Friday, January 20, 2012

A treasure trove

Looking up towards Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church from the corner of 55th and 5th Avenue. 8:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Friday, January 20, 2012. Another cold and very bright and sunny day in New York. The weatherman is forecasting a touch of snow for the city in the next 24 or so hours and more for our neighbors north of us.

Last night was the opening night Preview of the 58th Annual Winter Antiques Show benefiting the East Side House Settlement at the Park Avenue Armory. There was a lot of activity on the part of Park Avenue also, with some of the blocks closed to traffic just to the south of us because President Obama was dining with filmmaker Spike Lee at Restaurant Daniel. Swirling red and blue lights and temporary barriers and cops everywhere.

The Winter Antiques Show is the first big art and antiques show of the social season in New York. Arie Kopelman has been overseeing this for years, and it is a very popular, and therefore a successful venture for both the participating dealers and for the East Side House Settlement.

The ESHS is one of the oldest settlement houses in the city. This one founded 131 years ago this year. In 1963 they moved into the South Bronx which was then a dying community of the poor and disenfranchised, often immigrant citizens of the city. It’s still a neighborhood that is described as “people trying to gain a foothold in the American mainstream.”

This is a difficult and challenging mission for any individual. Those of us who were born here or who are multi-generation Americans don’t comprehend the challenge of immigration. Some even ask the question: then why come here? For the same reason every American ever came here, the native Americans notwithstanding.

ESHS have programs that focus on basic learning, GED and college preparation, adult education, technology skills – those things which are the “gateway out of poverty for the children and families.” This is everything in life for most of us, and not always the golden opportunity that we wish for. East Side Settlement House is that gateway for 8000 people every year and last night’s preview was one of their biggest fund-raisers. To learn more about their work, or to contribute, go to:

A portrait of Robert Gould Shaw III, by John Singer Sargent at THE FINE ART SOCIETY PLC.
Last night at the Park Avenue Armory: There was a big crowd when I arrived, almost two hours into the evening. It’s the first big social crowd I’ve seen this year. Someone said to me: there’s a real buzz in the room (vast room). I think people were happy to be out amongst one another again after being cooped up during the early cold, grey days of the New Year.

I go through this kind of event as quickly as possible, trying to get a good number of the stalls so that you might get a quick glimpse the next day. It’s a beautiful show with a lot of wonderful pieces and art to see.

For me, a non-collector and non-acquirer of art and antiques by dint of the fact that I can’t afford it, these shows are tours through history and the ages, in both the Proustian and in the intellectual sense.

For example, at the Fine Arts Society stall was a John Singer Sargent portrait of a World War I soldier. He wasn’t just any soldier, as the portrait even suggested but the American son of Nancy Astor, Lady Astor of Cliveden, the first American member of the House of Commons.

The soldier’s name was Robert Gould Shaw III. His father RG Shaw II was scion of a wealthy Boston family and Lady Astor’s first husband. She was born a Langhorne of Virginia, one of eight to a Southern slave-owner.

The Shaws were a prominent abolitionist family in the 19th century. A cousin of Nancy’s husband, and his namesake, Col. Robert Gould Shaw commanded the all-black 54th Regiment of the Union Army, entering the war in 1863. He was killed along with most of his regiment in the 2nd Battle of Fort Wagner near Charleston. Matthew Broderick portrayed him in the 1989 film, “Glory.”

Robert G. II, who married Nancy Langhorne and fathered RG III (the portrait – you still with me?) was less distinguished. The Shaw marriage was a disaster. He was a drunk and manic depressive. She was 18 when they married and in her late 20s when she finally had enough and left left him, going to England just to get away.

Nancy Astor, circa 1930s.
Winston Churchill.
The English society women were fascinated by her witty, outspoken personality but suspected her of being there to steal one of their husbands. When confronted with the idea she responded with something like: “if you knew what a hard time I had getting away from my husband, you wouldn’t think that.” Although it happened that on the trans-Atlantic liner to London, she met young Waldorf Astor.

Astor, who like her was American born and coincidentally on the same day of the same year as Nancy: May 19, 1879. She married him less than a year later. In time Lady Astor became famous on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1919, she became a member of Parliament – the first American to do so, and an outspoken politician as well.

There is the oft-told exchange between Lady and Winston Churchill that exemplified her thorny personality: “If you were my husband,” she said to Winston one day at a dinner, “ I’d poison your coffee.”

“If you were my wife,” Winston immediately replied, “I’d drink it.”

I recount this because looking at that portrait of “Bobby” Shaw reminded me of the soldier’s life before and after moving to England with his mother as a young boy, and growing up as the stepson of Viscount Astor. Whatever his life was like, I don’t know, although it was reportedly not easy for him. Like his father (and his half-brother), Bobby was alcoholic and a depressive.

The Sargent portrait, however, which was done in 1923 for Lady Astor, was given by her, to Bobby’s partner Albert Edward Goodey, an art collector who was 20 years older than Shaw. Goodey died in 1945 at 67 and the portrait was left to his younger brother. Robert Gould Shaw III committed suicide in 1970. He was 72.

The Park Avenue Armory with its Winter Art and Antiques Show is a treasure trove evoking for me,  stories of life, of lives. Go, you’ll see.
Hilary Geary Ross, Elizbateh Stribling, and Guy Robinson.
Treillage's window at 1015 Lexington Avenue (at 73rd Street): Baby, it's cold outside; think Spring!
After the opening, I was invited by Jeanne Lawrence – who writes our Shanghai Social Diary – to a Chinese New Year dinner at Doubles. But more about that on Monday’s Diary.

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