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The Philippe de Montebello Years: Autograph Quilt

Philippe de Montebello discusses a unique nineteenth-century American quilt with curator Amelia Peck. Recorded on the occasion of The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions, on view from October 24, 2008, through February 1, 2009.


Helen Evans: In July 2008, Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello and curator Amelia Peck recorded this conversation about the Museum's Signature Quilt. The quilt was included in the exhibition The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions.

Amelia Peck: My name is Amelia Peck. I'm a curator in the American Decorative Arts Department of The American Wing here at the Metropolitan, and my responsibilities are both the period rooms in The American wing and American textiles. And I was a research assistant many years ago, starting in 1981, and I came to the Museum, and I worked on the Frank Lloyd Wright Room, which was a wonderful introduction to the Museum. And after a couple of years I left because funding had run out of that project when it was finished. And very luckily some of the people in my department valued me and came up with funding for me to come back as a curatorial assistant. I was in my mid-twenties and I was very thrilled to be working at the Museum and a little overwhelmed by the whole experience. And one of the first things that happened was I was brought to meet the director.

And Lew Sharp, who was my—the administrator of my department—brought me into Philippe and Philippe listened to what it was I was here to do. And I said, "And I am going to work on American textiles." And he looked up at me and said, "Are there any other American textiles beside quilts?" And I thought, "Oh, I'm in big trouble here." Because in the American textile collection that we have at the Museum, one of the highlights is the quilt collection. Certainly we do have other wonderful American textiles. We have samplers. We have a fabulous collection by a woman textile designer called Candace Wheeler. But the only thing I heard was, "Don't bring quilts to this man because he doesn't like them." So I thought, "Hmm, how am I going to do this?" Because I knew that out there was a big constituency of people who adored quilts and who collected, made them, internationally.

So that was my first thought about what my mission was going to be here at the Museum, and also it's the reason that I decided that this was the object to put into this exhibition in honor of the director, because I have to say what I value very much about him is his open-mindedness. And the fact is that even though at the beginning he said he didn't like quilts, he has supported many, many acquisitions of quilts. He supported a catalogue that I wrote in 1990 that was then republished and expanded in 2007. He supported four or five exhibitions in quilts. And so I hope over the years I've sort of brought him around a little bit and maybe he's begun to like quilts somewhat.

Philippe de Montebello: I have to interject at this particular point, Amelia, and to say what you cannot say, is to a certain extent it is not only the quilts that you were bringing to me that sold me on quilts, but it is your conviction and your scholarship. Because, to a certain degree, I haven't changed that much of my mind on quilts, but you are persuasive and I recognize as a professional that it is very important if you have under your charge a huge museum in which five thousand years of art from all continents is presented, that not everything can appeal to one's own taste. And this is something that the director of this institution must be conscious of, is to overcome individual likes, dislikes, or indifference and consider the importance to the collection, to the history of art, to the history of society and art, particularly when you come with quilts. And it has always been my job, also, to make certain that the trustees who sit on the acquisitions committee and who are not professionals and will often come into a room and say, "Oh, my God, that's awful" and "What is that hideous thing doing there?” My job then is to say, "But what you think of it is really not terribly relevant. If you are persuaded by the argument given to you by the curator, then your role is to say, 'If this is indeed best of kind, then the institution must have it.'" So it is both the quilt and, in this particular instance—actually, I rather love this one, it reminds me of the floor of a Roman villa—but your conviction which also sold it.

Amelia Peck: Well, I appreciate that, and I think one of the things that I always remember from going to see Philippe with objects, whether they be quilt or anything else, was he would always try to learn about the object and would certainly listen to me and often would say at the end, "Well, if you believe this is an object we should have, we should have it." And I don’t think a curator can ask for any better than that.

This is an extraordinary quilt, and very different from anything else in our collection. It was made by a young lady named Adeline Harris Sears who lived in Rhode Island and was seventeen in 1856 and came from a very well-to-do family of mill owners—Rhode Island was a large mill community, mostly cotton mills—and had very little formal education, because in those days girls didn't need formal education, supposedly. She went to about four years of schooling, which was probably mostly finishing school, and had tutors in her own home. But she was an ambitious girl and a girl who seemed to have a lot of intellectual drive. And the family history is that she wanted to go to college. But in 1856 there were really no colleges that were taking young women. So she was kind of left at her own devices and came up with a project that was going to somehow enlarge her horizons and let her learn about the world. And that project was to make an autograph quilt—an autograph collection, actually—but in a very different way than anyone else was doing it.

Collecting autographs was quite normal at the time. People liked collecting autographs. They had this idea that if you got the autograph of someone who was famous, you could learn from the autograph, sort of, what made that person famous and maybe some of that would rub off on you if you looked at their autograph long enough. So that was the strange and interesting reasoning behind autograph quilts. But Adeline decided that she would take diamonds of white silk, stretch them over a piece of cardboard and send them off to all the people—mostly in the United States, but around the world—that she thought were the most important people doing the most important work in the 1850s and '60s and ask them to sign the card, send it back to her, and then she would eventually put it together into this magnificent little quilt.

