Sunday, December 09, 2012

Wendell D. Garrett, Expert on Americana

As I came to know Wendell during our shared time of seventeen years on Antiques Roadshow, I considered him to be a good friend that I respected enormously . Wendell was never defined by the assumed limitations of the disease he was fighting or his restricted mobility. On the contrary he seemed to relish the challenge and left all of us awe struck the way he overcame obstacles. From the mundane routine of transferring from his chair to a taxi (which was amazing) to hearing him speak off the cuff about the objects he loved, this man was in ever respect extraordinary and a role model for all of us.  Wendell was certainly one of the most courageous guys I have ever met and he will be missed. JB

Wendell D. Garrett, 1929–2012
 Nov 20th, 2012
By Laura Beach, Antiques and the Arts

Willliston, Vt.: Wendell D. Garrett, 83, died November 14 near Burlington, Vt., where he moved recently to be near his family. His loss is incalculable. Among other things, Garrett would have known just how to characterize this occasion. He combined a thorough familiarity with the field of American art with a fine appreciation for its citizens and a knack for locating all within a big frame.

His talent with words and people put him at the center of the antiques business for nearly 60 years, from the time that he enrolled in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture in 1955 to his last years as a guest appraiser on PBS's Antiques Roadshow . He was widely known for the upright, heavily inked signature that appended each of the 474 editorials that elevated The Magazine Antiques beginning in 1972, when he assumed its editorship. To those who knew him well, he was a friend, mentor, advisor and confidante. His sly sense of humor and not indecorous love of gossip betrayed a biographer's fascination with the human condition.

Garrett was born October 9, 1929, to Lucille and Ennis Garrett, who moved from Florida to California in search of work during the Great Depression. As a student at the University of California in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, Garrett abandoned thoughts of a career in medicine after meeting Page Smith, the first of several men whose influence he acknowledged throughout his life. Smith, a Dartmouth and Harvard-educated professor of history, urged Garrett to train at Winterthur.

As a member of Winterthur's fourth graduating class of 1957, the young scholar cottoned to instructor Charles F. Montgomery. Garrett later told Antiques and The Arts Weekly , "Montgomery was a passionate man, the most charismatic individual I've ever known. His students would have followed him over a cliff if he had asked."

Montgomery instilled in others a visceral rapport with objects that no amount of book learning could supply. The professor also excelled at introductions. When Walter Muir Whitehill, librarian and director of the Boston Athenaeum, toured Henry Francis du Pont's new museum, Montgomery insisted that Garrett be Whitehill's guide.

Wendell at Sotheby's. —Bette Marshall photo.

"You're coming to Boston," Whitehill ordered Garrett before the tour ended. Garrett earned a second master's degree in American history at Harvard between 1957 and 1960. His first wife, Jane, worked as Whitehill's assistant. In 1965, Wendell and Jane Garrett, later an editor at Knopf, produced the bibliography that accompanied Whitehall's book The Arts in Early American History.

Whitehill encouraged Garrett to join the staff of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1959. The Adams trove dates from 1639 to 1889 and includes correspondence, diaries, literary manuscripts, speeches, and legal and business papers. In 1961, Garrett discovered the earliest diary of John Adams at the Vermont Historical Society and edited it for Harvard University Press. He was most proud of the four-volume Diary and Autobiography of John Adams , which he co-edited.

The publicity surrounding the Diary 's publication, including a review by President John F. Kennedy, brought Alice Winchester, editor of The Magazine Antiques , to Boston. Garrett joined the magazine's staff in New York in 1966. He became editor when Winchester retired in 1972 and was named editor and publisher in 1975.

"For the cover of his first issue as editor he chose an image of Thomas Jefferson's architectural masterpiece, Monticello. Garrett's calligraphic signature at the bottom of the page became iconic," recalled Allison Eckardt Ledes, who succeeded Garrett when he joined Sotheby's in 1990.

"Over the course of the ensuing two decades at Antiques , he increased the number of color illustrations and orchestrated single-topic issues devoted to the architecture and arts of a particular state or city. These are monumental and enduring contributions to the field of regional studies," Ledes, who died in 2008, told Antiques and The Arts Weekly.

