Art: Collector's Passion

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Is Early American art nothing more than a historical curiosity? Vermont's vast repository of Americana, the Shelburne Museum, has set out to prove that it is something more. Through Shelburne's 168-ft. covered bridge came spectators last week to view the impressive evidence in the one-story, colonial-style Webb Gallery of American Art.

On display are 200 paintings by 61 18th and 19th century artists, ranging from John Singleton Copley's John Scollay and Winslow Homer's Milking Time to an anonymous primitive of General George Washington without his teeth. There is no chronological arrangement of the paintings. "The whole thing was done by feeling," explains Electra Havemeyer Webb, the museum's president and founder. "Paintings can harmonize, or they can clash and look perfectly horrible. We just keep trying until we get the right effect."

To set off Washington Allston's classical scenes, Charles Willson Peale's portraits, Albert Bierstadt's seascapes and John F. Peto's trompe-l'æil, each of the gallery's rooms is furnished with authentic Early American chests, tables and secretaries. Guarding the gallery's main entrance is the 10 ft. pine statue of Justice, which stood atop the courthouse in Barnstable, Mass, and was lent by Shelburne to the Brussels World's Fair in 1958.

Mountain Mover. All the Shelburne's pieces were gathered with loving care by President Webb, who founded the museum in 1947 with her late husband, J. Watson Webb, a great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Now 71, Mrs. Webb has always been a compulsive collector. "It's like being an alcoholic," she says. Her interest in collecting comes naturally: she is the daughter of the Henry O. Havemeyers, whose multimillion-dollar collection of old masters was left to the Metropolitan Museum. Her parents were baffled when Electra got interested in Americana, and at 18 collected her first item: a $25 cigar-store Indian. As her daughter's stockpile of Early American dolls, quilts, pewter, decoys and trade signs grew, Mrs. Havemeyer asked in exasperation: "How can anyone who has been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets live with such American trash?''

In 1946 the Webbs bought eight acres of rolling farmland seven miles south of Burlington and opened their museum the following year. Now a complex of more than 40 acres and 33 buildings, Shelburne contains, among other things, the 220-ft. side-wheeler Ticonderoga, which was shipped overland from nearby Lake Champlain, the jail from Castleton, Vt., the Colchester Reef lighthouse, a fully equipped 19th century pharmacy, and a Victorian railroad depot. Some of the buildings had to be dismantled to be moved and painstakingly reassembled at Shelburne. Such difficulties do not deter Mrs. Webb. "Please, Mother,'' one of her five children once begged, "if someone offers you Mount McKinley as a gift for the museum, don't try to move it."

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