating multiple, interwoven types of authenticities. The Great Hall at Glencairn is a particularly fascinating example because of the deeply integrated nature of Pitcairn’s medieval art collection into the fabric of this fantastically medievalist structure.

My research contrasts with the way most art historians of medieval art have worked with objects at Glencairn in the past. Numerous scholars have come to study and write about the marvelous works of art in the collection, especially after the house became a museum open to the public in 1982. Indeed, the collection is spectacular! If you are a scholar of medieval sculpture, or architecture elements like capitals, or stained glass, the collection is a remarkable one—and it remains a collection that a lot of medieval scholars are not especially familiar with (Figure 8).

Figure 8: The apse in Glencairn’s Medieval Gallery. Photo: Glencairn Museum.

But what drew me to Glencairn and its collection was somewhat different. I first came to the museum nearly a decade ago as a teacher, bringing my students to the museum and Bryn Athyn Cathedral to explore the collection as well as to think about the medieval experiences of spaces. While the Cathedral’s value in facilitating our imaginations regarding how people engaged with medieval religious spaces was somewhat straightforward, Glencairn Museum, and especially the Great Hall, was an intriguing, if somewhat baffling space—it defied our attempts to understand it. What, exactly, were we seeing here? How, as historians, were we to understand “the medieval” that was presented here? 

 

Figure 9: Queen statue-column conglomeration, Great Hall, Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Photo: Glencairn Museum.

 

Several years passed, but I kept thinking about the building, in terms of how it reinvents the past and creates a new home for the objects through new juxtapositions (Figure 9). When objects from multiple times and places are arranged together in new conglomerations, how do we begin to see them differently? How does the integration of multiple pasts change the way we understand medieval visual culture? What role does this kind of early twentieth-century collecting and display have in how we think about the Middle Ages today? Over the years, I revisited the Great Hall numerous times, to sit with the groupings, think about the juxtapositions and the experience of being in that space, and take photographs. But the real surprise that drove my work came from discoveries downstairs, deep in the basement where the archives reside.

Art historians and other scholars who work on the Middle Ages are used to working with limited archival material. The buildings and sculptures we study rarely have architectural plans or other documents illuminating the planning stages; objects exist in museum collections or church treasuries without clear provenance; libraries that hold medieval books rarely have additional documents to explain those manuscripts. There are certainly archives that hold significant documents across Europe and the globe, but their frequency and comprehensiveness is quite spotty in comparison to the documentary evidence of more recent historical periods. In other words, we are used to making educated guesses, hypothesizing based on what information we do have, and using the object itself (its design, materials, location, scale, visual relationship to other surviving works, function, cultural context) to support our arguments.

As a result, I was somewhat unprepared for the volume of resources available in the Glencairn archives (Figures 10-11). After numerous visits over several years, I feel as though I have only scratched the surface of these resources. There are decades of letters to and from Raymond Pitcairn, thousands of pieces of correspondence that include New Church activities, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company business, notes to friends, political activities, exchanges with Philadelphia area museums and arts organizations, order requests (and complaints) to and from vendors of materials needed for the house, and solicitations from numerous antiquities dealers. 

Figure 10: The Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn papers in the Glencairn Museum Archives. Photo: Glencairn Museum.

Figure 11: Blueprints for Glencairn in the Glencairn Museum Archives. Photo: Glencairn Museum.

What was I looking for? What questions did I hope to have answered by looking at the archives? I wasn’t entirely sure, but here are some of the things I was thinking about. What went into Pitcairn’s decisions for the house, and especially, for the organization in the Great Hall? Did he have all the works in mind from the start? How did he come up with the organization, and was there a deliberative process? What was he thinking about as he made those decisions? I was also curious about his collecting practices. He collected first ostensibly to aid in the design of the Cathedral, but then he kept collecting after that building was completed. How was the house different from the Cathedral, in terms of its relationship to the medieval art collection?

There is A LOT of material in the Glencairn Archives. I have not seen it all. I may never see it all. But I did go through hundreds of letters and files, some of which were extremely relevant to the questions I was asking.

One of the things that I wanted to understand better was Pitcairn’s relationships with museums, dealers, artists, and scholarly experts like Harvard professor Arthur Kingsley Porter. I wanted to know what kind of collector he was, and how he fits in with other collectors of the period. Indeed, on a bigger scale, Martha and I began to realize that collectively, these collectors really were responsible for the medieval artworks that reside in the U.S. today, determining the trajectory of art history as a discipline. We gained insights into the period in which these collections were established, and the Glencairn archives provide a window into that historical moment.

Raymond Pitcairn was definitely part of a powerful group of collectors active at that time, all of whom worked with many of the same dealers. He seems to have promoted a reputation for being secretive and unusually discerning in his collecting practices, and espoused an attitude of suspicion towards dealers in general. But in fact, there is extensive correspondence between Pitcairn and numerous dealers over decades, dealers who were also working with most of the other major collectors of medieval art at the time.

