Inside the Huntington story


“Masterpiece Theatre” has nothing on the real-life, rags-to-riches saga that led to the founding of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

This singularly American story of an extraordinary family dynasty encompasses the age of the notorious robber barons, the Gold Rush, abolitionism and the Civil War, industrialization, the first transcontinental railroads, the rise of cultural, educational and research institutions, big-money public philanthropy, new tax laws, a burgeoning international art market and one of the juiciest scandals of its day.

It’s a story that has never been told quite the way it is told in “The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age,” published this month by the Huntington Library Press. Researched and written by Shelley M. Bennett, the Huntington’s curator of European art for 32 years and then its senior research associate, “The Art of Wealth” is a work of rigorous scholarship and highly engaging storytelling, illustrated with a treasure trove of black-and-white and color photographs tracing a history-making convergence of people, places, events and fine art.

Bennett, also a lecturer in art history at Caltech for more than 20 years, is the author of numerous works on British art and art collecting in the U.S. Her path to her new book began with a footnote she came across that referred to an archive at the Hispanic Society of America, the New York-based museum and reference library for the study of the arts and cultures of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America that was founded in 1904 by Archer Huntington.

“None of the people working on the Huntingtons had ever referred to this archive,” Bennett said. When she discovered that it contained a wealth of unpublished Huntington-related documents and photographs, “I was hooked,” she said.

The major players in Bennett’s surprisingly intimate and human narrative: Collis P. Huntington (1821-1900), an itinerant-peddler-turned-immensely-wealthy-railroad-mogul, a major philanthropist and founder of the Huntington dynasty; his much younger mistress and second wife Arabella (1850-1924), a striking woman of obscure origins, strong intellect and magnetic personality; and her son, Archer (1870-1955), paternity uncertain, a witty intellectual, devotee of Spanish art and books and founder and supporter of research libraries and museums.

And last, but by no means least, Collis’ nephew Henry Edwards Huntington (1850-1927), a supremely successful Southern California business tycoon who married his uncle’s widow, founded the nonprofit institution that bears his name and left an abiding legacy that includes a repository of important paintings, decorative arts, rare books, manuscripts and maps, photographs and prints — not to mention a microcosm of the world’s botanical specimens — that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, scholars and researchers each year from all over the globe.

Extravagant spenders, passionate collectors of fine art and books, liberal philanthropists in the age of “the self-made man (and with Arabella, the self-made woman),” Bennett said, “these were very remarkable individuals who were born at the right time.”

If you think that those familiar Oswald Birley portraits of Henry and Arabella at the Huntington reflect only the dry respectability of age and privilege — Henry, balding and prodigiously mustached; Arabella, stout, stern and bespectacled — this literary feast will be a fascinating revelation.

Arabella, Collis’ mistress before they married, was clearly formidable in her own right. A shrewd investor in property, she capitalized on financial backing from Collis and by age 27, her real estate holdings would in today’s terms have been worth $6.5 million.

When Arabella married nephew Henry in 1913, after his divorce from his first wife in 1906, “there was headline after headline,” Bennett said. “I found about a hundred newspapers that reported it. It was an enormous scandal. But I think he wanted to marry her from the moment Collis died. Obviously, Henry always admired his uncle, but I think it was just Arabella. People who had a lot of contact with her were just mesmerized.”

“There was a kind of thought of ‘worrying about what the neighbors will think,’” said Huntington Director of Education Catherine Allgor about Bennett’s fresh and frank take on the institution’s history. “But we’re treating the Huntington seriously as a historical subject and as a family biography and I think we’re ready to deal with the family saga in whatever form it takes.”

Another figure that looms large in the Huntington story is notorious art dealer Joseph Duveen, whose client list of the rich and famous included Henry and Arabella, and who oversaw Henry’s acquisition of a model collection of British grand manor paintings and French decorative arts of the 18th century, including Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy.”

Known for his avid, publicity-conscious business tactics, Duveen was “infamous for what he would say: ‘you pay Duveen money for Duveen paintings,’” Bennett said. Quality mattered to Duveen. When Henry bought works of questionable provenance from other dealers, Bennett said, “Duveen would trade them out of the collection.”

Arabella, too, spent vast sums with Duveen for important works, but Archer was unimpressed by the art dealer’s “well-oiled” manner. In an 1898 diary entry that Bennett includes, Archer wrote: “The Duveen approach is masterly. The slightly waving head suggests the serpent charming the tremulous bird....”

But the Huntington story, Bennett found, is not just an art story. A major supporter of the Museum of Natural History, Collis (and Arabella and Archer) funded the Huntington Expedition to record the vanishing languages of the Native American Indians.

Collis, who had been a “staunch abolitionist,” established the Huntington Free Library and Reading Room in the Bronx with the directive that it be “a place where all persons without distinction of race or creed may assemble for the purpose of reading, study, education and self improvement.” He also supported the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and the Tuskegee Institute, and had a long personal relationship with Booker T. Washington, who taught at Hampton before heading Tuskegee.

“He was definitely being paternalistic,” Bennett said of Collis, but he “fervently believed” in those institutes’ educational missions. Indeed, many of the big-name robber barons donated money to Washington. The story of these ruthless captains of industry, vilified in history, is complex, she said.

Among Arabella’s many philanthropic causes were Harvard University and what became the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Archer, a poet, scholar and leader in the area of research and research publication, not only founded the Hispanic Society, but was president of the American Geographical Society and was involved with the creation of the American Numismatic Society and the Museum of the American Indian, among multiple major cultural endeavors.

In past tellings of the Huntington story, “the focus has been on Henry,” Allgor said. “He’s the guy with his name on the gate. But in looking at the whole dynamic of the family and especially looking at Arabella and Archer, a new story emerges, and that’s a big deal for the institution.”

So big that Allgor has created “The Art of Wealth” book club that will begin in the fall as an ongoing series of two-hour discussion groups exploring the many biographical, historical and cultural facets of Bennett’s book.

What: “The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age,” by Shelley M. Bennett, 350 pages, hardback with 220 black-and-white and color illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-87328-253-6.

Price: $40.00

Where: Available at the Huntington’s Bookstore and More and online at

When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 5

Tickets: The Art of Wealth Book Discussions: 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 12, 26; Oct. 17, 24; Nov. 14, 21. Also 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 18 and Oct. 9. Class fee: $50, members; $65 non-members. Registration not yet open.

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