Monday, November 26, 2012

Huntington Library and Museum

On a recent trip to California my wife and I were able to visit the magnificent Huntington Library located in the posh little town of San Marino just outside of Pasadena. The library and the surrounding grounds were originally the home of railroad magnate Henry Huntington. After his death in the 1920s the home and its extensive collection of European and American  art were turned into the incredibly beautiful museum.

Huntington Library and Museum
San Marino, CA

The collection is so large that it takes at least four buildings to display only a portion. But what a portion! In the building devoted to European art there is a room dedicated to some exquisite Renaissance Madonnas, as well as a splendid collection of French eighteenth century  art, but the centerpiece of the Huntington is the magnificent collection of British eighteenth century portraiture.

This collection is mainly found in a great room covered with beautiful full-length portraits of beautiful men and women. Pride of place goes to Thomas Gainsborough’s famed “Blue Boy” which was purchased by Huntington from famed dealer Joseph Duveen in the early 1920s for the then record breaking price of $700000. Everyone knows the painting but hung as it is in the place of honor in the midst of all these beautiful paintings, it takes your breath away.

Equally striking is Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” a portrait of an 11-year-old girl standing in a cloud-backed landscape. The portrait of Pinkie was ordered by her grandmother, and Lawrence was able to capture the budding loveliness and gaiety of this young girl.  Sadly, Pinkie died of tuberculosis shortly after the painting was completed.  Nevertheless, the painting holds its own today hung as it is directly opposite the “Blue Boy” at the other end of the great room.

In  between are paintings of the “beautiful” people of eighteenth century England during the era of the American Revolution, an event of whose significance most were probably unaware. I was interested in these paintings not only for their beauty but also because some of the people depicted were friends and associates of the subject of my doctoral dissertation of long ago, General Henry Seymour Conway. Conway was a soldier and a politician who rose to great prominence during the era of the American Revolution, and some of the people depicted in the Huntington library collection were associated with him.

Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire
by Sir Joshua Reynolds

For example, there is Georgiana Spencer, a distant relation of Princess Di, who would marry into the wealthy Cavendish family and become Duchess of Devonshire. For a while during her short life she was the reigning queen of London high society. General Conway was a close associate of the Cavendish family and a number of Dukes of Devonshire. Incidentally, two centuries later, Fred Astaire’s sister and original dancing partner, Adele, would marry another Duke of Devonshire.

The Huntington Library sits in the midst of beautiful grounds and fabulous botanical gardens. We went upstairs and happened to look out a window to behold a landscape more spectacular than anything in the paintings. Even down below sitting near the children’s garden, we could behold the striking San Gabriel Mountains acting like a frame for the whole scene.

By that time our four and a half year old granddaughter was getting a little tired but earlier she had gone through the picture gallery with great enthusiasm. She took innumerable pictures with her digital camera. Looking at Pinkie and the other beautiful ladies in their stunning gowns, at one point she exclaimed, “this is glorious!”

We visited the day after Thanksgiving and the large parking lot was practically full. Nevertheless, the grounds are so large and the collections so designed that we never had the feeling that you get in so many museums of being crowded, rushed, and jostled. The Huntington Library is one of America’s great museums, and anyone visiting in the Los Angeles area should not miss it. ###

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