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A Chance to Set the Silver Standard

The Huntington polishes its reputation with an important gift of early American wares.

February 11, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Beautiful, functional and intrinsically valuable, silver seems to have it all. And with a recent gift of 430 pieces of 18th and early 19th century American silver from the estate of Miriam Maclaren Marble, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens suddenly has a lot more of it.

The donation--officially titled the Mrs. John Emerson Marble Collection of Early American Silver--is the premier private holding of its kind, so the gift instantly establishes the Huntington as an important repository of American silver, says Amy Meyers, curator of American art. Encompassing 34 kinds of pieces made by 160 silversmiths, the collection provides considerable insight into silver design and production, and illuminates the patronage, taste and social customs of the period.

About 160 examples--tea sets and tankards, commemorative cups and brandy warmers, cream pots and sugar tongs--go on view this weekend in a new permanent exhibition in the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery. Visitors will find everything from an ornate coffee pot with an eagle on top to a simple little pap boat, which might have inspired today's commuter coffee cups. Designed to feed a child or a bedridden adult without spilling, it's a cup with a covered spout.

The Marble collection transforms the Huntington's holding of a few important pieces of American silver into a major resource. It would be a fabulous windfall in any circumstances, Meyers says, and it's particularly meaningful because of its ties to the Huntington's collection of British silver.

Marble, who lived in Pasadena and began buying silver sometime before 1920, collected in tandem with her friend Caroline Munro, whose gift of British silver constitutes the bulk of the Huntington's 675-piece holding of that material. What's more, Gregor Norman-Wilcox, then curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park, advised both women on their collections.

"Not only can we tell an extraordinary story about the history of British silver and American silver, but we can also bring these two collectors back together," Meyers says. While celebrating the women's friendship and artistic passion, the Huntington is also honoring their mentor, who was a leading scholar of decorative arts in Los Angeles in the early 20th century.

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It isn't clear how the relationship between the two women began, but their papers show they scouted potential acquisitions for each other while pursuing their individual interests, says Hope J. Spencer, an independent, Santa Barbara-based scholar who has written a soon-to-be-published book on the Marble collection.

Munro began giving British silver to the Huntington in 1953 and continued until her death in 1973, when the institution received the remainder of her collection as a bequest. Marble's cache of silver remained in her family after her death in 1962. Since then, it has been on long-term loan to Stanford University, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Huntington.

Other members of the Marble family have donated artworks to the Huntington over the years, so it seemed likely that the silver collection would end up there too. Marble's grandson, Peter Emerson Marble, eventually decided the Huntington was the right place for her silver because it would be on permanent view as an American counterpart to Munro's British silver. He made the gift in honor of his grandparents.

The sampling displayed in the Scott Gallery reveals the interests and collecting patterns of a woman who was born in 1876 in Red Wing, Minn., and educated at Stanford, where she met her future husband, John Emerson Marble. They were married in 1901 and settled in Pasadena. Apparently a collector at heart, Miriam Marble began buying Native American baskets on trips to the Southwest and then switched to early American silver. Her first purchase was an engraved tea caddy made by Philadelphia silversmith Daniel Dupuy Jr.

She cast a wide net and acquired a variety of objects made from the early 1700s through the antebellum period. In those days, fine silver was crafted in the East, as far west as Kentucky, but the most prized items were usually produced in the Northeast.

Marble focused on America's most stylish centers of silver production--Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts--while buying examples from many other areas. A few works made their way to England before she retrieved them, but she made most of her purchases from families in the Pasadena area. As her collection grew, she developed a remarkable concentration of pre-1800 work, including a group of pieces from Massachusetts and 106 examples of early hollow ware.

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