William R. Johnston, William and Henry Walters, the reticent collectors

A compelling biography of the father and son who founded the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore


The saga rolls on of the nineteenth-century American collectors who founded the great museums that bear their names. Following recent biographies of Henry Clay Frick, J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry du Pont (reviewed in The Art Newspaper, No.88, January 1999, p.57; No.93, June 1999, p.25 and No.94, July-August 1999, p.51 respectively) comes an account of William and Henry Walters, father and son, who were responsible for Baltimore’s handsome museum, the Walters Art Gallery. The author is associate director of the gallery and a noted authority on eighteenth and nineteenth-century art. As far as the history of collecting is concerned this is far the most interesting of these biographies. The business life of the two men—by no means to be taken lightly, since it provided the essential funds for purchasing, as Mr Johnston entirely appreciates—takes second place to the fascinating story of the formation of the collections. The unfairly overlooked William Walters turns out to be a very interesting collector, typical of his time and class who, untypically, kept faith with his early taste for contemporary French masters. Most of the American collectors who started out as patrons of their own compatriots and living, or recently dead, French artists, abandoned their initial enthusiasms when the Old Master of antique furniture bug took hold. William Walters’s passion for Antoine Barye and his pursuit of the work is a fascinating sub-plot in the first half of the book. The result is that important French Salon paintings and sculpures bought by the elder Walters live alongside the medieval and Renaissance paintings, jewellery and cameos, manuscripts and Oriental ceramics, which make up the more conventional bulk of the collection. Alongside the truly rivetting account of buying art in Europe and the US, the author details discreetly the eccentric domestic arrangements of both father and son. They were enterprising yachtsmen and their travels afford many opportunities for buying. The book is full of interesting glimpses of huge International Exhibitions, of dealers and agents and all the myriad cast of other collaborators in the great enterprise. William Walters’s luxury publishing ventures are particularly revealing of a vanished world in which an individual could afford to produce fine, illustrated books of a kind that will never be seen again. In spite of the rather inimical characters of both men, this book is a compelling read.


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