"He loved the physicality of the magazine — the feel of the paper, the scent of the ink and the sound of the press. It was the basis of his interest in type and printing," said historian Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett Widmer, Garrett's second wife and the mother of his three children. The author of At Home: The American Family, 1750–1870 , Widmer is a past museum administrator and executive at Sotheby's and Christie's.

The Garrett family at the Du Pont Award ceremony, from left, Abigail, Nathaniel, Maria and Betsy.

Garrett's fascination with publishing extended to letterpress printing. He acquired his first press while working on the Adams Papers project, installing it in his house in Cambridge, Mass. A collector of aphorisms, he published his favorite expressions in The Ultimate Quire of Quotes , an anthology that he edited and printed in several editions with Sun Hill Press.

Rarely without a book project, he wrote or co-wrote more than a dozen volumes, among them Apthorp House, 1760–1960; Thomas Jefferson Redivivus; Thomas Jefferson's Monticello; George Washington's Mount Vernon; The Arts in America: The Nineteenth Century; Classic America: The Federal Style and Beyond; Victorian America: Classical Romanticism to Gilded Opulence; Monticello and the Legacy of Thomas Jefferson; Classic America ; and American Home: From Colonial Simplicity to the Modern Adventure.

While at Antiques , Garrett developed a reputation as a lecturer, traveling widely and cultivating audiences nationwide. He was instrumental in organizing and promoting programs such as the Natchez Antiques Forum in Mississippi, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, and spoke more than a dozen times at the annual Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum, often bringing the audience to its feet with his stirring presentations.

He served on dozens of boards, including those of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Monticello; the New-York Historical Society; the Decorative Arts Trust; Old Sturbridge Village; The Royal Oak Foundation; and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Many groups honored Garrett. Winterthur Museum awarded him the Henry Francis du Pont Award for distinguished contribution to the American arts in 1994. A decade later, in 2004, the Antiques Dealers' Association of America presented him with its Award of Merit. He was the third individual to be honored, after Albert Sack and Elinor Gordon.

Companionable and gregarious in an agreeably understated way, Garrett cherished his membership in organizations such as the Club of Odd Volumes, the American Antiquarian Society and the Walpole Society, an elite fraternity of antiquarians whose members have included John Carter Brown, John Nicholas Brown, Joseph Downs, Charles Montgomery, Henry Flynt and Henry Francis du Pont.

Not least, Garrett was a portrait of courage. Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and confined to a wheelchair 23 years ago, he executed his professional obligations with vigor and dignity even as his health declined. He avoided complaint and encouraged others to do the same. He navigated New York City's streets without fear, zipping between his apartment and his offices in a motorized chair equipped with book bags and his signature walking stick.

Wendell Garrett leaves a brother, Ronald Garrett; his former wives Jane N. Garrett and Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett Widmer; his three children and their spouses, Maria Garrett and Miguel de Lievano, Abigail Garrett and Matthew Looft, Nathaniel Garrett and Michelle Mulkey; and four grandchildren.

A memorial fund has been established at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library to honor Garrett through an award that will recognize achievement in melding decorative arts and history with the originality and eloquence that defined his career. For further information or to make a contribution, please contact Matthew Thurlow, Major Gifts Officer, Winterthur Museum, 5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, DE 19735, or 302-888-4878.

A celebration of Garrett's life is planned for January during Americana Week in New York.

Days after the 2001 bombing of the World Trade Towers in New York, Garrett wrote about the experience in the November issue of Antiques. Drawing lessons from history, he observed, "America is not only a place, but an idea." His pursuit of ideas, expressed in the nation's arts and letters, endears him to us always.

