Lockwood de Forest ’s Wall
1881, 54 progressive citizens established the Art Association of Indianapolis under the guiding hand of the uffragette May Wright Sewall. Fourteen years later, the generous bequest of John Herron allowed the Association to begin constructing an art school and art museum. In 1906, the John Herron Art Institute opened with much fanfare. Its first director, William Henry Fox, organized a robust schedule of exhibitions highlighting loaned artworks, especially those representing non-Western cultures.
In 1907, the New York-based designer Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932) loaned several objects — including chest fronts from Damascus, Indian and Islamic metal vessels. And Oriental rugs — to an exhibition showcasing the carpet collection of Association member Charles Q. Jones. Instrumental in organizing this loan was the nationally known
lecturer Frederic Allen Whiting, who had attended the Herron’s grand opening and had probably encouraged it to approach de Forest.
Both Whiting and de Forest were proponents of the Handicraft Movement, which actively promoted traditional craftsmanship. Though the Herron’s Beaux-Arts building might have suggested a preference for fine art, its leaders emphasized design from the very beginning. Brandt Steele, son of the famous Hoosier School painter T.C. Steele,
began teaching industrial design as soon as the school opened. And in 1908 the number and scope of such classes grew. A year later, the Herron adopted a mission statement focused on the applied arts.
In 1910, Fox was succeeded by Whiting, who continued to correspond with de Forest. Before Whiting departed in 1913 to become founding director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was decided that de Forest would sell the Herron a large wall from India comprised of jalis (pierced decorative screens). As well as a cornice, doors, and windows. This ensemble would be placed before the sculpture court’s north-facing windows so that incoming light
would animate the pierced surfaces from behind. According to the U.S. Census of 1910, the state of Indiana’s 155,533 foreign-born residents included only 2,577 of Asian origin.
Thus, de Forest’s wall was sure to be one of the first Asian artworks most Hoosiers would ever encounter. It was expected to offer particular inspiration to the institute’s students.
For Indianapolis, de Forest selected more than 300 elements of wood, stone, and metal that would be assembled upon arrival. Yet in the correspondence that survives, he offered little advice on exactly how to arrange them An undated photograph of the constructed ensemble was taken at the Herron and sent to de Forest, but there is no record of his response, or of his ever visiting Indianapolis.
A DESIGNER ON A MISSION
It is helpful to set this wall into the context of Lockwood de Forest’s remarkable career. Born the son of a wealthy New York attorney, Lockwood avoided the legal career pursued by his brothers in favor of one in the arts, a direction bolstered by his being the protégé (and great-nephew by marriage) of the Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900). While traveling with his family through Egypt and Syria, de Forest became
interested in Islamic art and brought home several objects, including carpets, tiles, and brass.
These became the core of an extensive collection that inspired the designs that would make him one of America’s most influential designers between approximately 1885 and 1915. During this Gilded Age heyday, de Forest created sumptuous exotic interiors. Often Indian-inspired and embellished with carved teakwood, for clients across the United States.
In 1880, de Forest partnered with Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) to establish Tiffany & de Forest, a design firm focused on decorative arts. To source stock for it, de Forest made an extensive tour of India the following
year with his new wife, Meta Kemble de Forest, a member of the wealthy Dupont family. In Ahmedabad (now the largest city in the state of Gujarat). He was instantly taken with the elaborate decoration of Hindu and Jain temples, Muslim mosques, tombs, and houses.
De Forest photographed the buildings that interested him most and published the resulting images in his 1885 book, Indian Domestic Architecture. In that volume, he recalled wondering “whether we are going to allow arts to die out which have taken centuries … to bring to perfection. There is but one way of saving them and that is, by giving employment to the best men in making the finest things.”
Eager to share this carving tradition with his American clients, de Forest met the Ahmedabad banker and hilanthropist Muggunbhai Hutheesing, whose father had commissioned the building of a Jain temple and who thus was familiar with local craftsmen.
De Forest and Hutheesing promptly set up the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company, with Hutheesing acting as manager. Its mission was to employ craftsmen — many of them members of the ancient caste of Hindu craftsmen known as mistri — to create metal and wood objects for the American market.
The historic wealth of Ahmedabad is evident in the rich ornamentation of its stone and wood buildings, which often feature pierced screens, porches, and other details. De Forest identified his favorite patterns, adapted them
for his American clients’ interiors, and then arranged for his workshop to reproduce them.
FAMOUS, FORGOTTEN, FOUND
The price of the de Forest wall was $3,000 (almost $74,000 in today’s dollars), making it the single most expensive object purchased for theHerron collection up to that time. Several eventswere held, and several benefactors approached,in order to raise funds for its purchase. By 1915, when the wall was officially accessioned, 33
Indianapolis citizens had become subscribers; their names appear in the Information section at the end of this article.
They included the famed author Booth Tarkington; Charles Fairbanks, who served as Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president; the theater owners Fred Dickson and Henry Talbott; and a range of other politicians, industrialists, and philanthropists.Over the next half-century, the wall took on multiple arrangements. In 1970, the Herron Institute was split in two, leaving the art school (which still bears the Herron name) at its original location. Renamed the Indianapolis Museum of Art (hereafter “IMA”). The art collection moved to the 50-acre property donated by the philanthropist J.K. Lilly, Jr. Whose residence now serves as the museum director’s home.3 At first, a portion of the wall was displayed in the purpose-built Krannert Pavilion, and over the ensuing years, sections of it have appeared in various gallery displays.
