Henry Huntington (1850-1927) had parents of his own (Solon and Harriet Huntington) but it was not until he worked with Uncle Collis on the Southern Pacific Railroad that the young man could be properly mentored and guided. Note that this was right at the time when railways were booming on the east coast and expanding rapidly across the continent. In time, Henry assumed senior positions in the Southern Pacific Transportation Company and must have been earning a handsome salary.
But Collis’ death in 1900 changed everything. Collis left most of his own European portrait collection, $3 million worth at the turn of the century, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York via his stepson Archer. A book called Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art highlights some of Collis’ gifts. And money from the 5th Avenue mansion, once sold, was bequeathed to Yale University.
We also need to note three events. Firstly Arabella inherited a fortune of $25 million from her late husband’s will. Secondly Henry assumed Uncle Collis Huntington's leadership role with Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Virginia, and was now a very wealthy man in his own right.
Thirdly Henry moved to California to take control of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Attracted to the beauty of the San Gabriel Valley, Henry purchased a 600 acre San Marino Ranch in 1902, to lure his beloved Arabella out to the West Coast. Henry married his uncle’s widow, Arabella Huntington, after a few years, in 1913! I wonder what they were saying in the lounge rooms and board rooms of San Francisco upper classes. It did not bother Henry. Once he inherited some of Uncle Collis’ inheritance, the younger Huntington did not have to listen to anyone’s advice.
Although this well connected family only lived in San Marino for a month of every year, the mansion provided both family privacy and sociable access to their friends. Even more importantly, it housed the rare book and art collection that Henry had been assembling since the 1880s. In fact Henry retired to devote himself full time to his book collection, his new wife and the estate. By 1919, the San Marino Ranch was remodelled into The Huntington Library, a non-profit educational and cultural centre.
Today scholars say that The Huntington Library is a very fine research institution, focusing on American and British history, art and literature. And although visitors are welcome to stroll through the rooms and exhibition halls, they cannot access the books and manuscripts. [Years ago I needed access to some primary sources, and a letter from my faculty’s professor got me in! Magic!]
The European collections are in the Huntington Art Gallery, which was also part of the family residence in San Marino. The collection of British C18th and early C19th paintings warmed my heart. We can vouch for their high status because of two historical events – 1. many of the paintings had been shown at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions in London and 2. most had been bought by British aristocrats to hang in their stately homes. The paintings were grand, stately and public; nothing modern and abrasive.
If I had to select the best known painting at the Huntington, I would choose Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy c1773. Huntington purchased the painting along with Gainsborough's The Cottage Door c1780 and Reynolds's Mrs Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse 1784 from the Duke of Westminster. When this private collection was offered to London’s National Gallery after WW1, the gallery could not afford to pay the going prices, so Henry Huntington pounced. In fact he was delighted.
Sir Thomas Lawrence's Pinkie 1794 was painted by a different artist in a slightly later era, but now it faces Blue Boy in the Main Gallery of the Huntington. Other notable paintings were by John Constable eg View on the Stour near Dedham 1822, a painting that was shown in Paris in 1824 to great acclaim. Huntington also wanted and got one lovely version of Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral 1823, both of these Constable paintings being shipped over to California in the last years of Henry’s life.
The Huntington Library exhibition hall, San Marino
At Arabella’s death in 1924, the paintings, sculpture and decorative arts that had filled her New York mansion went to her son Archer. He in turn distributed them to 4 important public collections.
However her legacy to San Marino is found in the Arabella Huntington Memorial Collection, in a wing of the library building. It has Sevres porcelain, French sculpture, furniture and C15th-C16th Italian and Flemish Renaissance paintings. If a reader wants to assess the French art collection at The Huntington Library, find the book French Art of the Eighteenth Century at The Huntington by Shelley Bennett and Carolyn Sargentson (Yale UP 2008). This beautifully illustrated book focuses on the 300 French objects in the collection, including fine furniture, clocks, gilt bronzes, gold snuff boxes, porcelain, tapestries, sculpture and paintings.