When the collector and art dealer Eugene Thaw asked Cooper Hewitt if we would be interested in the collection of eighteenth- to twentieth-century staircase models that he had assembled, he was displaying the generosity of spirit and desire to share his collections that informed much of Gene and his wife Clare’s philanthropy. He knew that with the market rising for these models they would be popular with architects and designers. However, he wanted to find an institution that would see them as part of a design collection and research them accordingly while giving them a place where people of every age could appreciate their beauty and history.
Cooper Hewitt Trustee Joan Davidson, whose mother, Alice Kaplan, owned a staircase model that Gene had admired and which formed the impetus for the Thaws’ collection, suggested they consider Cooper Hewitt as a home for their staircase models. However, the couple’s link to Cooper Hewitt began in the 1960s when Alice Kaplan convinced Gene to join her in forming a committee to help save the Cooper Hewitt museum collection when its existence at Cooper Union was threatened. Gene gave freely of his time, energy, and understanding of the importance of public access to such a great collection; from the needed fundraising to the search for a new home and appropriate institution with which to be connected. Partly thanks to his and the Committee’s efforts, the Smithsonian became that institution. With the Carnegie Corporation contributing Andrew Carnegie’s mansion as a home for the collection, the museum opened as the Cooper-Hewitt in 1976. Years later, thanks again to Gene’s generosity, Cooper Hewitt became the home for the models, immediately popular on exhibition.
While researching the staircase models, I found that most of them belonged to the Compagnonnage movement in France. Gene immediately suggested that I go to one of his sources: the late great collector-dealer Charles de Langlade. It was clear that the passion that Gene exhibited for the objects had made him a great friend who responded to Gene’s desire to share his expertise. Together they changed my curatorial view from seeing masterpieces of design and craftsmanship to an admirer and student of the extensive design training that still exists today in an apprentice system, with members traveling on a “tour de France” to work with different masters. Many of the pieces in the Thaw collection are works created as acceptance pieces and masterworks. Langlade introduced me to the Director of the Musée du Compagnonnage in Tours on the Loire and I was later able to share the wonderful visit I had in Tours by arranging to return with Gene. I remember his eyes lighting up when he saw the masterworks there. He did not want to leave and we only got to the train by running the last 100 yards after a brisk walk. He was thrilled that he made it—both to see the models and that he could do the run at age 85.
While enrapt with the beauties of these models as I catalogued them in the Thaws’ apartment, I kept going to the walls drawn by the information imparted and beauty of their extraordinary collection of interior watercolors. These works, many of great beauty and revealing information, are especially valuable to decorative arts historians as they show what people collected and how they lived with their objects; all key to setting objects into their original context and noting the collecting tastes of a place and time. Here I saw how a French Empire salon by Hilaire Thierry ( 2007-27-6) had a pair of torchères on the mantle like a pair by Thomire in Cooper Hewitt’s collection (1999-15-1,2); how the Royal Palace in Berlin’s Chinese Room housed Chinese export wares with European furniture in 1850 (2007-27-48); and how an unknown Austrian house used striped wallpaper in the 1850s (2007-27-52).
They also show how metamorphic library ladders like one in Cooper Hewitt’s collection (1967-45-28), bird cages with exotic birds (2007-27-26), and the beginnings of antique collecting appeared in libraries, drawing rooms, and other interiors around Europe, as well as how artist Lawrence Alma Tadema’s daughter Anna recorded the aesthetic interior of his library in Townshend House, London in 1884 (2007-27-72). It was a treasure trove. While some of the watercolors were of magnificent quality, others were very good and collection worthy partly because they all told important stories with their subject matter. I could not help but see what a resource these would be for students of interiors, culture, collecting, and the interaction of design trends with lifestyles. How lucky that—having realized what I was seeing, and what the Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design department saw in their quality—the Thaws agreed to give them to Cooper Hewitt to share with as many people as possible.
Their gift of these watercolors resulted in a book and an exhibition called House Proud at Cooper Hewitt that also included some of the objects so close to those in the paintings, as well as exhibitions of the watercolors with French and Chinese language catalogues in Paris, Shanghai, and Annapolis, along with ongoing access to the collection through online cataloguing and good photography, scholar visits, and individual loans to groundbreaking exhibitions.
At the same time as we were working on comparing the dates of familiar objects with the style of the watercolors, we also were lucky enough to expand the models collection. Some of the staircase models were also architectural models, and this had led the Thaws to collect some wonderful architectural models that were not staircase models. They added this collection in several installments, some of which joined the staircase models in a Model Room after the museum reopened. A natural way to examine architecture and its relationship to interiors, models play a major role in the design process.
In 2017, the Thaws completed a gift from their collection of Moustiers ceramics that they started giving to the museum in 2006. This special collection has led to graduate study, research into the design sources of the motifs, the role that this earthenware played in eighteenth-century France, and the influence it has continued to have. As with so much of what the Thaws gave, it was a joint interest that they learned about together. In the case of Moustiers, it had started with a wedding gift from someone whose knowledge and taste they appreciated, and led them to an adventure of learning about makers, studying the decoration in detail, and finding some rare and elegant forms. And like everything the Thaws pursued, the collecting benefited from Gene’s unfailing desire to discern the individual hand in the creative process, which led to his extraordinary connoisseurship.
Clare Thaw, lived long enough to give her approval for the donation in early 2017 of the Moustiers pieces they previously had kept back to enjoy at home, but, sadly, died soon after. When Gene came to see the Moustiers exhibition on the second floor during the autumn of 2017, he was happy to see them join their earlier donations installed along with the museum’s drawings and textiles that linked the ceramics to other design disciplines. Then, before leaving, he returned to the Models & Protoypes Gallery to appreciate the visitors of all ages that were flowing around the staircase and architectural models and saving the information with their Pens. He smiled as he enjoyed watching them, and recognized his gifts were, indeed, appreciated in many ways by the public he sought to reach in every area his connoisseurship led him and, by extension, Clare as well.
Cooper Hewitt will miss the Thaws, but I will miss them especially. When I took John Walsh and Tony Clarke’s course in Connoisseurship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a graduate student, they took us to meet someone they presented as an art dealer, Eugene Thaw, and also as the ultimate connoisseur. He was in the same apartment-office that I later spent so much happy time with their collections. I was bowled over that one man could know so much and felt that he did it by getting his head into that of the various artists he collected and studied to understand their process as well as to recognize greatness when he saw it. We mostly looked at the extraordinary collection of Old Master Drawings, many now at the Morgan, but I never forgot that day and was overjoyed to be invited to step back into his world. I was thrilled to find that he also thought about these same criteria in the design world and welcomed my observations, wanting me to use my training as an architectural-decorative arts historian to present this love of the creative process and great design to others.
I was exposed, not only to the world of Compagnonnage and the details of Moustiers, but also to the Thaws’ generosity to Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, where I saw them at the operas for which they underwrote the productions and visited the Fenimore Art Museum’s display of the Thaw Collection of American Indian Art. I also visited the Thaws in Santa Fe, cataloguing and seeing how some of the wonderful models looked there among their collection of Native American arts, and knowing the Santa Fe opera also counted them friends. The Thaws lived with their collections sharing the space around them in the beauty of their house in the mountains that was heightened by Clare’s special love of gardening,. Gene and Clare surrounded themselves with beauty and gave it all away to places where everyone could see it. What better gift to us all could there be?
Sarah D. Coffin
Curator and Head, Product Design and Decorative Arts Department