by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. This is a story about high standards in an age that regularly outrages them. It is the story of painstaking care in the era of fast and slovenly. It is the story of masters and their punctilious craftsmanship… and of our age which has raised mediocrity to the apogee. It is the story of man at his best… and at his worst and the eye that tells us which is which… and how to perceive what one sees.
This is the story of excellence… of discernment… of discrimination… and of one man’s epic journey to know what is truth and beauty… and then find them in a world too harried and beset by troubles even to wonder, always making do with less, always pretending otherwise.
For this journey, made by so few amongst the unknowing many, I have chosen Elgar, Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), a man whose genius gave thrilling sound to the empire on which the sun never set. He dreamt the dreams that turned ideas in his mind into the cadences that define imperial glory to this day.
Thus, for this article I have selected his “Imperial March” (1897). Go now to any search engine. Find it… listen to it without any interruption permitted… and whilst you are listening ask what you have done lately to sharpen your standards… to know what shows the hand of a master (and what doesn’t). In short, what have you done to join the elite ranks of the crucial people, the people who have created civilization and sustain it, the people known as connoisseurs, the people who never accept anything but excellence for that is what the life worth living, worth striving for must be about.
Visit to the Huntington Library, monument to exacting standards, a pledge to oneself.
When one is born a boy of the prairies one is right to wonder where the urge to become a connoisseur, one who appreciates the very best, comes from. Why did I have this urge while every aunt and uncle, every cousin, did not? The answer, upon reflection, is this. Two women of perception and clear objective set me on my path. They were my mother, Shirley Mae Lauing, Baroness de Kesoun y de Barlais in her own right, and my grandmother, Victoria Burgess Lauing. Their insistence that my life should be dedicated to understanding the best of all times and cultures started me on my road to never ending improvement and a character which demanded and could tolerate nothing else.
When did these adamant ladies start? I cannot say for certain, for though like Sir Winston Churchill I was present at the event I have no recollection thereof. My mother took me regularly to the Art Institute of Chicago where the noisome smells and disgust of the stock yards, the unending granaries of the Midwest, and the great railroads that made Chicago their hub had been turned by newly minted connoisseurs into a place proudly presenting what its patrons managed to prise from a Europe too burdened with greatness and current bills to realize what they were in fact selling and could never be replaced.
There in the Edwardian lushness of the Palm Court she helped fashion my life, punctuated by china tea and petit fours. For these life enhancing meetings everything counted, the pictures one saw that day, what one said about them, how one said it; the validity of one’s point of view, how mildly one could correct someone’s who erred; above all the grace and gentility which distinguished a gentleman, even of 10 or 12. Yes, even what one had for tea counted… whether one took sugar (frowned upon) or lemon (vastly preferred). These were, no doubt, matters of the well-lived life but they did not per se make one a connoisseur, even an aspiring one.
That was because the Art Institute was not a home, not a place where connoisseurs displayed their collections and told a collector’s deeds of daring do, the deeds which demonstrated their taste, their shrewdness and the necessary deep pockets to indulge them. No, the Art Institute was an institution to which well-heeled patrons bequeathed before they expired.
Nor did the matter of becoming a connoisseur take root and grow by visiting the notable collections laboriously, assiduously, obsessively assembled by the wealthy citizens of Downers Grove, Illinois and stolidly middle class DuPage County. For in DuPage, for all that it was the home to every bourgeois value, there were no such collections for a boy to see, admire and learn from. Connoisseurs were rare as hen’s teeth; unseen, unvisited, unknown even if they existed at all.
That is why my visit to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California was so important. It made the hitherto unimaginable stunningly real… something one could see, wish for, strive for… and have. Not just something beautiful… but something actual, splendid, dreams no longer just dreamt but achieved. In short it demonstrated a desirable destination for the boy who saw thereby the road which for him might otherwise have gone untaken.
Riding the rails to riches.
The Huntingtons were not merely rich. They verily had the Midas touch making them some of the wealthiest people on earth. Collis P. Huntington, one of the Big Four railroad tycoons of 19th century California, started it off with his major stock position in the Central Pacific Railroad. Ironically I studied something about him when I was in high school in Los Angeles. I entered an essay and speaking contest sponsored by the Native Sons of the Golden West. My topic was the development of the great railroads of the Golden State. I took home a disappointing second prize. CP’s nephew and heir Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) would have been dismayed. He knew nothing of second places, except that they were for others than himself. For such a man nothing but a palace would do… with everything in it fit for an exacting connoisseur.
Awe in the gallery.
One never knows when destiny will manifest itself. Surely when my mother and I walked towards the entrance of the Huntington Library I had no idea that a few daubs of paint in a gilded frame were about to change my life and make it clear where I must go. But then I had never been to the Huntington Library before… It was originally the home of Henry Edwards Huntington, the man who shocked the grande dames of San Francisco when as a highly eligible bachelor he married his uncle’s widow Arabella and gave her a palace in which they could love each other.
But palaces require objects of beauty to adorn them… and so at age 60 Huntington began his education as a connoisseur. And make no mistake about it. This takes work, dedication, commitment, for there is no quick and easy way to rise to this eminence, even if one is supremely wealthy as Huntington was. He had to learn just like you and me. And so, properly advised by the world’s notable experts, he began… focusing on the stupendous work of Britain’s 18th century masters. Adding just one or two pictures a year, he slowly built over time the greatest group of such pictures… and now they were there for… me… aged just 16 or so.
The life-sized portrait of Sarah Barrett Moulton (called “Pinkie”) by Lawrence.
The portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Painted in 1784, it’s a picture so enchanting that the painter told Mrs. Siddons, the greatest tragedienne of the age, he had signed it on the hem of her gown. Why? So that ages hence would know of his abject and total admiration for such genius.
And then, of course, the stunning event (for I can not just call this a picture) that is the portrait of Master Jonathan Buttall, “The Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough. Purchased by Huntington from His Grace the Duke of Westminster, Britain’s richest peer, money was no object. And so three quarters of a million dollars was sent to the duke, making it the most expensive picture ever painted, a symbol of Britain’s decline and America’s growing ascendancy.
Now I could not take my eyes off it… and only did so to make a vow, then and there. It was bold, audacious, brash in the way of headstrong adolescence. I looked my mother in the eye and told her that “some day” I would have such pictures and be such a connoisseur. She smiled the “humor him” smile… but she could not have mistaken the steely determination in my eyes… and so…
… one of the first works I acquired for my collection is a magnificent picture of the 6th Earl of Shaftesbury by Sir Thomas Lawrence, President of the Royal Academy (1769- 1830). It is hanging in the Red Drawing Room right now… something Henry Edwards Huntington would have admired… coveted… I had kept my vow and, as one connoisseur to another, he would have known and respected it.
About the Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Services include home business training, affiliate marketing training, earn-at-home programs, traffic tools, advertising, webcasting, hosting, design, WordPress Blogs and more. Find out why Worldprofit is considered the # 1 online Home Business Training program by getting a free Associate Membership today at http://www.worldprofit.com View Dr. Lant’s art gallery at http://www.TheJeffreyLantTrust.org/the-collection
Author: Jeffrey LantThis author has published 572 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.