Glencairn Museum News | Number 7, 2019
Long before Glencairn ever became a museum, the Pitcairn family’s rich collection of medieval art—by all accounts one of the greatest in America—had fascinated scholars of art history. Curators at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cloisters, The Met’s satellite location devoted to medieval art in upper Manhattan, took a special interest in Glencairn. Beyond their great respect for the high quality of the Pitcairn collection overall, these specialists also recognized that many of the medieval objects at Glencairn were related to works in the Met/Cloisters collection. Later, the Met staff’s long-held respect for the Pitcairn collection would culminate in the staging of a major exhibition of select objects, Radiance and Reflection: Medieval Art from the Raymond Pitcairn Collection, at The Met in 1982. At around that same time, curators from The Met would also help Glencairn to become a museum. Before the official collaborations of the 1980s, however, there were informal afternoon visits like the one on November 11, 1965 (complete with a convivial luncheon, of course!), which turn out to have marked the early days of a strong and enduring relationship between Bryn Athyn and New York.
James Rorimer came down from New York to Bryn Athyn for the afternoon accompanied by several members of Cloisters staff, including executive assistant Thomas P. Miller, who organized the trip, Rorimer’s personal assistant Harry Parker III, Cloisters lecturer Bonnie Young, and curators William H. Forsyth, Carmen Gómez-Moreno, and Thomas Hoving (another future Met director). Several Pitcairn family members and friends were also present. The tape recording of the house tour, however, almost exclusively captures the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Pitcairn and James Rorimer, making it clear that Rorimer was the guest of honor (see lead photo).
The visit of such an illustrious guest must have been a matter of great excitement for the Pitcairn family. In addition to being one of the most influential figures of the museum world, the Met director was an expert on both medieval art and the preservation of cultural heritage. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1905, James Rorimer became passionate about the arts from his youthful travels in Europe. After studying art history at Harvard, he soon found himself rising through the curatorial ranks at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. When The Cloisters opened to the public in 1938, he was appointed Curator of Medieval Art there. Rorimer’s early career was interrupted, however, by World War II. During the war, Rorimer became one of the Monuments Men, a group of arts professionals who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (in the 2014 film The Monuments Men, actor Matt Damon played a character based on James Rorimer). The Monuments Men dedicated themselves to locating, recovering, and preserving works of art and architecture that had been looted or damaged during the war. Rorimer was stationed in western Europe, where he first contributed to the rehabilitation of Parisian art collections after the liberation of the city in 1944. Later, he helped to recover troves of art secreted away in Germany by the Nazis, building on the intelligence work of the heroic French curator and spy Rose Valland. As a Monuments Man, Rorimer was instrumental in the recovery of thousands of Nazi-confiscated works of art. For his achievements, he received the Bronze Star, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, the French Legion of Honor, and the Cross of the Commander of the Order of Denmark. When he returned to civilian life, he continued to work at The Cloisters, serving as its director starting in 1949. In 1955, he became the director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and served in this role until his death in 1966. Rorimer’s tenure at The Met made a significant impact. At The Cloisters alone, he transformed gallery space through the transfer of the massive Romanesque apse of San Martín de Fuentidueña, a long-term loan negotiated with the Spanish government. He also enriched the collection through other major acquisitions such as the beloved Mérode Altarpiece (Figure 2).
It was thus a highly decorated, well traveled, and dynamic visitor that the Pitcairns received at Glencairn in November 1965. Yet it was not Mr. Pitcairn’s first time meeting the Met director. In fact, the two men had met first at Harvard, when James Rorimer was still a student and Raymond Pitcairn had given a lecture to the art students about the construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral (Figure 3). The event had been organized by Arthur Kingsley Porter, the renowned medieval art historian famous for his groundbreaking work on the Romanesque art and architecture of France and Spain. Mr. Pitcairn would later write to Rorimer that remembering this initial meeting “recalled a joyful, most happy period of architectural activity” in his life. The two men seem to have maintained a cordial acquaintance since then, though 1965 marked the first time that Rorimer visited Glencairn and the first time that he explored the Pitcairn collection with its owners.
