Sunday, January 26, 2020

Gillian Wilson (1941-2019)

I can’t rightly remember when I met Gillian Wilson, but it had to be around 1970 when she joined the Metropolitan Museum as a student fellow.  I remember an assured, very opinionated young woman who considered herself a great expert in French 18th century decorative arts. If she was at that time or not, she later proved herself to be just that.

In my time in the biz I found that, particularly in the decorative arts there are cycles of interest so an entire generation may pass without much interest and then the taste comes back.  One individual who continued his interest in Royal French 18th century furniture (FFF, fine French Furniture in auction parlance) from the 1930’s till his death in 1976 was J. Paul Getty.  But there was a long hiatus in his acquisitions.

I believe my uncle, Hans Stiebel, who lived in Paris, got to know Getty in the late 1940’s through an introduction from the French Rothschilds as an expert they respected in the field of French decorative arts.  According to my father, Hans and Getty went on shopping trips together and bought, for instance, the double bureau dos d'├óne (two sided desk) from the Duke of ArgyIl in Scotland.  It is by Bernard von Risenburgh known by his signature BVRB and is one of the Getty’s prize pieces in the field.

When we heard that Getty was buying again we got back in touch.  At that time the Getty Villa in Malibu, today devoted to classical antiquities, was the entire J. Paul Getty Museum. In 1971 Gillian made her fateful move to the Getty Museum and she stayed until 2003. She was a formidable force there.

 A savvy “oil man”, the story goes, told Paul Getty not to invest in wells in Libya because the oil fields were going to be nationalized, saving Getty billions.  The “oil man” then bought a venerable art dealer’s practice and became Getty’s sole agent.  That individual then hired a young scholar, Theodore Dell, who was an expert in French furniture and would much later write the catalogues for the Frick Collection in New York.  Ted highly recommended Gillian to the Oil Man, and when introduced to Paul Getty, he and Gillian hit it off.  

Getty always promised to fly from his home, Sutton Place, in Guilford, Surrey England to teach a course at UCLA and visit his museum. He never could get himself to do so and never saw his museum.  Gillian had a model of the Getty Malibu Villa made for him at Sutton Place and would place tiny models of the objects she wished to acquire strategically inside the model.

Gillian died at the end of 2019 and last week I went to Malibu for a celebration of her life.  For me it was old home week.  So many people from my professional past showed up for the event.  They showed slides of many of her acquisitions including a number that had come through our hands.  One of her favorite pieces (and mine) was a Planisphere with all its dials and beautiful marquetry.  Originally, it not only told the time, but its various dials showed the level of scientific knowledge in eighteenth-century France. The only problem with it was that the works were missing.  Gillian was criticized for the acquisition but her rational was that it was a unique and important piece of furniture and the works did not matter since you rarely see working scientific instruments in a museum.

Among the many speakers were the current director of the Getty, Timothy Potts and the former director, John Walsh, known for his expertise in Dutch old master paintings when he had been curator at the Metropolitan Museum. Walsh had kind words but also talked about Gillian’s directness. At the time when Gillian applied to the Met for her fellowship, he was in the position to interview her and he repeated that she told him he had to hire her.  She was no shrinking violet! 

As you probably know, Richard Meier, the starchitect, built the new Getty Center with his signature white tiles looking over Los Angeles. What is less well known is that Gillian got the Getty administration to hire Thierry Despont, a major French architect, just to design her galleries of French Decorative Arts.  From what I heard at the time Gillian was quite tyrannical about what she wanted.  In fact, the story was told at her memorial that she wished to have certain walls painted brown but vetoed all the custom browns that Despont brought to her.  Instead, she brought in a shopping bag and said that was the color she wanted.  It is said that Despont named the color, “shopping bag brown”!  here is Gillian in one of those rooms.

One story told which I actually heard told jokingly by Gillian, herself, was that when trying to cajole Getty into parting with his money, which he held onto dearly, for each button she would undo on her blouse she got another $5,000.  Knowing Gillian, and having met Getty a couple of times, it would not surprise me in the least!

Gillian was not spared her foibles.  Most of those stories were about her stubbornness and argumentative nature.  One of my favorite tales came from a good friend of hers, the Getty conservator of decorative arts and sculpture, Arlen Heginbotham, who said that Gillian was good training for him, as he now has a 14 year-old daughter who questions everything he says and argues incessantly.  Gillian was always questioning.  

She was also extremely enthusiastic.  Martin Chapman, who was at the Getty but is currently curator in charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco when he was with Gillian leading a group and there seemed to be a bunch of stragglers.  Gillian turns around and yells, “if you don’t keep up you won’t hear what I have to say”.  Martin catches up with Gillian and says, “They are not part of our group”!

There are different kinds of curators.  There are scholars who never wish to take there nose out of an archive or a book, those who specialize in organizing exhibitions and then there are the acquirers, which is what Gillian was best known for.  Not that Gillian did not also publish a number of catalogs and also install them beautifully in her galleries. Without her the J. Paul Getty would not have been the repository of some of the greatest expressions of 17th and 18th century French art that it is today.

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