Wednesday, November 10, 2010


"In one of the links to your last entry, there was mention of Billy McCarty meeting Douglas Cooper at the house of Henry McIlhenny in Philadelphia. McIlhenny had astounding furniture and pictures. In House and Garden, April 1986, John Richardson (part of the circle) wrote a remembrance of him with great photographs of the Rittenhouse Square house in its last incarnation. I believe you would enjoy seeing it."

So wrote a kind reader and when I replied that I didn't have that issue, within hours he sent me scans of pages from his files, and here they are - together with photographs, vignettes really, published in House and Garden after McIlhenny's death. These photographs - the ones after Degas' bronze Dancer, Dressed - accompany a text, a tribute to a friend, indeed written by John Richardson. I had found the essay mentioned above but not where I'd first looked.

"Henry McIlhenny, the Philadelphian collector who died this year, was one of the last American Maecenas: witness his sumptuous house (actually three houses knocked into one) on Rittenhouse Square and the Balmoralized castle he used to own in Donegal. Henry was not only a great connoisseur, he was one of the last exponents of a tradition going back to the Augustan Age: the tradition of the scholarly plutocrat with a passion for the gamut of civilized living - for gardening, cooking, and conversation as well as art, music, and literature. There was also a dash of the nabob about him: a benign Beckford.

"Although his French paintings were incomparable - in my opinion the best private collection of its kind in the country - Henry never allowed them to upstage his way of life. On the contrary, unlike today's collectors, most of whom exploit their acquisitions for financial, social, or egotistical reasons, he was at pains to play down his possessions, except in the company of other art lovers whose pleasure enhanced his own."

"To his vast circle of friends, Henry was also one of the warmest, funniest, liveliest, most generous men on either side of the Atlantic. For he lived by his dictum that 'wealth must be used for the enjoyment of others.' Henry's hospitality was such that one expected a flunky with McILHENNY ARMS embroidered on his cap to be waiting at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station or Belfast's airport. As he told Patrick O'Higgins, 'A good host is nothing more than a good innkeeper.' In fact, Henry was far, far more than an innkeeper, as the countless visitors to Rittenhouse Square or the thirty-thousand-acre fiefdom in Donegal (now a state park) can testify."

John Richardson wrote a extensive account of Henry McIlhenny's life - too long to be quoted in full here but he ends it with another heartfelt tribute to his friend.

"Last summer Henry planned to return to Venice, but death intervened: first his sister, Bernice; then, less than two weeks later, Henry himself. The flags of Philadelphia flew at half-mast and, on one public building in particular, could only be persuaded to return to normal with considerable difficulty. In due course, the Philadelphia Museum - heir to most of Henry's art - will put the collection on view and thus provide its creator with the best of monuments. Meanwhile, Henry lives on in the memories of those who knew him as more than a great host, more than a great collector: a friend who had the distinction, rare in the very rich, of a heart that eclipsed his fortune,"

Such a fine valediction is not met with often. Would that we all could be so well thought of at our passing.

One of the obvious differences between the two sets of photographs, besides the aforementioned vignetting, is one of disposition: the first being workmanlike record of space, the second a memoir of abundant atmosphere - and both represent a shift in the way interiors are viewed, and, by extension, the way photographs are perceived. Art or mechanics: your choice.

Look back through interior design magazines from the 1960s and 1970s and it becomes clear that the tradition of simply recording interiors established in the early years of the twentieth-century by Country Life, etc., had currency into the 1970s. It was in the 1980s that a change began to take place - drama began to be a quality sought after and was remarked upon in the magazines of the day - and homes began to be stage sets for lives written about in society columns and design magazines. For a number of years now shelter magazines, increasingly, have not been about design but about salesmanship and celebrity. I've mentioned before, I think, that for me the nadir of design publishing or, perhaps more correctly, the triumph of celebrity over good design were the two recent Architectural Digest essays about Michael Jackson and Gerard Butler.