Given Rorimer’s reputation by this late point in his career, one can imagine how eager the Pitcairns were to hear his thoughts on the collection. Mr. Pitcairn asked his art-historical opinion on a number of the works that they looked at. The two traded ideas about objects, offering thoughts on the dates and places of origin of many. This is particularly significant given that in his written invitation to Rorimer and his staff, Mr. Pitcairn revealed that he was interested in the visitors’ opinions on his collection because he hoped to publish a book on Glencairn. Unfortunately, Mr. Pitcairn never published such a volume—he, like Rorimer, would pass the following year. Nonetheless, his intention to do so makes clear the seriousness of his collecting pursuits. It also reveals the extent to which he saw his collection as worthy of scholarly interest, to say nothing of his dedication to sharing its works with the world. (Pitcairn’s nephew, E. Bruce Glenn, published Glencairn: The Story of a Home in 1990, a book he had begun working on with Pitcairn in the 1960s.)
For her part, Mrs. Pitcairn was clearly curious about conservation and restoration: she asked Rorimer how frescoes—wall paintings executed on plaster, intended to adhere directly to walls in perpetuity—may be removed from their original locations. Rorimer explained this process, which was frequently carried out during the early twentieth century in order to bring mural paintings from medieval churches into museums. This led the two men to compare their experiences of seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, sharing their opinions on the state of preservation of this very fragile and highly restored mural.
The tour of the collection also prompted a number of opportunities for Mr. Pitcairn and Mr. Rorimer to share observations and reminiscences about the many art dealers and collectors that they had worked with in the United States and Europe. They had several common acquaintances in such well known men of the art world as Georges Demotte, Joseph Duveen, Dikran Kelekian, Hagop Kevorkian, and Grosvenor Thomas. While they seem to have respected most of the dealers they worked with, the conversation was also an opportunity to compare notes on the dishonesty of certain (unnamed) “rascals” and reflect upon the need for good bargaining skills when purchasing works of fine art. Rorimer felt that these skills were lost on the younger generation of buyers!
One significant point that emerges from their conversation, unrecognized by many of today’s museumgoers, is the fact that during the first decades of the twentieth century, many works of art changed hands more than once before ending up in permanent collections. For example, Mr. Pitcairn missed an initial opportunity to buy a pair of medieval bells that he had admired from the dealer Dikran Kelekian, who sold them to William Randolph Hearst. However, Mr. Pitcairn was able to purchase them later, in 1938, when part of Hearst’s legendary art collection went up for sale in New York City. (Though the bells were not initially part of the sale, Mr. Pitcairn made inquiries, and Mrs. Pitcairn was able to buy them for her husband as a birthday present.) Other objects discussed during the tour highlight the often close connections between the Pitcairn and Met/Cloisters collections. At one point, Mr. Pitcairn mentioned a sculpture of his that had once been in the possession of George Grey Barnard, the American sculptor and collector whose massive trove of medieval art and architectural fragments formed the basis of The Cloisters’ collection—though Pitcairn himself bought the sculpture from another dealer who had it after Barnard. At another point, Mr. Pitcairn pointed out a medieval stained-glass panel in his collection depicting Christ, remarking that it “may have been on exhibit at the Metropolitan” (presumably lent to the museum by another private collector) before ending up in the Pitcairn collection.
Another aspect that comes to light during the recorded conversation is the evolving nature of Mr. Pitcairn’s reputation over the course of his career as a collector. In showing his visitor the stained-glass panel of a king in Glencairn’s Upper Hall (Figure 5, originally from the Cathedral of Soissons, dated 1210-15), he reflected that his furious bidding for this object during the 1921 sale of the Henry C. Lawrence collection helped cement his status as a serious collector of stained glass. Before this moment, dealers evidently viewed Mr. Pitcairn’s interest in medieval glass as a passing fancy—how wrong they were! Though he claimed to have paid an “unconscionable price” for the king, he did not regret the purchase—not only because it was a magnificent work, but also because it caused art dealers to pay more attention to him, offering more glass panels as they came on the market. His comments to Rorimer reveal the long-term relationships that collectors and art dealers often form.
Unsurprisingly, the tour on that November afternoon did not focus exclusively on the medieval art collection. Throughout the visit, Mr. Pitcairn proudly described features of his home’s design, praising the quality of the teak beams used in its construction, explaining the challenges of ventilating the Great Hall fireplace, and pointing out that the Book of Kells, a ninth-century Irish Gospel book decorated with complex interlace patterns, had provided the inspiration for some of the carvings of the wooden furniture (Figure 6). He also explained how the complex symbolism of the home’s décor represented the Pitcairns’ firmly-held values—for example, the many rams, ewes, and lambs signifying family found throughout the house. Mr. Rorimer’s enthusiasm for Glencairn’s design and decoration became clear early on in the conversation, when he revealed that he had brought his binoculars along. This is certainly the mark of a highly experienced art historian who has tried to glimpse the far-off architectural details of many a tall Gothic cathedral!