Wendell D. Garrett Remembered

Throughout his life, Wendell Garrett passionately extolled the significance of American history and the beauty of its expression in our nation's material culture. His eye was unerring, and his passion infectious. As I came of age in the field of American decorative arts, there were two superhuman forces propelling its ascendancy, each amplifying the other. The first was Charles Montgomery, who successfully inducted American material culture into the academy of art history through his shaping of the Winterthur Program. The second was Wendell Garrett, a student of Montgomery's who became a powerful spokesman for the field, as the scholar/editor of The Magazine Antiques . One could also say he became the siren of the field, as few could "sail" past each month's eloquent essay without succumbing to the ensuing pages.

In his pantheon of worthies, Wendell offered special devotion to Thomas Jefferson, America's greatest Enlightenment thinker. Wendell admired Jefferson's insatiable quest for knowledge and his devoted application of that knowledge to human progress, whether in government, architecture, gardening or wine. Garrett became a steward of Jefferson's beloved Monticello when he was elected to the Board of Trustees in 1971. He remained a trustee — first active, then emeritus and finally honorary — until his death. He was an officer for 17 years, and chairman during the celebration of Jefferson's 250th birthday in 1993, also the year Clinton and Gore met at Monticello to journey to Washington for their inauguration.

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at Wendell's last visit to Monticello in June of 2008, having just arrived to assume my duties as president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. He was both delighted and benedictive about my decision to leave Winterthur for Monticello. He delivered his remarks, entitled "Thomas Jefferson Revealed," on the iconic West Lawn of Monticello. He called Jefferson "all things to all men: a culture hero," and concluded, "And, as America was to be a model for the free world, to prove what man was capable of when free, Jefferson devoted himself passionately to strengthening this nation, expanding its territory, building its resources, maintaining its security, fostering its culture and its virtue."

It was a beautiful summer evening, and I remember remarking to myself on the many kindred traits between Thomas Jefferson and his admirer, and among them, their love of country, the arts, literature, books and learning; and their limitless passion to share that which had so profoundly shaped them, with others. Each took up the pen to promote his quest, and now that I think of it, each had remarkable signatures, that none of us will ever forget, on paper and on our lives.


Perhaps it was his innate civility and thoughtfulness about others, combined with a rare talent for enlivening the intersection of American art and American history (has anybody else ever used Bartlett's Quotations to such good effect?), that so endeared Wendell Garrett to so many people.


Wendell Garrett changed lives. As a brilliant lecturer, distinguished writer and seminal figure who remained at the center of the antiques world for half a century, he influenced so many people in so many ways. Yet, for me, his legacy extends far beyond his scholarly and journalistic accomplishments. Most of all, I will remember Wendell as a kind and generous friend who treated everyone with respect and good cheer. Background or class made no difference to Wendell. If you had an interest in history or the arts, he welcomed you, he engaged you in conversation and he remembered you. I will forever miss his democratic spirit, which led so many to cherish America's past and celebrate the artful creations of this country's craftsmen.


A scholar, a gentleman and a role model to all of us whom he encouraged in our research and publications, I will always fondly and vividly remember him. As a young graduate of the Winterthur Program working at The Brooklyn Museum in the early 1970s, I first knew Wendell through an antiques group that met for lectures at the Grolier Club. He was warm, friendly and ever enthusiastic about my work on the Brown family of Providence and encouraged me to prepare several articles for The Magazine Antiques . In those early years of my career he was both mentor and model, and as the years and decades passed he not only continued in those roles, but also became a colleague and close friend. But then he was a friend to all — respected, admired and mightily loved. Despite what he had to overcome, he was ever interested in what I was working on, it was never about Wendell — but always about others whose work he constantly inquired about. How ironic — for Wendell was the brilliant one, whose knowledge was far greater than anything I might ever hope to encompass!


The phrase is overused, but Wendell Garrett's passing really is the end of an era. Everyone knows that he was a scholar, a gifted speaker and writer, and a gentleman, but he also could put absolutely anyone at ease within three minutes of meeting them. Wendell's insights into the field, his turn of phrase and his thoughtful, personal approach made him a constant favorite with Colonial Williamsburg staff and visitors alike. He will be genuinely missed.


