Collectors of Personal Vision: Faith P. and Charles L. Bybee
The following essay was written by American Decorative Arts scholar Jonathan L. Fairbanks. In addition to introducing the 1989 catalog of the Bybee Collection of American Furniture, the essay describes Fairbanks' personal friendship with American collectors Faith P. and Charles L. Bybee, whose extensive collection of furniture and decorative arts is in the collection of the DMA.
An abiding friendship began in 1961 when I met Charles and Faith Bybee. This meeting took place at a symphony party in their home on Larchmont Street in the River Oaks section of Houston. Charles was the vice president and treasurer of the Symphony; Faith was a benefactor/fund raiser and volunteer. I came to the party with their friend and fellow Houston collector, Miss Ima Hogg. When I arrived, the Bybees were busy with guests, which gave me a chance to look around. To my astonishment I discovered that their home contained an unexpected treasury of American art. For example, in a chamber Faith called her Keeping Room, there stood a marvelous gate-leg table (1985.B.3) from early 18th-century England and Holland. On its top were handsome early delft plates and bell metal candlesticks from 17th-century England and Holland. Beside the fireplace was a rare chest of drawers (1985.B.1) from Chester County, Pennsylvania. The front of its drawers were superbly ornamented with vine-and-ball inlay. Beside a William and Mary-style chest-on-frame there stood an early 18th-century great chair made in New York. It was one of the best examples of only a few survivors with richly carved front stretchers. Near the chair hung a colored engraving of The Boston Massacre by patriot Paul Revere, in its original pre-Revolutionary frame. No matter where I looked, the Bybee home contained superb antiques. Surrounding the home was a handsome brick-walled garden of flowering azalea, magnolia, and monumental live oak trees. Clearly, the Bybees were persons of developed tastes. Their appreciation of fine music, horticulture, and American antiques was beautifully balanced.
When introduced to Charles and Faith, I experienced a strange feeling that I had already known them for years. Perhaps this was because of their warm welcome, vitality, and ready humor. Charles was robust and hearty, Faith was serene and seemed deservedly content in her opulent surroundings. They had just acquired a Massachusetts blockfront chest of drawers (1985.B.31) which they were eager to show me. As soon as guests had gone we turned that pre-Revolutionary cabinet upside down in the front hall and took out all of its drawers for detailed inspection. The Bybees' inquiring nature and interest in learning was a refreshing experience. In their quest for antiques, the Bybees were completely open to sharing. Through genuine curiosity they had developed remarkable connoisseurship and a personal style expressive of their own heritage.
Within the year I was back in Houston, this time as a guest of the Bybees for a month in their home. I had just been employed as a curatorial assistant at Winterthur Museum, but was on leave from Winterthur for a month to instruct the first class of docents at Miss Ima's house, Bayou Bend, every morning. In the afternoon I met with members of the Harris County Heritage Society. Faith was president of that society. My invitation to Houston was thus a joint venture between Faith and Miss Ima.
That experience gave me a deeper understanding of the Bybees and their collection. They had been collecting Americana ever since they were married in 1924. Such an early beginning placed them within the generation of pioneer collectors, most of whom are now gone. This introduction attempts to place their collection in context through a brief sketch of their lives. It is my belief that whatever one collects is a reflection of the person's spirit within. What sets the Bybee collection apart from many others is the Bybees' view of American taste and history as seen through their own family experiences and ancestries.
Collecting is an art form as complex and sometimes as perplexing as any human activity. Some have said that "art is selection." If this is true, then all humans are artists, more or less, according to the quality of their choices. The impulse which prompts people to live with one sort of furnishings or another can be only partially understood through biography. But much of the character of the Bybee collection springs naturally from their family backgrounds. Both Charles and Faith have had a strong sense of their place in American history and a concern for memory. Faith explains that her first ancestor in this country on her mother's side was of Dutch descent. Captain Gerristen DeVries Van Dalfsen arrived in new Amsterdam (later New York) in 1640 and his wife bore him a son, Teunis, reputedly the first white male born on the island of Manhattan. The Van Dalfsens moved to Ulster County, New York, and after the Revolution migrated to western Pennsylvania. From there, some generations later, they moved to Fort Vincennes, Indiana. On Faith's paternal side, her Poorman family ancestors came from Germany to New York and also moved to Pennsylvania and thence to Fort Vincennes. They were Quakers and helped form the settlement of West Union, Clarke County, Illinois. It was at this juncture, some six or seven generations after the Van Dalfsens arrived in this country, that Faith traces her ancestry through the Poorman family line. They were involved with grain for making flour on the Wabash River in the territory that later became the state of Illinois.
Perry Alfred Poorman, Faith's father, was a Texas pioneer in the development of rice farming and registering cattle and swine on the Gulf Coast in cooperation with Texas A&M; University. He was also exceptionally civic-minded, leading in the development of Texas public schools and highways. Faith's mother was Angie Shawler, who had given Perry four children (Faith, Mary Jane, Eunice, and Samuel) prior to the Texas move. The fifth child, Elizabeth, was born after their move to Texas and remains Faith's only sibling alive today.
