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Monday, 13 July 2009

Franklin at the Art Museum

Bottom: Lansdowne Room, Philadelphia

Top: Round Room, London

Bit of 'Philly' in Treaty of Paris  

tep forward history boffins and bona fide experts of Colonial America alike:

What is Philadelphia's connection to the Treaty of Paris, the pact that, seven years after the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, concluded the war's hostilities?

Stumped? If you guessed the answer -- the Lansdowne House in London, where the Treaty was drafted -- you're probably a paid-up member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a visitor to one of the museum's principal habitat installations, the eponymous Lansdowne Room. And yes, Benjamin Franklin was there, too.

As is so often the case with history lessons, the details are quirky and fascinating.

The story of the Lansdowne House and how a bit of it turned up in Philadelphia is an improbable, 75-year-old tale almost as complicated as they come. It involves the near brick-by-brick dismantling of a former grand townhouse and little-known Revolutionary War site in, of all places, London.

In the end, what evolved – in an age when governance over the export of a country's cultural patrimony was less restrictive than today – was one of the museum world's largely unheralded cultural coups that, thanks to the Art Museum, merged the interests of history and art to import a bit of Dr. Franklin's London to Philadelphia.

The key player in the Lansdowne Room acquisition was Fiske Kimball, a dynamic architectural historian and preservationist who was the museum's director from 1925 to 1955, the year of his death. (Like the most recent director, the late Anne d'Harnoncourt, Kimball was a force of nature. Maybe that should be made a job requirement.)

Acquiring the Lansdowne Room wasn't easy. The Depression was still raging in 1931, the year that Kimball set out to secure the room, which had been designed by the celebrated 18th-century Scottish builder Robert Adam. Adam had actually designed the room as the "First Drawing Room" when the Berkeley Square mansion was still part of what was then known as Shelburne House. Adam had also designed the house, constructed in the late 1760s. (I warned you; it's complicated).

Despite the period's enormous economic challenge, Kimball was always dedicated to a singular mission of expansion and excellence. Just three years before, he had pulled off the opening of the museum at its new site on the Parkway, a controversial effort many years in the making. (Not surprisingly, the director was instrumental in taking the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the forefront of the world's great cultural institutions).

What occurred was a confluence of fortunate events, focusing, not incidentally, on Kimball's particular area of interest, architecture. On a visit to London in 1929, Kimball had learned that much of Shelburne House was to be demolished, succumbing to new traffic patterns around Berkeley Square. The building had already gone through a number of changes, including several rebrandings. By 1931, the "Shelburne House" title had been canned, giving way first to "Lansdowne House" and then to the Bruton Club, the latest of the building's tenants.

Demolished? Adam-designed rooms? Kimball sensed an opportunity like no other. But there was more: history. American history.

Shelburne House was an historic site, where Benjamin Franklin, as the American envoy to France, and Lord Shelburne, Britain's Prime Minister (yes, that Lord Shelburne), forged the Treaty of Paris. But while the peace treaty was drafted in London, it was ultimately signed in Paris in 1783 -– hence, the Treaty of Paris. (Figuring in this tale of two cities were inevitably politics and battling egos. Don't ask.) Another twist: Lord Shelburne was kicked upstairs after the treaty was signed, refashioned as Lord Lansdowne. (Ergo, Lansdowne Room.)
Kimball knew he had to act quickly. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also had its eye on a similar purchase.

(Actually, after nailing down acquisition of the Lansdowne lounge, Kimball had tipped off the Met.) The New York museum eventually wound up acquiring another Adam marvel, the mansion's dining room.

Kimball struck after lining up a gift, thanks, as he said, to the 'generosity' of Graeme Lorimer, son of George Horace Lorimer, the fabulously wealthy editor-in-chief of the then-Philadelphia-based Saturday Evening Post. (The room is dedicated to the senior Lorimer by Graeme, who died in 1983, and his wife Sarah Moss Lorimer, who died the same year.)

Kimball was quick to acquire the room, yet slow to present it. It wasn't until 1943, 12 years after its purchase, that the drawing room was actually installed. Writing in 1986, museum curator Katheryn Bloom Hiesinger blamed the delay on museum's dependence on labor from the federal Works Progress Administration, a funding source that had been largely expended during the previous decade.

So, what then of the room's significance? I suspect that Kimball was interested in acquiring the drawing room more for its artistic value than for its historical roots. Not to be forgotten, the room also features wall paintings, including the Toilet of Venus, by 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Cipriani.

That Franklin sat, debated, and socialized in the room was probably of less interest.

For Kimball, in fact, the Lansdowne Room could be seen as just another milestone in his drive to "collect" as many decorative rooms from England and Europe as possible. At the time, his aim was laudatory: few Americans then had the means to visit the originals in situ. The Lansdowne Room had special resonance for Philadelphians, as well, as "Lansdowne" is a familiar local name; Lansdowne Avenue and the nearby suburb of Lansdowne were named after the same English peers.

Writing in a museum bulletin in 1943, Kimball explained his plan to create a series of "antique" rooms "giving in an authentic way the background and atmosphere of the ensemble of works of paintings and decorative art displayed in them." Kimball noted that the Lansdowne Room "crowns the series, coming as it does from the moment when England, fresh from her greatest conquests, seized for a moment also the artistic mastery of the world."

For historians, however, the room of most interest in the former Shelburne House is "the one that got away," the Round Room. It was in this circular room, which is about 30 feet across and miraculously still intact, that Franklin and Shelburne negotiated the treaty. It wasn't far from the drawing room -- but not being in the path of the 1931 road construction -- it managed to survive as an even grander, expanded Lansdowne Club building grew around it.

I visited the room a few weeks ago, welcomed on my tour by Alan Bush, the Lansdowne Club's head concierge. (Bush gifted me a copy of the club's history, The House in Berkeley Square by Maria Perry, a valuable resource for this article).

Bush, an affable, generous sort gussied up in the finery of his office, ushered me into the Round Room, which is blessed by a circular frieze, also by Cipriani. This frieze and other artwork by J.F. Rigaud, all completed coincidentally in 1776, were recently cleaned, Bush noted, after years of smoke and grime.

The room houses one of the club's numerous bars. I drank a claret there, much as Dr. Franklin might have done in that very spot.

Bush told me that room has become something of a venerated historic site, albeit a little-known one, for visiting Americans. (My first visit was with my father in the early 1960s. We also went by Franklin's former house in Craven Street, another landmark –and another story.)

'Take a look at this,' Bush said, pointing to a framed proclamation:

"To commemorate the historical significance of this room during the Bicentennial of The Treaty of Paris 1783-1983 where the understandings of said Treaty were reviewed prior to formal agreement in Paris and to preserve this friendship between the parties to that Treaty. Presented by the National Society Sons of the American Revolution, Sept. 6, 1983."

The Treaty of Paris was among the last fabulous highlights in Dr. Franklin's extraordinary life voyage. In 1785, two years after signing the treaty, Franklin returned to Philadelphia. In his hometown, the Great Man was hailed as the Great Peacemaker. 

(This article orginally appeared in the 8 July 2009 edition of the Weekly Press).