Interest in the wall was revived in 2012 upon the appointment of Amy G. Poster, curator emerita of the Brooklyn Museum’s Asian art department, as the IMA’s Mellon curatorat- large for South Asian art. Most of the wall’s
components had been in storage for decades, its pieces identified in the database simply as “architectural detail.” Thanks to generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Poster supervised a thorough survey of those
components that was completed in 2012.
A team of curators, conservators, art handlers, and photographers collaborated to remove each piece from storage, and then to photograph, identify, and measure it. Several specialists were called in to make close examinations; for example, samples taken from 15 pieces allowed the wood expert Dr. Regis B. Miller to establish that they are made primarily of teak, which suggests they were carved in the Ahmedabad workshop. Except for a few pieces destroyed in a fire, almost all of the wall’s nearly 300 individual components of wood, stone, and metal have been located and are in excellent condition.
Four sandstone jalis can be identified as part of an order of 100 that de Forest made in Agra in 1881 to supply Tiffany & de Forest. Early-20th-century photographs of the entrance to his New York City home show its lower wall lined with similar pieces. Though de Forest promoted the wall as being made of “ancient originals,”. It is likely that most of its pieces were contemporary. The exceptions are four chest fronts he purchased in Damascus in 1876. (He published similar examples in his 1912 book, Illustrations of Design.)
In the last few years, de Forest’s artistry has won renewed interest from both collectors and art historians. In September 2013, an auction at Bonhams New York featured an unexpected bidding war over two brass-overlaid teak sidechairs that de Forest used in his own home. And that were later owned by William Randolph Hearst. This pair sold for $242,500 (four times the original estimate) and is now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. This groundswell of interest in de Forest will surely increase appreciation of the wall’s
special status as a highlight of the museum’s South Asian collection.
Summer on the Hudson: Lockwood de Forest, and Much More
As suggested in the previous article, the fascinating life story of the American designer Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932) was enhanced by his frequent travel abroad.
When Lockwood was in his late teens, the de Forest and Church families took long, intersecting trips abroad, meeting up first in Rome and then in Athens, where the lad sketched alongside his 43-year-old relative. Back in New York, de Forest continued to study painting with Church, so a particular highlight of this exhibition is the pairing of their 1872 oil sketches of the same sunset view from Olana.
The 1870s witnessed unprecedented awareness of Indian arts and crafts across the West thanks to the opulent coronation of England’s Queen Victoria as empress of India in 1877, the event that launched “the Raj,” which only ended 70 years later with India’s independence. Ground zero of this movement was London’s South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), which de Forest visited just before making his first trip to India in 1881.
Two years later, he set up his own showroom in Manhattan, where he enjoyed growing success selling decorative objects from Egypt and India. Though he was an intrepid traveler, Church himself never visited India, so he began buying Indian items from his great-nephew in 1883. On view in All the Raj is an array of them, including a carved teak fireplace mantel (made in de Forest’s Ahmedabad workshop in response to Church’s sketch), painted furniture, and engraved brass trays.
Even after Church died in 1900, de Forest continued to visit Olana and sketch there. By this time, he had built his own townhouse at 7 East 10th Street in Manhattan (now New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life), which still stops pedestrians in their tracks with its exotic teakwood façade. The only other de Forest scheme still extant in Manhattan is the family library he designed in the industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s mansion; this is now home to the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, which has just refurbished the library as part of its multi-year renovation and expansion. The museum will reopen this autumn with a special exhibition, Lockwood de Forest, Frederic Church, and a Passion for the Exotic. Please check its website for dates and details.
JUST ACROSS THE RIVER
While visiting Olana, be sure to cross the Hudson and visit the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill. On view there, also through November 2, is the special exhibition Master Mentor Master: Thomas Cole & Frederic Church. Just as Church nurtured the creative impulses of Lockwood de Forest, so the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole (1801- 1848), mentored Church himself from 1844 to 1846.
In this show, guest curator and Princeton University professor emeritus John Wilmerding traces how 18-year-old Church was introduced to the region when he came to study with Cole. On view are Church’s early landscapes, which show him learning from Cole while developing his own style. Also displayed are masterworks made just a year or two later, demonstrating his quick mastery of the subject; clearly this two-year period set the course for the rest of his life. As late as the 1890s, Church’s letters convey his abiding respect for Cole, even comparing him with Constable and Turner.
The Cole site is extra busy this summer because ground has just been broken for the reconstruction of his studio, which he designed and built in 1846.
(That structure was demolished in 1973, when the property was still privately owned.) A total of $1.25 million has already been raised, and now members of the public are invited to donate what they can toward the studio, which will function as a handicap-accessible gallery.
One of the exhibitions to be mounted there will be curated by independent scholar Annette Blaugrund.
She has long been fascinated by the fact that, in the mid-1830s, Cole described himself not as an artist, but as an architect. He had not yet designed a single building, though his paintings certainly revealed a penchant for architecture, and it was only in 1838 that his proposed design for the Ohio State Capitol won third place. In the end, Cole designed his own studio and the church of St. Luke’s in Catskill.