A most mannerly evolution

Times Staff Writer

"The center of gravity of the Huntington has been crucially affected by a series of developments," John Murdoch said, weighing his words as he moved into exactly the right position. Nothing -- apart from the plants -- is expected to change at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. But a parade of construction projects has effectively tilted the balance of the 86-year-old institution, creating a new hub of public activity.

Standing on a circular lawn north of the historic heart of the campus, Murdoch, director of the art collections, was surrounded by buildings that didn't exist a few years ago, at least in their current guises. To his back was the Rose Hills Foundation Conservancy for Botanical Science, scheduled to open in October. To his right was the Mary Lou and George Boone Gallery, a 5-year-old temporary exhibitions space carved out of a former garage. To his left, a bit farther afield, was the Munger Research Center, a major addition to the library that began serving scholars last fall.

But the focal point of Murdoch's discussion was the Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery, in front of him. Named for the Huntington trustee emeritus and former Times Mirror Co. chairman and his wife, the gallery opened in late May. It was built to accommodate the Huntington's rapidly expanding collection of American art, but the inaugural display consists of European artworks removed from the Huntington Gallery while that historic building undergoes a long-postponed renovation.

Many visitors have already discovered that the Huntington's "greatest hits" -- 18th century British full-length portraits, including "The Blue Boy" by Thomas Gainsborough and "Pinkie" by Sir Thomas Lawrence -- have a new, temporary home at the Erburu. But with that installation complete, Murdoch has his eye on the future.

The north side of the Huntington's campus will become "a hothouse of educational activities and exhibitions," he said, when public programs at the Conservancy and the Erburu are added to temporary exhibitions at the Boone. New Chinese gardens, under development just west of the Boone, will welcome their first visitors next year. And the exhibition space at the Erburu will grow, from 16,000 square feet to 25,000 square feet, when the area now used for storage is converted to galleries.

Despite all the action, the Huntington maintains an aura of gentility and calm. And Murdoch credits the designer of the Erburu, Los Angeles-based architect Frederick Fisher, with helping to keep the peace.

"One essential aspect of classical architecture is that it has very nice street manners," Murdoch said, pointing out a continuity of roof lines and cornices as his eyes shifted from the Erburu to the adjacent Virginia Steele Scott Gallery of American Art and the more distant Boone. "Classical architecture is proportioned to its neighbors so that it doesn't diminish them. That point was well observed by Fred."

Fisher said his challenge was to design a modern building that looked as if it belonged on the campus.

"This project was really about balance," he said. "Balancing the existing neoclassical architecture with a building that would be appropriate for 2005 and beyond. A building that would make the English and French collection look very good for the next three to five years and then have a new life when the Huntington develops and installs its collection of modern and contemporary American art."

Having designed many art spaces -- including L.A. Louver in Venice, the Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica and a wing of the Long Beach Museum of Art -- Fisher thinks of them in terms of typologies: raw, open "lofts"; pure, neutral "boxes"; and domestically scaled "houses." The Huntington is essentially a domestic complex, he said, and the scale and character of rooms in the new gallery perpetuate the concept.

"Another factor I brought into it, which was oddly missing from the Huntington," he said, "is a place where you can experience art and the landscape at the same time. Two museums were my points of reference. One was John Soane's Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, which has a similar domestic scale and abstract neoclassical quality to it. The second is the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, where you walk along glass corridors and there is art on one side of the hall and landscape on the other side. There is a close interaction between the experience of the landscape and the experience of the art. I jokingly say that if the Dulwich and the Louisiana had a baby, this would be that building."

At the Erburu, a glass-encased entrance and loggia and a tall, slim window in a room of French art look north to the Conservancy and the dome-topped mausoleum of Henry Huntington and his wife, Arabella, with the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. A small corner window in the French room, where the south and west walls meet the ceiling, was designed to admit a shaft of light. Temporarily covered to protect the French paintings, the window will be bared when those works are returned to the refurbished Huntington Gallery and American sculpture is installed. Near the east end of the Erburu, where it connects to the Scott building, a south-facing glass wall looks into a patio that will become a sculpture garden.

Murdoch calls the new gallery "an aperture" that frames views of the art and surrounding landscape as visitors pass from room to room. Laid out in roughly chronological order, the display begins with an assortment of paintings and sculpture that introduce themes to be developed. The next room offers "conversation pieces" -- paintings of people in contexts meant to provoke discussion -- and landscapes exemplifying concepts of the sublime, the beautiful and the picturesque.

Then comes the French room "to remind you," Murdoch said, "that the history of art in 18th century Western Europe is largely constituted as a dialogue between Paris and every other artistic and cultural and political center that had ambitions toward any kind of internationally recognizable level of culture." Jean-Antoine Houdon's bronze sculpture of the Roman goddess Diana, considered one of the Huntington's most important works of art, is the centerpiece, surrounded by paintings by such artists as Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Baptiste Greuze.

But three rooms of British portraits are the main attraction for many visitors. The first emphasizes Gainsborough's importance in the 1770s, in likenesses of Karl Friedrich Abel; Edward and Penelope, Viscount and Viscountess Ligonier; and Jonathan Buttall, known as "The Blue Boy." The second, an octagonal room that's the Erburu's piece de resistance, offers Joshua Reynolds' "Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse" and "Jane Fleming, Countess of Harrington" and six other full-length portraits of lavishly costumed subjects posed as classical sculptures.

The final group of portraits features "Pinkie," painted when the subject, Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, was 11, along with compositions of mothers and children. Landscapes and sporting pictures dominate the next room, followed by late-19th century British Arts and Crafts material.

"As you see," Murdoch said, "I am extremely keen that people shouldn't think the Huntington has only two paintings, 'Pinkie' and 'The Blue Boy.' There is a terrible danger if you've got world-famous paintings that people will say, 'I've seen that. I don't need to go there again.' Laying things out chronologically does enable you to talk about something distinct happening as time passes. You can certainly say that painting and sculpture constitute the characteristic output of material culture in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. But by the 19th century, human material culture is shifting in emphasis toward consumer goods."

Although "Pinkie" and "The Blue Boy" are often perceived as a couple, the subjects didn't know each other, and they were painted by different artists. At the Erburu, the Huntington's best-known works hang in separate rooms. But visitors who want to see the two paintings together can stand in the octagonal room, facing "Sarah Siddons" or "Jane Fleming," and look from side to side through doors to adjacent spaces.

"The building plays games," Murdoch said, returning to his "aperture" theory. And sure enough, "Pinkie" is framed by one door of the octagonal showcase, "The Blue Boy" by another.

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