Crafts Cornered


The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino will announce today its acquisition of a vast collection of works by William Morris (1834-1896), a multifaceted British artist and designer known as the father of the anti-industrial Arts and Crafts movement. The collection of stained glass, wallpaper, textiles, tapestries, embroidery, carpets, drawings, ceramics and more than 2,000 books--amassed by Sanford and Helen Berger and currently stuffed into every nook, cranny, closet and shelf of their seaside home here--is the world’s most important Morris holding in private hands, according to leading scholars.

The Huntington is planning to inaugurate a small rotating display of pieces from the collection in about six months. A large exhibition will be presented in three to five years.

The Huntington declined to disclose the purchase price of the collection, but experts pegged the market value at $3 million to $4 million, adding that the scholarly value of the Berger holding far exceeds that sum.


Rejoicing over the coup, Shelley Bennett, the Huntington’s curator of British and European art, said the acquisition “gives us the foundation for an Arts and Crafts study center that is unequaled. The collection offers incredible potential for understanding this movement.”

Proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement--which flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries--aimed to revive traditional craftsmanship and break down boundaries between crafts and fine arts. Morris, considered the greatest artist-craftsman of his period and probably best known for crisply patterned floral wallpaper and fabrics, was also a passionate social reformer who was determined to create art for the people.

The Huntington is already a stronghold of Morris books and manuscripts, many of them purchased by the institution’s founder, railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington. During the past two decades, the Huntington also has become a major repository of American art, including works by the Greene and Greene architecture and design team, among other Arts and Crafts practitioners.

“It’s a natural match,” said Peter Stansky, a Morris scholar who teaches history at Stanford University, commenting on the Huntington’s acquisition. “But I don’t think I can bear to lose it,” he said, noting that he had hoped the collection would go to Stanford, which presented an exhibition from the collection in 1974.

Several libraries have complete sets of books published by Morris’ Kelmscott Press, and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York has “a fabulous collection” of books and related manuscripts, he said. The Berger acquisition will put the Huntington in a league with the Morgan Library but also give the California institution a vast assortment of decorative objects, he said. “What’s extraordinary about the Berger collection is its variety [of decorative arts] in addition to the manuscript materials.”

The most spectacular example is an 18-by-11-foot stained-glass window that depicts 10 three-quarter-scale figures on separate panels, displayed in various windows of the Bergers’ home. They also have squirreled away dozens of rolls of hand-printed wallpaper and intricately carved wood printing blocks, a richly embroidered silk fire screen, a ceramic tile panel that illustrates the story of Cinderella and delicate watercolor sketches for a variety of functional products.


Both Bergers trained as architects; they met in 1941 at Harvard University, where they were graduate students in design and worked with Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. Helen is a native of New Jersey, but Sanford wanted to return to his home in San Francisco, so they settled in Berkeley at the end of World War II. He practiced architecture with the San Francisco firm SMP for 27 years, becoming one of six partners. In 1976, after 31 years in Berkeley, where they raised three sons, the couple moved to their present home.

From the outside, the clean-lined structure seems to suit a couple with a Modernist sensibility. But inside, almost every inch of space is covered with the fruits of their collecting labors. The cache of Morris material grows more dense as one passes down a stairway, through a narrow hallway lined with framed watercolor sketches for wallpaper designs and into a jampacked library with pathways between the stacks and shelves of books and other objects. But the house is also well stocked with Art Nouveau works, acquired before the couple plunged into British Arts and Crafts, and impressive examples of woodcarving by Sanford’s Romanian immigrant father.

The Bergers were happily collecting Art Nouveau in 1965 when Sanford spotted a facsimile of the Kelmscott Press’ edition of Chaucer’s works in the window of a San Francisco used-book store. “It’s an excellent facsimile,” he said, opening the book. “But this bright young person said, ‘Yes, but that’s a facsimile. Why don’t you get a real one?’ ” he said, eyeing his wife and crediting her with his Morris “addiction.”

“I have the worst talent for opening my mouth,” Helen said. “I could have stopped the whole thing.” But within a few months, her husband had purchased a Kelmscott original of Chaucer. Then came the deluge.

Initially attracted to the books because the detailed borders and floral patterns resembled his father’s carving, Sanford became intrigued with Morris’ achievements and bought several more of his books. Then, in 1968, San Francisco book dealer David McGee made Sanford an offer he couldn’t refuse: the archive of Morris’ business enterprises, Morris & Co. (1875-1940), and its predecessor, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (1861-75).

Not Just Collectors, Bergers Did the Research

“It was a chance in a lifetime,” Sanford said, describing the thrill of opening “two enormous crates, almost the size you could put an automobile in” and sorting through the contents. “There is the minute book of the company from the beginning, with handwritten accounts of all their activities and projects. There is the famous dye book from the Merton Abbey workshops, with formulas for the chemistry involved in the dye process and swatches of fabric. There are two registers of all the stained-glass windows executed, more than 700 of them. And there are endless files of photographs of cartoons of the windows, which members of a church committee could look at when they were choosing subjects for new windows.”


Far more than ordinary acquisitors, the Bergers are also assiduous researchers. The record of the windows is an invaluable resource, but incomplete, Sanford said, so he and Helen set out to fill the gaps. After 25 years they have visited 360 churches in England to document the windows and correlate their findings with material in the archive. The project isn’t finished, but results to date are assembled in several shelves of white binders--amid a warren of books and artworks.

“Sandy likes to get ahold of an idea and go into every aspect of it. That’s part of his personality,” Helen said. Her father was a devotee of Morris, so she thought she had seen more than enough of the artist during her childhood. “But I guess it’s fate. I couldn’t get away from it,” she said. “And now, of course, I am thrilled to pieces with the wonderful things that have happened and are going to happen at the Huntington.”

Many libraries and museums would have welcomed a donation of the Berger collection, but Sanford said they wanted to sell it and feared that no appropriate institution could afford to buy it as a whole. In 1996, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London offered to purchase the collection, mostly with national lottery funds, but before the deal was consummated, a new administration ruled that lottery money could no longer be used to purchase art, he said.

Subsequently, Christie’s auction house made “a wonderful pitch” to sell the collection, he said, “and we were afraid we would have to let it get dispersed. But the whole thing was assembled--partly because of our love of the design process--to show how a concept develops and becomes the final object.” For example, proof sheets provide a step-by-step look at “what it takes to put together a book that’s a work of art,” he said.

“That idea was pervasive through all the different media. The material shouldn’t be scattered; it should be available for another person to learn what I have learned and to experience the emotions you feel when you finally see a piece of perfection,” he said.

The Huntington presented an exhibition from the collection in 1996, praised as “an exceptional event” by former Times art critic William Wilson. The San Marino institution seemed the ideal home, so the Bergers enlisted San Francisco antiquarian book dealer John Windle as their agent. The acquisition was partially funded by the Ahmanson Foundation.


“The Huntington is perfect,” Helen said. “It’s such an institution of learning, not just a storehouse.”

But sending the collection to San Marino will create “a major void,” Sanford said. “I like to joke that I’ve already reserved a bed in the depression ward of the hospital. I expect it will be like having an amputation.

“But I’ll recover,” he said, already looking forward to working with the Huntington’s curators and librarians as they begin to study and catalog the collection.