By Arthur J. Phelan
When I started collecting there was a paucity of advisory literature and there were only a few monographs on artists, mostly about artists of the rank of Winslow Homer and J. S. Sargent. These were included in a relatively short list of American artists who were household names. These were the names occasionally forged on all sorts of work. However, there were very few households which could afford them. The only place in the 1960s where one could safely go to assuredly acquire such art was New York City, and the dealers at that time apparently had instructed their staff not to smile or spend time with people who were not millionaires. Two of the earliest dealers whom Graham visited were Kennedy Galleries and Victor Spark, who had built several collections of historical American painting.
At the same time, there was an emerging group of regional auctioneers who were offering volumes of 19th-century paintings which were coming out of attics and second homes, discarded by the heirs of once grand families who had been instructed to get rid of representational art, especially American, in favor of modernist or even totally abstract works, which had been adopted by New York taste, urged on by advocates like Clement Greenberg. Such discarded art mostly sold in the low hundreds of dollars, but there was little information to allow one to know whether or not it was good art. It was in this transitional period that Graham bought his first American painting, he recalled as being in 1957.
When I was in college in New Haven in the mid-1950s there was a superb Professor of Art History, Vincent Scully, whose lectures were attended by nearly 1,000 students, who generally gave standing ovations at the end of class. He devoted only about 6 or 8 lectures to American artists, with the Renaissance or 17th century getting much more attention, and the French impressionists getting a great deal. There was a general attitude at the time that American art, especially of the 19th century , was not suitable for a gentleman to study, much less own. A few years later, while duly subscribing to publications of the Museum of Modern Art, I visited several of the most prominent dealers representing the emerging masters of Abstract Expressionism. Part of their selling proposition was that they knew the difference between good art and bad art, and that any painting with human figures in it was bad art. When I asked how that would relate to, say, the Mona Lisa, I was soon ushered from the office.
Learning to adapt to this prevailing wisdom was even more difficult for Graham Williford. After he tried a couple of college experiences, including a year at St. John's College in Annapolis, with its "Great Books" courses, he wound up at Columbia studying art history. In between efforts at academic enlightenment he worked at one or two banks and tried to placate his father who wanted him to become a plantation manager for family lands back in Texas. This education was made more difficult because Graham had been recruited for World War II and launched into the world of cultural issues by the mid 1950s.
Coming from an upbringing in East Texas, it was all the more challenging to be certain how to tell good art from bad art. An early omen was his apparently winning a Texas State Championship for Visual Memory, for high schoolers. His college training had helped a little, in teaching him how to use primary sources to find answers to questions no one was concerned about. As with many surprisingly successful people, he had a chance mentor, University of Texas professor Dr. Tom Cranfill, who was the uncle of a long time friend. The man apparently taught him that one could own, as well as just study, significant art which had been overlooked by the zeitgeist described above. Professor Cranfill had accumulated about 1,000 art works and discussed with him such mundane matters as how to locate and buy works by overlooked artists who deserved to be remembered. An important part of this advice was to locate and read contemporaneous reports concerning who was important in their own lifetime, even if the critics of those earlier times did not have the enlightenment offered by Clement Greenberg.
To understand how this seemed a reasonable approach, consider that a man born in 1926 started life only a quarter century after the end of the 19th century, a short span of time in an agrarian society, and that art was still believed by some to provide a way to understand a world which was imploding while he was in high school, only a few years before he was to be drafted to try to save it. Yes, millions of Americans were in the same boat, but only a few had the innate compulsion to see history evolve visually. There appears to be only a small part of a population that wants to see the visual history that led up to their own time, and of those but a fraction who have an innate sense of composition and design which enables them to tell whether a painting from the past is an accurate representation on multiple levels. Beyond that, there are fewer still who are driven to connect all the dots, not just a few. These are the collectors who provide civilization with more than a superficial memory of past eras. As history is written, and time passes, authors pigeonhole fewer and fewer events into a matrix to explain an era. Consider the largely neglected 1950s. Today if you look at the visual record of the time, you will find most people might checkmark a photo of Eisenhower, a Russian, or U.S., atom bomb, Marilyn Monroe's skirt, and a drive-in movie as being iconic.
The same is true of the selection of important artists. Most decades before the War are reflected today from the work of four or five artists now still considered relevant. Graham's mind didn't work that way. He wanted to know as much as he could about the years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I. In the course of such learning, he started with interest in the Hudson River School, as virtually all new collectors of old pictures then did. He learned a lot from following advice of a small group of New York collectors, whose intellectual giant was William Gerdts, who could easily be said to have made more American art accessible to later collectors than anyone I know of. There were other experts who brought out details of individual masters of 19th-century realism, but there were few publishers willing to underwrite such research until the late 1970s, twenty years after Graham's odyssey began.