Sometimes the letters offered compelling reinforcement of this fact. A March 1922 letter from the dealer Joseph Brummer discusses the availability of an arch (or arches) from a fourteenth-century cloister, and included a photo (Figure 12). I thought the arches looked familiar, and sure enough, after doing a comparison with Martha, my co-author, it was clear that a fragment of the same cloister was eventually purchased by Hammond, going on to become one of the most photographed elements at Hammond Castle (Figure 13).4 It was a thrill to make this connection, this anecdote supporting the idea that all of these collectors were tapping a similar pool of objects imported by the same group of art dealers.

Figure 12: Front and back of photograph in Glencairn Museum Archives sent in March 1922 to Raymond Pitcairn from the dealer Joseph Brummer. The arches, from a fourteenth-century cloister, were later sold to John Hays Hammond, Jr. (See Figure 13.)

 

Figure 13: Arches from a fourteenth-century cloister purchased by John Hays Hammond, Jr. from the dealer Joseph Brummer, now at Hammond Castle. (See Figure 12.) Photo: Martha Easton.

 

Other documents provided a window into the nature of his collecting of medieval art over the years, reflecting his shrewd but also eclectic collecting personality. Ambitious in some respects and modest in others, Pitcairn did not presume to compete with collectors like William Randolph Hearst or Rockefeller or Morgan. That said, his ambition is reflected, for instance, in the concerted effort he made to obtain a particularly well-known sculpture, even though he ultimately failed. Pitcairn attempted for several years (1923–1925) to negotiate the purchase of the sculpture of Eve from the cathedral of Saint-Lazare in Autun, now in that city’s Musée Rolin (Figure 14). 5 Had this sculpture moved across the Atlantic, how would its important role in the history of art have changed?

Figure 14: Sculpture of Eve from the cathedral of Saint-Lazare in Autun. Photo: Cancre, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Some letters were less obviously relevant to my research questions, but fascinating nonetheless. In September of 1932, Raymond turned down an opportunity to have dinner with Amelia Earhart. Always the businessman, he was an incredibly involved advocate in the later 1920s and early 1930s for the repeal of the 18th Amendment (which enacted Prohibition), sending money to the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. His position supported breweries as businesses, advocating that honest, hard-working business owners should be making money instead of crooks breaking the law. It was also interesting to find him such a firm critic of the New Deal, and specifically the raised taxes used to support all of the new programs. During the mid-1930s he was the national chairman of the Sentinels of the Republic, leading a national petition against certain tax laws and communicating with a wide range of public officials and other prominent business leaders.6

In this sense, he seems to have been a firm proponent of the philosophy expressed by the capitalist Andrew Carnegie in his 1889 essay “Gospel of Wealth,” which argued that a philanthropist is the person most qualified to manage his assets, and that wealth disparity was essential for progress.7 These topics, alongside so many others, together helped provide a picture of the man who built this house, and how his business acumen, social position, political clout, and collecting passion all contributed to his approach to the house and the objects it contained.

Indeed, even seemingly irrelevant documents gave me insight into Raymond’s way of thinking about all of his big projects, including the house and his extremely meticulous approach to every aspect of Glencairn. There are numerous letters back and forth with the various companies providing materials for the home, including mortar, concrete, lighting, stone, bronze, rare woods, roof tiles, bathroom fixtures, window glass, and mosaic glass. The negotiations for the blue ceramic tiles that are on the interior ceiling of the Great Hall provide an interesting example (Figure 6). The exchange with the R. Guastavino Co. begins in 1933 and lasts for several years. By March 1936 Pitcairn is discussing the details of the plan and his concerns about acoustics; eventually he begins looking at samples. Over the course of that year he selects colors, sends back those he dislikes, and orders new examples. There are a lot of letters going back and forth on these tiles. In the end, he wanted a variety of shades of blue, settling on nine specific shades. Raymond finally orders 10,000 blue tiles for the ceiling, at 11.5 cents a tile in December 1936. Apparently, the installation was complete by September 1937, when Raymond writes that even with scaffolding still in place, “We can see enough, however, to know that the ceiling is an unqualified success.”8 His high level of persistence would eventually get the result he wanted.

Pitcairn paid this same kind of exacting attention to every single detail of the house, meticulous and unrelenting in his determination to achieve the vision he had for the home. This mentality carried over into his medieval art collecting, and to the planning and installation of those objects in the Great Hall. No part of Glencairn happened just by chance.

All of this archival research generated insights that helped support the arguments Martha and I made in our article. The reinvention that happens in simulated spaces like Glencairn and Hammond Castle masks the source or date of individual components, emphasizing instead the overall impact of the medievalist whole. Indeed, in the Great Hall at Glencairn, some of the works are medieval; some have been doubted or proved otherwise; and some elements were never intended to be medieval but are intentionally fabricated. But when you are in the space, experiencing all of these pieces together, it can be hard to parse out their differences. The space reframes each work, leading us to see such spaces as actively creating a new life for old objects amidst the new. Instead of viewing these revivalist buildings on a scale sliding between authentic and anachronistic, with the collections inside fighting to assert their legitimacy as “real” objects, our aim was to explore how these particular re-presentations alter or destabilize the meaning of the medieval objects. Glencairn and Hammond Castle present deeply evocative spaces that construct collective memories of a manufactured history and make new meanings for the medieval.

