The Elegant House:

Paintings & Decorative Art from the Graham Williford Collection

November 16, 2008–March 1, 2009

A view of The Elegant House exhibition at Tyler Museum of Art.

Figural Basket or Compote, early 19th century. “Paris Porcelain” with gold and bisque figures, 16 5/8 x 13 x 3¾.” The Jean and Graham Devoe Williford Charitable Trust.

A native East Texan who was instrumental in inspiring renewed interest in 19th-century American art takes center stage once again as the Tyler Museum of Art unveils its next major exhibition, The Elegant House: Paintings & Decorative Art from the Graham Williford Collection.

The exhibition, organized by the TMA, opens to the public Sunday, Nov. 16 and continues through Feb. 8, 2009 in the Museum’s Bell Gallery. TMA members have the opportunity for a sneak peek at the exhibition during a preview and opening reception scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15 at the Museum. For reservations or to inquire about TMA membership in order to attend, call (903) 595-1001.

“After the overwhelmingly positive response we received for the Graham Williford’s America exhibition last spring, the Museum has been eager to find the next possible opportunity to showcase more of the Williford collection—which truly is a national treasure,” TMA Director Kimberley Bush Tomio said. “Now, through a bit of good fortune in our exhibition schedule and the continued generosity of the Graham Williford Foundation for American Art, we’re able to spotlight not only a stunning array of paintings we didn’t have space to accommodate earlier this year, but also an impressive overview of Graham’s exquisite taste in the decorative arts. And still, we’re representing only a small percentage of this vast collection.”

The exhibition brings together an array of decorative art, primarily in the form of silver and sculpture, and paintings from the Williford Collection to explore the expressions of opulence and elegance of “conspicuous consumption” in late 19th-century America. Among the highlights of The Elegant House are landmark paintings by American masters including Dennis Miller Bunker’s Portrait of Kenneth Cranford, Walter Gay’s La Feintre Ouverte, Clement Grant’s Lady at Cupboard, Pinckney Marcius-Simons’ The Writer, and Marcus Waterman’s Turkey, an iconic 1860 image evoking the spirit of Thanksgiving. The paintings and works on paper are integrated among sculptures such as Victor Brenner’s portrait relief of Abraham Lincoln, Elihu Vedder’s Mermaid, a pair of works by famed numismatist and Civil War monument designer Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and a rarely seen bronze by celebrated African American artist Richmond Barthe.

Complementing the paintings and sculptures to complete the 19th-century ambience are a variety of Williford’s antique silver and decorative pieces, spanning the spectrum from an 1840 Louis Philippe Gilt Bronze Mantel Clock to a monogrammed cigar holder by Dominick & Haff, “plus exquisite examples of Tiffany and Gorham silver in the form of table wares, coffee services, and a beautiful dressing table set,” TMA Curator Kentaro Tomio said.

Born on Feb. 22, 1926 and raised in the Freestone County seat of Fairfield, Texas, Graham Devoe Williford cultivated his passion for education among his family of rural East Texas farmers, merchants and teachers. Often gravitating more to the 19th century than his own time, he began a lifelong fascination with the culture, literature, language and arts of the Victorian age as a young man.

By the time of Williford’s death in May 2006, the collection he had spent several decades compiling—one that would help reintroduce an all-but-forgotten era to art collectors and scholars worldwide—had grown to include more than 1,000 American paintings and decorative art pieces. The collection bears the imprint of the man who accumulated it: a genteel, aristocratic bon vivant who believed he had been born “100 years out of his time,” and surrounded himself accordingly with the refinement and grandeur of 19th-century artistry.

“Graham was very much a country gentleman. He definitely considered himself gentry, and dressed and spoke as a gentleman,” recalled his cousin, John Williford, a trustee of the Williford Foundation. “He had extremely expensive traditional clothes, and always—always—wore a hat when he went outside. If you traveled with him or went to lunch with him, anything like that, he always wore a coat and tie. He was old school and he wasn’t going to change. He liked it that way.”

Admission to the exhibition is free to the public. Support for The Elegant House is provided by the Graham Williford Foundation for American Art. Additional support for the exhibition is provided by TMA Collectors’ Circle members Sheryl Rogers Palmer, Bill Pirtle, and the A.W. Riter Jr. Family Foundation.

Special events in conjunction with the exhibition include a free Family Day from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14; and First Friday Art Tours scheduled at 11 a.m. on Dec. 5 and Jan. 2. The Elegant House also will be in the spotlight for the next Spring Lecture Series presentation by Dr. Charles Venable, decorative arts specialist and director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. The lecture is scheduled for 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25 in the Jean Browne Theatre at Tyler Junior College. Admission is free for TMA members, and $5 for non-members.

The Tyler Museum of Art, accredited by the American Association of Museums, is located at 1300 S. Mahon Ave., adjacent to the Tyler Junior College campus off East Fifth Street. The Museum’s growing Permanent Collection focuses on early to contemporary Texas art, as well as works in decorative arts, Asian art, and prints and photographs of American masters. The TMA also is set to receive a promised gift of more than 300 works from the Laura and Dan Boeckman Collection of Mexican and Latin American Folk Art. For more information, call (903) 595-1001 or visit