I suspect many of you in these politically charged times have reflected on the curious nature of leadership. I also suspect you have had more than your fair share of people weighing in on the topic. So I promise to spare you my opinions on Trump, Obamacare, Russian intrigues and other divisive topics here. After all, if one can’t escape contention on an antiques website, what refuge could possibly remain to us? The question of leadership, though, can also be posed with less vitriol to our more peaceable antiquarian community. The notion of what it means to be a “leader” in this context crossed my mind as I thumbed through a copy of Architectural Digest. There were many lovely interiors, many beautiful objects to admire and yet I was struck by the lack of idiosyncrasy. The interiors seemed filtered, stamped with the imprimatur of style-makers. Everything is, as they say these days, “curated” which seems code for we’ll take care of it for you so you don’t have to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with collections put together for profit, for impressing others or for simply filling the walls. But what makes a collection special, in my mind, what makes it alive is a sense of relationship, of commitment. It is the sparkle in the eye of the collector transmitted to the objects that comes reflected back. There is an ineffable sui generis that characterizes a great collector, that makes one stop and say, wait, this person – this collection – is not following fashion but defining (or redefining) it in a singular way. A leader doesn’t feel any obligation to collect what’s cool because, paradoxically, such objects all too often prove not to be (c.f., the cool kids in high school). And anyway, it’s not about the “it” thing, it’s about the thing that speaks to you. In the end, a work of art is “important” if it is important to you. It is the product of what you bring to it and what it brings back to you. I’d much rather listen to an ecstatic hubcap connoisseur explain why his latest find is so marvelous than hear about an “important” Rothko from someone who purchased it chiefly on the counsel of his art adviser. It’s about passion more than purchase. It doesn’t require riches or prescience so much as the courage to say I love this and I don’t give a damned if nobody else does!
Which brings me to Leader. Benjamin Williams Leader, that is. I suspect the name doesn’t ring a bell and when I tell you he is an English Victorian painter there is a distinct chance your clicking finger will get itchy. But as that is precisely my point, I entreat you to bear with me a touch longer, to let me try to convey why an artist who means so little to anyone, means something to me. Cultured reader (and I know all three of my readers are), think about those rare times that you have been stopped in your tracks by an unfamiliar song that captures your mood so specifically it seems almost hauntingly familiar. Cut to London and a much younger me, studying art history with a minor in pub history. Walking home one evening with a headful of Holbein and hops, I am drawn to the window of a venerable Old Bond Street gallery. Spot lit and radiant is a mesmerizing painting: a riverside hamlet bathed in crepuscular light, silent and soulful. It hits me like a Beatles song that I’ve never heard before. My mind, stuffed with art history facts and faces, races to place it…shades of Hobbema, hints of Constable. But nothing quite matches. Then I notice the B.W. LEADER – 1884 scratched across the bottom. Leader? I walk home puzzling at how this name has eluded me for so long. For the next several weeks, I would go out of my way to call upon it until, eventually, it was sold. But it stayed with me. Collectors carry with them all the objects they have considered. These pieces – the ones beyond reach, the ones that got away – live silently side-by-side with the objects acquired.
Many decades and many Leaders later, I chanced upon the artist’s familiar brushstrokes at an antique show and felt as if I was happening upon an old friend. Being finally in a position to do so, a Leader was welcomed warmly into my collection. It keeps company not with other Victorian paintings but amongst a hodgepodge of similarly serendipitous revelations, products of a lifetime of falling in love. Are not our happiest memories born of unanticipated discovery? So too, I think, with great collections; collections that arise from years of such moments strung together, held together, by our continued willingness to be wowed.