Terence Garnett at home with his collection of 19th Century Orientalist art, including two works by Jean Léon Gérôme.
NEW YORK - In Henry James’s classic 1877 novel The American, Christopher Newman, a self-made millionaire on his first tour of Europe, buys a painting on a whim – he admires the comely young artist as much as her painting, a copy of a Madonna in the Louvre. The rush of excitement from that one impulse buy is all it takes for him to resolve to become a collector. With the dual motives of filling his Stateside home with replicas of masterpieces and chivalrously bankrolling the artist’s dowry, Newman orders up a slew of angels, saints and such, all at a vastly inflated price.
While readers – then as well as now – may laugh at his naïveté, he is certainly not the first person to find himself suddenly smitten both with objects of beauty themselves and with the very act of acquiring them. Talk to enough passionate collectors, in fields as disparate as contemporary art and antique toys, and they will liken the feeling, not altogether facetiously, to an addiction. A deeply driven collector need not be fixated on numbers, though size is often a pronounced trait. Rather, devotion to the process of uncovering and attaining the rarest, most coveted examples can qualify a collector for obsession.
Since the late 1990s, Terence Garnett has been in pursuit of the greatest works of Orientalist art, 19th-century European paintings of Greece, Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa, often depicting scenes of daily life and influenced by the artists’ travels there. He’d harboured romantic notions about the region since childhood, when his father, an Englishman who had worked in Haifa in the 1940s, would show him old snapshots of the Nile, Cairo and such. Around 1997, Garnett met a collector who showed him his trove of Edwin Lord Weeks, a 19th-century American painter of Orientalist themes. “I saw these and thought, these are spectacular!” Garnett recalls.
A history buff, Garnett had always been particularly intrigued with the 19th century. The stars just seemed to be in alignment, and with the same intellectual vigor he has applied to his business interests, as a technology investor in Silicon Valley, he undertook to build a collection. He began by reading. “I did a lot of homework in this area,” Garnett explains. “I noticed that all the catalogue write-ups had the same byline: Professor Gerald Ackerman.”
Garnett found Ackerman via the web, at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he was a professor of art history emeritus. Garnett left a message, and a couple of weeks later Ackerman accepted an invitation for lunch. “That started the process of him putting me under his wing,” Garnett recalls. The noted scholar of Orientalism made it clear that he had no interest in commerce and would not serve as an art adviser. He was, however, happy to educate.
While Ackerman espoused the finer points of the subject – particularly when it came to the French master Jean Léon Gérôme – Garnett applied a measured method to his studies, replicating the type of analysis and strategic thinking that made him a success in business. He calculated there were about 200 great Gérôme works in museums around the world and that he’d already seen half of those. “I made it my mission, if I was in Chicago, to get to the Art Institute,” he says. The same for the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, and for other important institutions. Gradually, he trained his eye. His first purchase: Gérôme’s Prayer in the Desert, a quiet portrayal of a man stopping to pray, his caravan of camels proceeding behind.
Garnett set realistic goals. “In a good year,” he says, “two or three good Gérômes come to market.” He kept his wish list tucked in one of Ackerman’s books, which he toted around the world on business trips.
Garnett and his wife transformed a room in their home to resemble a scene from one of their Orientalist canvases.
High on his list was Marcus Botsaris, Gérôme’s portrait of a Greek military leader in regal red robes, who looks no less menacing for slouching in his chair. Garnett instructed his art adviser: “Find it for me.” The painting was tracked down to a family in Athens who wanted to sell, despite the mayor’s pleas that they donate the painting to a local museum. Garnett received a call while he was in Europe and quickly took a detour to Greece, where he would be given 30 minutes in a hotel room to inspect the work and make an offer. “There’s these two burly guys and the painting,” Garnett recalls with a chuckle. “We had our own blue light to check for damage. Literally, after half an hour I decided I really wanted to own it. We made our bid and got it.”
Garnett eventually acquired nine Gérômes, which became the cornerstone of the collection. He also added canvases by the Austrian Ludwig Deutsch and the German Gustav Bauernfeind. In a rare arrangement, Sotheby’s teamed with the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. to exhibit the works in 2007. If it comes as a surprise that the Saudis would be interested in promoting Western interpretations of Arabic peoples, Garnett notes that his collection leans toward historical themes, not provocative images of harems. “A lot of it shows Islam in a very positive light,” he says.
Now Garnett has taken a bit of a pause with his Orientalist paintings. “I’ve pretty much filled the walls,” he says, adding with a laugh, “Unless I start putting them on the ceiling, I need a new home.” (Garnett, incidentally, recently did acquire another home, in Aspen.)
But filling the walls was just the start. In addition to a living room and library, which are hung with Orientalist canvases, the Northern California house also boasts a glass conservatory facing the bay. “We took that room and kind of Orientalised it,” Garnett says. He and his wife filled it with the period treasures they have found on their travels to places like Morocco and Jordan and purchased at auction. There’s a Turkish mother-of-pearl table, for example, Ottoman chairs and stained-glass lamps. Entering the room feels a little like stepping into one of the paintings. “The art brings it all to life,” he says.
Like many determined collectors, Garnett’s interests are not limited to one field. He also collects books – in a fitting crossover, his library includes a couple that were once owned by Lawrence of Arabia – toy soldiers and, his newest diversion, contemporary art.
“I’m just tremendously curious. Aesthetically, I like really spectacular, beautiful things,” he says. “I’m the ultimate client because I’m definitely hooked.”
Julie L. Belcove writes about art and culture. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Architectural Digest, Elle, Town & Country and the Financial Times, amongst other publications.
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