These latter photographs, vignettes as I have said, of the much celebrating and celebrated Mr McIlhenny's rooms are more than a mere record; they give the impression almost of a slinking caress of light and shade over the lustrous surfaces of the Charles X bois claire furniture, watered silk, silk damask, brocades, marble, Degas' bronze, ormulu, gilded wood, Ingres', David's, Delacroix's, Renoir's, and Matisse's paint, a Boulle commode, and a fir tree's lights glowing through puffs of baby's breath.

So, finally, I come to my theme of late: circles within circles or, more simply put, connections. There is more to be written, vignettes drawn, not perhaps about Mr McIlhenny, but certainly about others who connect.

I have no record of the photographer for the first set of photographs. The photographs in the second set are by Oberto Gili and accompanied a text by John Richardson published in House and Garden, December 1986.


  1. I am glad to see these McIlhenny rooms, as I had only seen earlier, more sparse shots that were hardly convincing of the owner's reported great style, not counting the art.

  2. GREAT post, I vividly remember when this article appeared, I absolutely loved H&G under Louis Gropp, he presided over 5 or 6 wonderful years with articles like this, serious connoisseurship and sumptuous photography. Good thread going re Connections, too. Thank you.

  3. I second Flo's vote for H&G in the Gropp years. I have held onto every issue (only to lose the first in the exploding car. I have been luckless finding a replacement).

    McIlhenny was a friend of friends, speaking of circles within circles, and they always had delightful things to say of him, and of the house, ballroom excepted. His sister's house, by Billy Baldwin, displayed some equally jaw dropping art. Quite the eye those two siblings had

  4. JT, thank you. I increasingly prefer workmanlike records of rooms rather than vignetted atmosphere. I have more but they are perhaps for another day.

    Flo, thank you. I agree about Mr Gropp and coincidentally I mention him in the post for Friday.

    Dilettante, thank you. Unfortunately, I do not have every issue but at least have some back issues obtained, as I mentioned a while back, when a local university ridded itself of its library. I shall look for McIlhenny's sister's house.

  5. The works of art he lived with are staggering. I remember these rooms too and I agree-as we have in past about Gropp. When Diana Vreeland was a Vogue, her idea of photographing celebrity at home was an innovation and some of the most wonderful rooms in memory come from those Horst/ Valentine Lawford collaborations. I think what is lacking is content in rooms. Now it is enough to just have celebrity. That is far removed from the original concept. For the most part and of course there are exceptions the celebrity interiors are like their owner's own fame fleeting and content minimal. The means to collect for joy and future endowments adds another layer to the quality of the rooms here. Fantastic post blue .

  6. Hi, thanks for this. I spent many an evening in that house and you have brought back a nostalgia for a time that is no longer. Henry was lovely and fun and charming. His generosity was legend and his wit and welcome equally large. I can still hear his "my dear" in the photos that you've shown. thanks again.

    1. Anonymous, thank you and my apologies for a late reply to your comment. I think I would like to have met Mr McIlhenny. Sometimes, nostalgia is good - when we remember good times and absent friends.

  7. When I was a student at Temple University, I had the privilege of meeting Henry through a mutual friend. I was a starving student at the time and lived in a tiny apartment around the corner on Locust St. Henry befriended me and I became one of his dog walkers; a job that he paid me extravagantly for. I also got to attend a few of his private parties and met the likes of Douglas Cooper, Billie, Bill Blass and other celebrities of the day. I knew Henry was extremely rich but he never acted snobbish or condescending to me or any other individuals, grand or humble, who made it through the doors of Little Monticello. One little thing about Henry that I always loved was that, despite his great wealth, his car (at least when I was living in Philadelphia) was a Buick. I happened to be Googling Rittenhouse Square the other day (a trip down memory lane) and saw pictures of the house; shutters gone and looking derelict. What a sad condition for a home that knew so much love and laughter. Henry would scream if he saw the condition those front steps are in!

  8. After reading this article I went online in search of a copy of House and Garden April 1986 which I ordered and paid for priority mail which was very expensive to have it delivered. Received my copy of House and Garden today and was shocked to find that there is no reference what so ever to Henry McIlhenny or the article above!