Amazingly enough, I think she sent out about 500 of these; 360 came back, and they were—the largest group of them are politicians from the time, lots of people who were famous in the Civil War, both northerners and southerners. There are signatures from eight or nine American presidents. There are signatures from internationally famous authors like Charles Dickens and William Thackery. There are American artists and painters as well as French and English painters. There are just an amazing array of signatures. And when I first started studying this and looking at all the signatures and researching who they were, I was able to find in just basic biographical dictionaries almost every person on this quilt. She chose very wisely and put together a true picture of the time.

She worked on it for about eight years, collecting the signatures, and in the process of doing so, she wrote a letter to a well-known magazine of the time, Godey's Lady's Book, to Sarah Josepha Hale who was the woman editor there, asking for her autograph and explaining the project. Sarah Josepha Hale was so amazed by the project that she actually published it in Godey's Lady's Book, so this quilt was famous.

Philippe de Montebello: When was this, Amelia?

Amelia Peck: 1864. So this quilt was famous even in its own day, even before it was really made. So it was sort of thought of as this extraordinary thing even in 1864. When she finally did get all of the signatures back, she seems to have put them together in groupings because we think she actually kept on working until about 1876, sort of from internal evidence of how she put the signatures together. So she grouped all the women authors together and all the presidents together. So we think she actually made it in pieces, sort of sections. And eventually when she felt that she really had all the signatures she was going to get, she put it together.

One of the most fascinating rows for American history buffs is column number seven. And that's—if you read over from your left, just count the white rows of diamonds over to column number seven—and that's where you’ll find presidents, I believe, from Tyler all the way down to Grant.

Philippe de Montebello: And including Lincoln.

Amelia Peck: And including Lincoln.

Philippe de Montebello: What would have been the purpose and the function of such a quilt? Certainly not a bedcover, so how do you think she would have expected it to be presented or kept? Would it have been hung on a wall, placed on a table? What do you think she was thinking of?

Amelia Peck: I don't—you're absolutely right. It would never have been a bed cover really, even though it's funny if you—when you read some little inscriptions that some of the authors wrote, some of the poets actually put little bits of doggerel, they make little jokes about quilts and sleeping and all of that. But I think it was really a collection. And at some point it was hung on the wall, whether by her or by her daughter—this did pass down in her family until it came to the Museum—because there are tiny little rings at the top. So we do believe it was hung for a while by one of the family members.

The way we acquired it was interesting because it does talk a little bit about how internationally— the international market and interest in quilts. This quilt was published in a book in the 1970s, one of the first books about American quilts, because they didn’t really become popular as art forms until the 1970s, and then it sort of disappeared. A little before we acquired this—I think we acquired this in 1996—a Japanese quilting group came over to the United States and somehow they managed to find this quilt, which was in the great-granddaughter's home in Long Island, wrapped in an old pillowcase, in a nineteenth-century pillowcase, in her attic. And they got in contact with her, and she was willing to have the Japanese quilting group come in to see this quilt.

And luckily for us, Nobuko Kajitani, who was our former head of textile conservation, was friendly with the head of the Japanese quilting group and went along on the trip and she saw this and the next day called me up and she said, "Amelia, there’s an amazing quilt out at this lady’s house in Long Island. You must go and see it," which I did, and it was truly an amazing quilt.

And the granddaughter who had it was concerned about its condition because it was silk. And when the ink signatures were put on the cards—the ink has mineral salts in it and it was beginning to corrode the silk, and so some of the signatures were sort of being cut in to the fabric, actually. So she, after lots of negotiation between the Museum and the family, because it was co-owned by four great-grandchildren, they decided finally they would sell it to the Museum.

There was some question, because these are all autographs, of how do you value this quilt? Is the value in the autographs or is the value in the quilt? And we—they did talk to an autograph dealer who said, well, Abraham Lincoln's signature, which is on this, is worth whatever thousands of dollars, and Ulysses Grant's signature is worth X thousands of dollars. And so the value, if you went signature by signature, was huge. But then again, the signatures were on little pieces of silk that were being eaten up by the ink. And, of course, I would argue that this is a collection and a magnificent object and you shouldn't be thinking of it autograph by autograph. So eventually we did convince the family and were able to purchase it for the Museum.

Elena Phipps, who is our wonderful conservator of American textiles, came up with a solution to keep the quilt from further having conservation problems. And that was we pressure-mounted it between two pieces of Plexiglas—actually the backing is a soft backing, then the quilt is put on, and then it is pressure-mounted against a soft backing with a piece of Plexi, and it basically is holding everything in place so now we can hang it, we can do whatever we want with it, but it won’t corrode further and it's now in a permanent mount that way.

Philippe de Montebello: Well, it's now a great asset, it's wonderful to the eyes, wonderful to the mind, it's just a fascinating object, and, Amelia, you've told us a wonderful story about it. And I hope you all enjoy it the way I do now.

Amelia Peck: Thank you very much.

Helen Evans: This recorded conversation was produced in conjunction with The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions, on view at the Met through February 1, 2009. The exhibition was organized in tribute to Philippe de Montebello's thirty-one years as director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Come to the Museum to take an audio tour of the galleries with Philippe and many of the Met's curators.

This has been an Antenna Audio production.

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