 

Figure 15: St. Paul conglomeration, Great Hall, Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Photo: Glencairn Museum.

 

At Glencairn, Pitcairn brought objects from different times and placed them together to create remarkable juxtapositions. In one of these conglomerations of fragments, a thirteenth-century (or perhaps nineteenth-century) French statue of St. Paul is placed at the center, standing on a twelfth-century capital from France. Above this, set into the wall, is an eleventh-century tympanum thought to be from Italy. To the right is a twelfth-century capital, and to the left is a polychrome wooden Virgin and Child, poised atop a capital, column, and base attributed to a twelfth-century cloister in the French Pyrenees. Above St. Paul are installed several twelfth- century heads from France and an Italian relief (Figure 15). These objects are not just displayed alongside each other but have been reconfigured with a bold assertion that this is how they should be, and will be, seen now. At some point, it becomes difficult to imagine these fragments in any other installation. The complex network of objects created in these groupings constructs new relationships among previously disparate pieces. The aesthetic logic of the arrangements made at Glencairn presents us with an entirely new, thoroughly modern, and fully engaging experience of these fragments in dialogue with one another and with the building as a whole.

And the archival work is not done! There are always questions that remain. In my future visits to the archive, I look forward to spending more time on recreating the timeline of the building’s construction, and striving to gain a better picture of how the Great Hall was designed and conceptualized. In the meantime, Glencairn will continue to surprise and confuse visitors, providing an experience of the medieval that simultaneously generates both the authentic and the reconstructed past.

Jennifer Borland, Ph.D.
Associate Professor in Art History
Oklahoma State University

Endnotes

1 Jennifer Borland and Martha Easton, “Integrated Pasts: Glencairn Museum and Hammond Castle,” Gesta 57.1 (April 2018): 95-118. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/695775

2 Elizabeth Emery and Richard Utz, “Making Medievalism: A Critical Review,” in Medievalism: Key Critical Terms, ed. Emery and Utz (Cambridge: Brewer, 2014), 1–10, at 2. The authors attribute this notion of medievalism to Leslie J. Workman, the scholar who founded the journal Studies in Medievalism in 1979.

3 For more on the collecting of medieval art in the United States, see Elizabeth Bradford Smith, ed., Medieval Art in America: Patterns of Collecting, 1800–1940 (University Park: Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, 1996); Virginia Brilliant, Gothic Art in the Gilded Age: Medieval and Renaissance Treasures in the Gavet-Vanderbilt-Ringling Collection (Sarasota, FL: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 2009); and the essays in “Gothic Art in America,” ed. Virginia Brilliant, special issue, Journal of the History of Collections 27, no. 3 (2015).

4 Céline Brugeat has identified the Hammond Castle fragment as from a thirteenth-century Franciscan monastery, Couvent des Cordeliers at Auch (Gers); see Brugeat, “Le “cloître de Montréjeau”, un ensemble pyrénéen remonté aux Bahamas,” Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa XLIV (2013), 183-194. It was even recently featured in a Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot with the actress Saoirse Ronan: https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/fashion/a25642449/saoirse-ronan-february-issue/?fbclid=IwAR1CLQAF8MI1tDq6kmshcWt0VqMvOKg78_KhvdF_kt2jTilHvOP6AQcI9MI

5 Years later he would still be talking about it: “One of the most beautiful pieces of 12th century sculpture is the bas relief of Adam and Eve which this old priest located in a house near the cathedral. I endeavored to purchase this bas relief without success.” Raymond Pitcairn to Prof. R. W. Brown, 13 June 1928, Glencairn Museum Archives.

6 E.g., in a letter to E. Donald Robb written in 1938, Pitcairn explains that, “In spite of taxes and other difficulties which, from a practical and economic standpoint, make my house-building project seem a colossal blunder and the creation of a burden for which my family may have scant reason to thank me in the future, the work has progressed and from a creative and architectural stand-point I get considerable satisfaction out of it. Besides this there is the fact that it has provided employment for many people who were interested in doing a type of work which, in any other but a New Deal age, might be considered as worth-while and constructive.” Raymond Pitcairn to E. Donald Robb, 21 March 1938, Glencairn Museum Archives.

7 Kathleen Davis, “Tycoon Medievalism, Corporate Philanthropy, and American Pedagogy,” 781–800, and Sharon Irish, “Whither Tycoon Medievalism: A Response to Kathleen Davis,” 801–5, both in “Middle America,” special issue, American Literary History 22, no. 4 (2010).

8 Raymond Pitcairn to R. Guastavino Co., 27 September 1937, Glencairn Museum Archives.

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