COLLECTING
Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
On the Road to Hill-Stead

 

Hill-Stead (book cover, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press)

My memory of my fist visit to Hill-Stead in Farmington, CT some ten years ago is a blur between patches of bright yellow passing me at great speed outside the car window and timid bluish, whitish, and purple dots sprinkled all over. It was spring. My journey from Northwestern CT to Farmington, further east, through fields of daffodils, bluebells, and crocuses still defines my recollection of Theodate Pope Riddle’s estate and her family’s remarkable collection of European Impressionist paintings.

Long in the making, the history of the estate is recorded in Hill-Stead: The Country Place of Theodate Pope Riddle, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010 (James F. O’Gorman editor, with essays by Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Allyson M. Hayward, Anne Higonnet, and Robert M. Thorson; foreword by Robert A. M. Stern). This book is set to document, analyze, and contextualize the early 20th century Connecticut estate, its female architect, its furnishings, paintings, landscaping and relationship to the American culture of the Northeast.

Admirable as a work of scholarship based on primary materials, sources from the estate’s archives, letters, Theodate’s personal journals, and early 20th century photography, the book is structured as an edited volume of independent essays by the aforementioned scholars, each one an expert in his/her respective field. In addition to the contemporary color photography that documents the estate’s holdings in their present state, one that rivals that of similar works in major museums (Manet, Degas, Cassatt, and Monet paintings as well as Hiroshige and Hokusai woodblock prints hang on walls of the Popes’ house) the book communicates an important message on collecting in late 19th and early 20th century America.

What becomes evident in each essay is primarily Theodate’s enthusiasm in designing the house and working with the firm of McKim, Meade, and White, in discussing the construction details with the woodworkers, in assembling the furnishings and decorative objects, in shaping the landscape, and finally in building the family’s fine art collection. And while this was by no means an individual quest, it most certainly was a collaborative effort between Theodate and her parents who were being exposed and immersed in contemporary art of their times in Europe. It was a joyous process.

Having read the book, I now understand why that spring visit to Hill-Stead with its vivid colors, fresh CT-country air, and dazzling arrangements of decorative and fine arts has had such a lasting impression on me. It truly encapsulates the joy of the journey, not just the journey to the estate itself, but primarily, the journey of any individual who sets out to create a collection to be shared with family, friends, and the public in general. The journey of the first encounter with new things and the process of getting to know them in order to care for them and preserve them. The journey that certainly deviates from a straight line but allows one to acquire knowledge and share it.  And this is perhaps where we lack today: in building collections not as a sign of wealth but as pure pleasure of discovery and growth for us personally and for our community. True to the spirit of the Northeast, this book proves that there are many roads that lead to one’s “Hill-Stead.”

© Thomaï Serdari