Insatiable’Quest’ to Keep Hillwood Founder’s Spirit Alive
At the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, there is not—and never was—such a thing as too much, or for that matter “enough.” And that’s a good thing—to finish the adage in a slightly different way, you can never have enough good things.
In fact, Hillwood is full of good things—a seeming nirvana of good things beginning with the estate itself, which is one of the foremost in the city. Hillwood is the former residence of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the late, great and, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit grandiose cereal heiress who was also a philanthropist, art collector and larger-than-life Washington legend. She filled her estate with fulsome, beautiful gardens, as well as a huge assemblage of 18th- and 19th-century Russian imperial art and a major collection of French decorative arts.
Even the most hard-boiled populist might get jade-green with envy and think twice about wealth after a few moments here. Hillwood is exquisite, as was Mrs. Post’s tastes when it came to matters French and Russian. This did not, however, prevent her from doing the very American thing of throwing an occasional square dance gathering at the mansion.
So you really don’t need “A Quest for Fabulous: Thirty Years of Collecting, 1977-2007” as an excuse to re-visit or visit Hillwood, but the exhibition does serve to round out the experience of seeing this esteemed collection. The anniversary display also suggests that the ongoing search for art to enrich Hillwood’s holdings is a process that never ended with the passing of Post decades ago, nor is it likely to end anytime soon.
Nearly all of the exhibition’s objects are housed in the Dacha (an adaptation of a one-room Russian summer home) apart from the mansion, comprising a tightly focused space that gives off the air of a time machine.
That feeling also exists in the mansion—only more so—where cups, ladles, glasses, decanters, serving plates, paintings, sketches and sculptures enrich the scope of the exhibit. It’s not just because these objects are old and in many cases rare, but it’s also because they were once functional—dishware to be used or gifts given to heads of state, counts, envoys and so on.
A long time ago, these beautifully painted and decorated items were lined up like soldiers at a long table, silverware at the ready, with caviar and duck on elegant plates, covering up painted depictions of hussar cavalry or hunting scenes. This you do not get at Crate and Barrel or even as a wedding present nowadays.
For instance, there is nothing but exquisite beauty in a 100-year-old silver kovsh, a Russian drinking vessel that looks a bit like a rich Viking boat. Or take two cups and saucers—made in France and dating back to the late 1700s—with beautiful birds scientifically identified on the accompanying plates, as they would be in other Sèvres empire-style porcelain pieces. These cups were purchased after Post’s death, but they perfectly match the saucers already in the collection.
With dishware such as this in the cupboard, who would want to go out for dinner? Fabulous—not to mention magical, splendid, original and hypnotic—are not hyperboles in describing the objects in this exhibition, which join the voluminous collection already in place.
There are other gems here among all this fabulousness—things that might surprise you, such as six watercolors belonging to the family of Henry Middleton, the U.S. minister to St. Petersburg in 1820; a silver and glass chalice from 1914 and a faience vase, purchased in 2005; and a costume worn at a boyar ball for Russia’s upper echelons.
Rumor has it that Mrs. Post passed away in 1973—don’t believe it. Her spirit lives on in the collecting that’s been done since then, as evidenced in the 46 works on display, in which the fabulous remains forever.
A Quest for Fabulous: Thirty Years of Collecting, 1977-2007 through Dec. 30 Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens 4155 Linnean Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 686-8500 or visit www.hillwoodmuseum.org.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.