During the 1970s a wider group of dealers, both first floor galleries and private dealers, and auctioneers, had emerged and were increasingly bidding against each other, raising prices substantially over the decade and requiring many dealers to acquire financial partners, all of which raised the costs for collectors to pursue a consistent direction. The canon of known 19th-century artists rose rapidly and there were many rediscovered artists of merit. In his first 20 years of collecting, Graham had been able to buy widely, and for very low prices, focusing on various acknowledged schools and techniques. As the financial challenges mounted, he began to have to buy speculatively, using an already developed taste and connoisseurship to discern what paintings could be sold to pay for the ones he wanted to keep his capital in. Many other collectors faced the same issues. There became a new class of collector/investors to compete with long-established, full-time professionals. The contest for truly good paintings got pretty rough, leading to many amusing incidents, and some scandalous events, arising from such causes as title issues, family disputes over who owned what, fraud, forgery and nouveau riche dealers who a few short years before, without any art history credentials, had made six-figure money. A serious collector had to have street smarts and a willingness to stay only on the edge of the main arena.
One area to which Graham particularly devoted himself was the European subject matter which arose from the learning process undergone by an increasing number of artists after the Civil War. Most of the "Top People of the North," newly enriched by the Civil War and railway financing securities, came to believe that the source of most American culture must lay in Europe. This dynamic is most easily seen in several Henry James novels. The last 30 years of the 19th century saw an increasing dialog from American painters and their representatives complaining about the very rich Americans who were spending much money with their import agents, who were stationed in Paris, and some other lesser places. This of course resulted in a pattern of collecting which was described as some variation of the cliché that Corot painted 3,000 paintings, of which 7,000 were in the United States.
By acquiring paintings as he did, Graham was acting as a cultural anthropologist, although he would not have said it that way. One of the paintings in "Mediterranea" shows an elderly man with his ear next to the mouth of a half-excavated sphinx. Whenever he could, he sought work which showed the ruins of earlier civilizations, as American artists had a century earlier. While it is a small picture, it sums up much of what Graham felt someone should do. It arose from a continuing effort to learn about Elihu Vedder, the author of the painting with the sphinx, who has never fit neatly into the narrative of American painting. Graham found a cache of Vedders in Texas, got to know the artist long before other scholars did, and acquired a number of works, some highly important, and more than enough for his final legacy. And, like any good anthropologist, he went on to unearth works of Vedder compatriots, such as Charles C. Coleman, and even George Barse who did most of his painting in Italy, but left a small legacy of wonderful Texas ranch scenes. In all of this, Graham was documenting the cultural transfer of ideas of art from the Old World to the New World.
Another area that fascinated him was the introduction of French academic theories of composition, largely as to where the horizon should be and how the foreground should relate to the middle and background. A lot of his many American subject paintings have the high horizons, bright tonality and tranquility of post-Bierstadt non-monumentality in reaction to the Hudson River School formulas. These ideas are much better understood after reading Bill Gerdts and other scholars of the last 25 years. Again it was a study of cultural transfer. He was also moved by paintings with the human figure, ranging from Sargent through a variety of European influences which had led American artists to do much better with the human figure once they had attended French ateliers than they had with earlier genre work.
Because Graham was ahead of his time, he was able to rummage around in his first 20 years of collecting, identifying painters who had once been important but were not on the buy list of those who were promoting the Hudson River as a subject. Three were artists with Boston or similar New England links. He early on had discovered work by Theodore Robinson. He tracked down some in a family collection, as I recall, but did not have the money to buy them out. However, he was then friendly with Kennedy Galleries and discussed it with them. As I recall the story, they soon bought the cache and had a Kennedy Quarterly issue on Robinson. For his efforts Graham wound up with nothing.
Another Boston artist whom he researched and acquired multiple examples of was Dennis Bunker. I don't recall how this painter came under Graham's spotlight, but at one point, probably in the 1980s, Graham may have had seven or more. He was quite interested in the Cornish, New Hampshire, art colony, which led him to Frank Benson. However it was not the Benson of duck hunting fame, much less the prohibitively expensive girls in white dresses, but the early tranquil landscapes which appealed to him. He also acquired Benson's portraits, believing anything the artist painted provided exceptional insight into a great master.