As they found themselves looking high up to the house’s rafters, Mr. Pitcairn also took the opportunity to talk about Glencairn’s stained glass, both medieval and modern. Aware that his visitor, of all people, would appreciate that Bryn Athyn stained glass was created following medieval glassmaking methods, Mr. Pitcairn asserted more than once during the visit that in their quest to recreate these methods, he and local glassmakers “went back to Josephus.” In this, he referred to the ancient historian whose famous work De Bello Judaico (On the Jewish War, 75-79 AD) features a surprising digression from descriptions of battles to tell of the sand used in Syrian glassmaking. In praising the Bryn Athyn glassmakers’ skills in recreating the forms and colors of medieval stained glass, Mr. Pitcairn related that he had made a copy of a panel that had belonged previously to the collector Grosvenor Thomas. When Thomas later visited Bryn Athyn, Mr. Pitcairn had the copy and the original placed side by side, urging his visitor to identify the original. Apparently, Thomas “was afraid to guess which one it was,” affirming the convincingly medieval appearance of Bryn Athyn stained glass.
Mr. Pitcairn related a number of other amusing anecdotes, such as recounting his neighbors’ puzzlement upon first noticing that the upper portion of the tower roof could be mechanically raised. He also told about the laying out of the Great Hall ceiling mosaic (Figure 7) when the house was under construction. A cardboard mock-up of a portion of the mosaic featuring a quotation from Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had been placed on the floor, though a crucial section of the quotation was missing. His sister-in-law Clara, seeing the mock-up, read “think nothing but evil of the neighbor.” Mr. Pitcairn quipped that “Clara turned around and said, ‘What’s Pitcairn coming to?’” (The complete quotation, now enshrined in mosaic, reads, “Those who are in no charity think nothing but evil of the neighbor and say nothing but evil”; the matching quotation reads, “Those who are in charity think only good of their neighbor and speak only well of him.”)
While on the subject of the house’s construction and decoration, towards the end of the visit Mildred Glenn Pitcairn asked Rorimer if he had ever seen a teak tree growing in its natural habitat, stating somewhat disappointedly, “I’ve asked everyone who comes here if they have seen a teak tree. No one ever has.” Rorimer, however, reported (presumably to Mrs. Pitcairn’s great satisfaction) that he once saw teak trees growing in South America. It is clear that the family held deep respect for their visitor’s breadth of experience.
It is easy to imagine that Rorimer’s admiration for Glencairn’s architecture and its decoration stemmed from his career-long affiliation with The Cloisters. The concept behind the museum’s design, directly inspired by medieval architecture, is very similar to that of Glencairn, and it is perhaps significant that both places were built at around the same time (The Pitcairns moved into Glencairn in 1939, a year after The Cloisters’ opening). Even though their builders chose to interpret the architecture of the Middle Ages rather differently, it is notable that both Glencairn and The Cloisters integrate actual medieval architectural fragments and stained glass windows into their modern architectural fabric (Figure 4). Explaining, for his part, why he did this at Glencairn, Mr. Pitcairn confided that he felt that such display was more effective than “stand[ing] these things around on pedestals.” Of this mode of display at the Cloisters, Mr. Pitcairn said, “you feel something that’s real, that’s complete, that’s living, that doesn’t have a museum flavor about it—and that is what we enjoyed so much.” Mr. Rorimer modestly responded, “It isn’t a bad museum!”
The Cloisters’ design was fresh in Mr. Pitcairn’s mind during this visit because he and some of his children had toured the museum just a few months prior in July 1965. Mr. Pitcairn, long familiar with the Cloisters collection by that date, had been eager to share it with his loved ones. Their visit, which subsequently prompted the invitation of the Met cohort in November, was deeply affecting. Sending his thanks to James Rorimer in a letter, Mr. Pitcairn wrote, “we hope that you knew, from what we tried to tell you [during our visit], how much we appreciated what you have accomplished for art in America.”
It becomes clear from the conversation recorded at Glencairn in November 1965, as well as from his correspondence surrounding this visit, that Mr. Pitcairn wanted very much to make a similar impact on the arts in America by sharing his own collection with the public. While Glencairn would not become a museum until 1982, following the death of Mildred Pitcairn, it seems that the seed of an idea for a museum had been planted early on. In hindsight, the conversations between the Pitcairns and the Cloisters’ staff in 1965 read as first, tentative steps towards the reinvention of Glencairn, then still the family home, into a museum. From there, the bond between the two institutions has only strengthened.
Julia Perratore, PhD
Assistant Curator, The Met Cloisters
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