The Poormans, as Quakers, were abolitionists and favored the Union. Faith's kinfolk were pioneers from the center of American geography, from the heartland of grain and prairie, and thus their backgrounds straddled both North and South. Her sympathies and collecting instincts reflect this heritage. She speaks often of her Quaker birthright and favors furniture which people of that persuasion referred to as "of the best sort but plain." In this context, the term plain did not mean simple or even spare in the Shaker sense. "Plain" allowed a wide latitude of visual richness, even opulence, without superficial ornamentation. One of Faith's most important early acquisitions illustrated Quaker taste. It is a desk (1985.B.7) owned by Asher Wooman, brother of famous Quaker diarist, preacher, and philanthropist, John Wooman (1720-1772), who was renowned for his efforts to abolish slavery. Also, the Philadelphia claw-and-ball tilt-top tea table (1985.B.29) probably carries overtones of Quaker preference for plainness or sculptural simplicity. An identical table was owned by the Gill family of New Jersey, who were well-known Quakers. Faith's affection for her ancestry is also reflected in her New York and Pennsylvania country furniture, and in her outstanding collection of frontier-made furniture from Texas and from cabinet shops of small village craftsmen in southern states.
At a Christmas social gathering in 1923, Faith met a young man, Charles Lewis Bybee. They were married the following June by Bishop A. Frank Smith in Houston's First Methodist Church.
Even before Charles graduated in finance from the University of Texas in the class of 1922, he had begun work in the summers with the Houston Bank and Trust Company. His winning personality and keen business sense gained him rapid advancements. Within a year he became an assistant cashier. In characteristic understatement Faith observes that, "Charles was always good with numbers." After several additional promotions, Charles became president of the Houston Bank and Trust in 1958, a position he held until retirement in 1971. By the time I met him, he had already begun to help change the skyline during the Houston building boom. His financing helped build the Houston Astrodome and a new central banking office at Main Street and Jefferson Avenue. But that era gets ahead of the story of the Bybees' collecting.
Charles descended from a family which had moved to Texas in the 1830s or early 1840s, from what Faith describes as "one of the larger plantations in Virginia." The Bybees came to Texas as early pioneers, bringing with them fifty-seven slave families. It is undoubtedly this early heritage, with its roots in the South, that inspired Charles and Faith to assemble their incomparable collection of Texas pioneer buildings, furniture, and furnishings, the nucleus of which is at Historic Round Top, Texas.
In the 1930s Charles began to conduct bank business in New York City. This took the couple East several times a year. Faith spent her time at the Metropolitan Museum admiring the newly opened American period rooms, a display which thrilled her. She became acquainted with Joseph Downs (later of Winterthrur Museum) and Marshall Davidson and found their staff most helpful in guiding her study. Mr. Bybee often joined Faith for lunch at the museum's restaurant, and afterward they would call on their favorite firm of Israel Sack, Inc. One of the many pieces purchased from that firm, of which Faith is particularly proud, is the New York great chair which I first saw on entering their home. This particular piece was badly scorched by a 1972 fire in the Keeping Room of the Bybees' house. When Faith realized that it could not be restored without completely altering its entire surface, she donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as a study specimen.
During the early 1940s the field of those who collected, dealt, published, or otherwise worked with American antiques was relatively small. Most of those involved knew each other well. Faith and Charles were encouraged in their quest through contacts with Curator John Graham at Colonial Williamsburg; Frank Horton, a scholar who founded and developed the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Mr. and Mrs. Henry N. Flynt, who were restoring and furnishing Old Deerfield, Massachusetts; Charles F Montgomery; Henry Francis du Pont, the incomparable collector of Americana at Winterthur; and Mr. Donald Shelly, director of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. These and many other individuals shared their experiences with the Bybees and broadened their horizons.
In 1947, when they attended the first annual Antiques Forum at Colonial Williamsburg, they came to know Katharine Prentis Murphy, Electra Webb of Shelburne, Frances Wister, an early civic leader in the field of preservation and collecting, and also one of the organizers of the Landmark Commission in Philadelphia, Nina Fletcher and Bertram K. Little, Edgar and Charlotte Sittig, Maxim Karolik, and the senior Joe Kindig. Their collections also began to grow, but despite their friendships with collectors, the character of their collection remained individualistic. Faith explains: "I never copied anybody. I admired Bayou Bend and what Miss Ima did, but it didn't appeal to me. Mr. du Pont had taste for sophisticated Chippendale-style furniture which was beautiful in his house. I loved it there, but I didn't aspire to have it myself." What Faith and Charles seemed to prefer was furniture with splendid contour or outline but not that which was ornamented with deep carving.
Jonathan L. Fairbanks, Introduction, in Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), xv-xx.