It is noteworthy that, by the year 2000, works by many of these artists had reached $1 million. A Dewing Graham loved ultimately sold for about $3 million after he had sold it for way under $1 million. His name should appear in the provenance of many paintings now owned by much richer individuals or museums. No one could ever fully reconstruct all his pictures' previous owners, or the many which he traded to expand his expatriate studies. Hopefully someday a graduate student will be assigned to work on his provenances. Unfortunately Graham's sister burned years of his checkbooks, which would have been a great addition to the Archives of American Art, as well as the provenances in this catalog.
With years of often disappointing effort to buy paintings he felt belonged in his collection, Graham became very guarded about what he was doing. He had been beaten to the draw in many auctions, given misleading information by dealers, and charged what he considered excessive prices by owners, whether dealers or collectors. He developed a series of stratagems most of which have been used over many centuries by art vendors and collectors. Recollections of Duveen and the great dealers of that period show a constancy of human behavior whenever people face the challenges and possibility of owning art.
However, he was never interested in being a collector as such. Rather he felt an inner compulsion to collect. The result was that there was never a place to go to understand the dimensions of his collection. Many of his works stayed in storage for years, although, with his memory capable of recall from long ago, they were never far from mind. He did offer scholars the chance to exhibit those he felt were most likely to enhance a newly studied artist's reputation. His work was exhibited in a number of groundbreaking shows, sometimes anonymously. He was a scholar without requisite degrees, but he was not afraid to joust with scholars about the meaning and importance of works of art.
I began to get to know him when The Federal Reserve Board's resident art scholar, Mary Ann Goley, invited him to provide an exhibition. It was one of the few times when a serious professional attempted to outline the areas of his collecting, but with their meager funding it could not do justice to what he had done. I introduced him to several collectors who had amassed on the order of 1,000 artworks. All had been born before 1935, which meant that when they had come of age the 19th Century was still held in disrepute and interesting pictures were, like apples on the ground in an orchard, practically available for picking up, for not much more than what a businessman spends for lunch.
Graham could well have attended a thousand auctions over his 50 years of collecting, and grew increasingly frustrated with the combat conditions on the salesroom floor. He was the antithesis of a Type A personality. He used many techniques to avoid bidding ostentatiously. I once sat next to him at a Baltimore auction, and throughout the sale I noticed he was not interested in buying anything. I was quite surprised at the end of the sale when he picked up 10 pictures which he had bought. He was a quick study in assessing a painting at an auction, but he preferred the leisure of being able to look at one unhurriedly. Sometimes it took him a while before he decided to return a picture which didn't make it aesthetically, causing the seller annoyance.
However, he had also suffered the collector's dread of not acting soon enough and losing a good work to another buyer. He learned this lesson early on, while he was still at the stage of asking other collectors or dealers for their opinion as to whether a picture was worth buying. At the end of the 1950s on a street with several dealers, possibly 2nd Avenue, he saw in a window a beautiful waterscape signed F. A. Silva. Unfamiliar with the name, he did not buy it, at a cost of $125. Later in the day he called another collector friend whose opinion he valued and asked him who Silva was and if he was an artist worth buying. The friend told him that Silva was a second-rate artist and the price was too high. Today it would be worth 1,000 times as much. A few days later when he retrieved his car on a visit to 56th Street, he saw the same picture in the window of a leading gallery with a price of $1,250. He learned then that the friend he had called had hurried down to the first dealer and picked it up to take it four blocks closer to 5th Avenue. He learned quickly that he had to rely on his own judgment rather than that of others.
A mutual friend and Washington collector, Lewis Allen, recounts a relatively original illustration of how to proceed to get a picture away from a reluctant seller:
"On another of Graham's visits I showed him a picture I was sure he would be interested in. It was a large work of a peasant girl walking over a sand dune by the expatriate American, George Chambers. Knowing in advance of his avid interest in Americans painting in France I assumed he would want it. I had not reckoned with Graham's ability to avoid showing that he cared one way or the other about the picture. He casually offered me some advice about how I might better enjoy my new found work.
He instructed me to get my most comfortable chair and place it in front of the Chambers. Thereafter, twice a day for a period of an hour or more, I was to sit and admire the picture. At the end of a month or so, when I had gotten tired of looking at it, I should give him a call and he might be interested in taking it off my hands."
Graham's legacy lies in the groundwork he did in broadening our knowledge of the many cultural influences that helped America mature. In the 1950s I had been advised by some very knowledgeable people at a college in Cambridge, MA, that America really had no culture beyond plumbing expertise. Graham helped us all to understand some of the steps taken by some Americans to ameliorate this.
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