A year after receiving the ADA Award of Merit in 2004, Wendell Garrett wrote in one of his insightful editorials for The Magazine Antiques that Nineteenth Century intellectuals wrestled "... with the problem of work and leisure." Garrett, as an intellectual spanning the end of one century and the beginning of another, seemed to have no such issue. Work was his leisure. He was a man whose diverse interests all seemed to converge around the central element of history. He offered his knowledge to all, and in doing so, benefited the various antiques trades, publications, auction houses, schools and museums. Everyone was a student of Wendell's. Those who were intimidated by his impressive reputation upon first meeting him, walked away as a friend. His interest was infectious and he spawned new generations of inquiry and appreciation of art, architecture and decorative arts. He was the epitome of what the Antiques Dealers' Association of America stands for: honesty, integrity and ethical conduct. We were proud to honor him in life, and know his legacy will carry on past death.


I was not sure what to expect when I joined Antiques as its editor in February of 2008. I had been warned that I might be rejected as a foreign organ by the body of curators, dealers and collectors who make up the field. From day one Wendell was a generous comrade. He was amused by my questions and amusing in his answers to them. Perhaps he welcomed an outsider here because, and this is a subject for a longer discussion, he knew more than a little about being an outsider himself. As the months went by he was quick to call when he approved of something I had done and helpful when he did not. Wendell knew a lot more about this country than its art, artisans and material culture. He knew what it was to have a full education in the rough and tumble of American life. I admired what he did with that knowledge. I admired his courage.


I came to Antiques the year Wendell succeeded Alice Winchester as editor in chief. His loss to all with whom he so generously shared his extraordinary breadth of knowledge and vision of America is incalculable. His legacy is to be found in the hundreds of editorials and reams of articles he wrote for the magazine, as well as the books he authored or edited, in the lectures he delivered across the country to organizations large and small and the antiques forums he was instrumental in founding — all of which gave life to American decorative arts. In many ways Wendell always reminded me of his heroes, Adams and Jefferson. The most telling measure of his legacy is the number of friends, colleagues, family members and admirers who will mourn his loss for years to come.


Like many serious students and professionals in the world of Americana, my bookshelves both at home and at work are chock full with the published output of Wendell's extraordinarily productive and legendary career. Scores of books, decades of The Magazine Antiques , numerous hand printed broadsides and booklets from Christmases dating from 1990 to 2011, and yards of Sotheby's Americana catalogues with appreciations, footnotes, indices, tributes and biographies written for various collections and collectors whose interests were nurtured and informed through his writing. Wendell's erudition, his love of reading generally and history particularly, his love of the printed word and of printing itself, and his extensive lectures made him among the most profound and constant shepherd of the flock of collectors, institutions, dealers who love the American decorative arts and the American history that surround those objects. With awesome clarity, he seemed, magically, to transform vast quantities of historical fact into elegant prose, creating an historical context for the subject at hand.

He was rock-solid and relentlessly dependable despite mounting physical challenges and hurricanes, blizzards and tornadoes. Nothing deterred him from meeting his obligations. But for all of this remarkable achievement, I cherish most his humanity, his humility, generosity, steadfastness — the warmth, wit and humor and the joy of our sharing a really good conversation. He was willing to spend the time to talk about any number of subjects — Americana, collections, collectors, the ballet, Shakespeare, an editorial in The New Yorker . And, as if by magic, he would shape that chat into a conversation with form and meaningful content. He had the gift of engaging with his colleagues, of meeting them on a companionable common ground. He made us all feel worthy. That is a precious and rare gift and one that I as his friend and colleague will cherish forever.


I was exploring my options to travel to the Burlington, Vt., area, going either by car or by plane with my grandson at the controls, when I learned that Wendell was up there to be closer to his family, and then I received the bad news about him and my plans to visit my longtime friend vanished. It was truly bad news, and not just for me, but for family, his close friends, the readers who welcomed his editorials month after month for all those years, and the countless people he inspired through his talks, writings, friendships or just a simple greeting.

Over the years that I knew him, and at the many, many functions we attended and met, he was never too busy to say hello, ask after the family and shake hands. He was rarer than any of the antiques he talked and wrote about, and lots more fun.



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