Historical Note


Selected by Connoisseur magazine as one of the country's all-time top 10 art collectors, Philadelphian Henry Plumer McIlhenny (1910-1986) also was celebrated for his charm and hospitality. As Andy Warhol claimed, McIlhenny was "the only person in Philadelphia with glamour," a sentiment echoed by the Philadelphia Art Alliance, which dubbed him the "first gentleman of Philadelphia." McIlhenny's energies went beyond his passion for collectinig; and his love for the arts, for entertaining, and for horticulture found numerous manifestations over the years.

The family fortune that afforded McIlhenny's gracious and generous lifestyle began with his paternal grandfather, John, who left Ireland with his widowed mother in 1843. Settling in Columbia, Georgia, via Philadelphia, the elder McIlhenny has been credited with inventing the gas meter. Upon returning to Philadelphia in the late 1870s with his wife and four children, John McIlhenny founded the gas meter-manufacturing firm of Helme and McIlhenny. Succeeded in the business by his son John Dexter (John D.), the family amassed a fortune, and their ingenuity furnished the younger McIlhenny's children with trust funds that sustained them all their lives. In 1898 John D. McIlhenny married Frances Galbraith Plumer. The couple had four children, of which Henry was the youngest. A sister died before he was born, and an older brother died in 1935. McIlhenny had a close relationship with his remaining sibling, Bernice, who was usually refered to as "Bonnie." Both children followed in their parents' commitment to civic involvement and love of the arts. Although McIlhenny's tastes deviated from that of his family, his passion for art was cultivated early on by his parents who were enthusiastic collectors of Oriental rugs, decorative arts, and 17th and 18th century paintings.

McIlhenny proved himself an able young scholar and prospered at Milton Academy, a preparatory school near Boston. According to his own recollection, he also began collecting at a young age, purchasing a few bronze statuettes at the age of 15 while on vacation in Egypt. In 1929 McIlhenny enrolled at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in Fine Arts in 1933. At the university, McIlhenny studied with the scholar and collector Paul Sachs, whom McIlhenny credits with refining his eye for art and galvanizing his acquisitive nature. As a sophomore in college, and often teamed up with his mother, McIlhenny began collecting in earnest when the two purchased, at the son's request, "Still Life with a Hare," (ca. 1730) by Jean-Siméon Chardin. Despite this purchase of an 18th century French painting, Sach's enthusiasm for 19th century French paintings took hold of McIlhenny, and he would come to focus his major collecting activity in this area. During the Depression years, McIlhenny purchased masterpieces in rapid succession. Between 1931 and 1933, he acquired important works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Corot, Renoir, Degas and Delacroix. McIlhenny often recalled Sach's advice that it is better not to buy "higgledy piggledy all over the map," but rather to collect in one field. He followed his mentor's advice, collecting astutely and deliberately. He retained most of his major purchases throughout his life, except when he needed, in his words, "to have plenty of cash for my old age," and to fund renovations of his properties. In 1970 he sold a Seurat, in 1973 a Renoir, and in 1983 a Cézanne, which alone sold for $3.6 million.

While McIlhenny's mother encouraged her son's early acquisitions of fine art, it was his father who set the family precedent of service and philanthropy to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. From 1918 until his death in 1925, John D. McIlhenny served as the Museum's President while it operated from its original location at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. He bequeathed the family art collection to the Museum. Just after his father's death, McIlhenny's mother began serving on the Associate Committee of Women and served as Museum Trustee until her death in 1943. McIlhenny and his sister Bernice would follow suit, serving in a number of capacities throughout their adult lives. Henry McIlhenny's association with the Museum began in 1933 after a year of graduate studies, when he joined the staff as Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts under the directorship of Fiske Kimball. McIlhenny's father hired Kimball just before his death, and as McIlhenny would remark jokingly, it was the appointment of this "Germanic boor" that killed his father. McIlhenny was promoted to Associate Curator of Decorative Arts in 1937 and two years later was named Curator of the department. His ambition, however, exceeded the confines of his job titles. In 1936 and 1937 he organized two major paintings exhibitions, of Degas and Daumier, respectively, both of which won international recognition. His 1939 exhibition of prints and drawings by William Blake was considered one of the most important showsin the U.S. that year. During his tenure as Curator, McIlhenny also organized exhibitions featuring Philadelphia wares and craftsmen, specifically, the furniture makers Henry Connelly and Ephraim Haines (1953), Philadelphia silver (1956) and Tucker china (1957). McIlhenny also orchestrated several noteworthy acquisitions to the Museum's collections, including French porcelain and silver, the Constantine tapestries, and the Titus C. Geesey Collection of Pennsylvania German art. From 1964 to1968, while his sister was serving as the Museum's President, McIlhenny resigned as Curator to join the Board of Trustees. He served as Vice President from 1968 to 1976, at which time he was named Chairman of the Board. He remained Chairman until his death in 1986.

It took a world war to interrupt McIlhenny's service to the Museum. As the draft was proving inevitable, McIlhenny applied for and received his commission as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade, in the Aviation Volunteer Special Class of the United States Naval Reserve in April of 1942. By the time he was released from active duty in January 1946, McIlhenny had served 29 months, including almost one and a half years aboard the USS Bunker Hill, which engaged in action in the Pacific and earned the warship crew a Presidential Unit Citation. McIlhenny received his honorable discharge in 1954 with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

McIlhenny received a leave of absence from the service and the Museum to spend 1947 and 1948 in Rome as the Resident Art Historian at the American Academy. He endeavored to make a list of Renaissance sculpture in Rome akin to Bernard Berenson's list of paintings. The project proved too daunting for one man, and during a visit to Berenson's home the two humorously agreed that one must do nothing during one's first year in Italy.

Following his return home, McIlhenny in 1950 sold Parkgate, the family home in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and purchased a townhouse in the center of the city, at 1914 Rittenhouse Square. His Philadelphia domain would eventually expand to include the two adjoining residences, renovated to contain a grand ballroom and courtyard fit for lavish entertaining. His renown as a generous and congenial host would establish McIlhenny's Philadelphia home as a center of social activity, drawing a diversity of high profile guests, including actors, artists and royalty. McIlhenny's hospitality extended to visitors of his art collection. His paintings, which he selected in part because they were "more sympathetic in private houses," were intimately incorporated into his living space and complimented by Charles X furniture. McIlhenny's flare for interior decorating was lauded nearly as much as his art collection.

During the summers, McIlhenny made his home at a country estate nestled in the county of Donegal in northern Ireland. McIlhenny purchased Glenveagh in 1938 from the widow of Harvard art and architecture historian A. Kingsley Porter. Not yet 30 years old, McIlhenny took ownership of a 19th-century, 23-bedroom castle with some of its contents and other buildings situated on more than 25,000 acres of land in an area not far from the birthplace of his grandfather, John McIlhenny. Some 40 years later, between 1974 and 1975, McIlhenny came to an agreement with the Commissioners of Public Works to sell most of his land to the Republic of Ireland for the creation of a national park. In 1979, McIlhenny made a gift of the castle and 15 surrounding acres, but retained the right to live there until 1982. Deviating from his usual area of collecting, McIlhenny filled the castle with 18th century Irish furniture and silver, and predominantly Victorian paintings by artists such as Landseer and Ansdell. In addition, McIlhenny took particular care in planning the gardens at Glenveagh, which horticultural journals lauded.

In both Ireland and in Philadelphia, McIlhenny generously gave his time and money in support of the arts. In addition to his work with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, McIlhenny served on the boards of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, Academy of Music, and the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks. Nearly two hundred other local organizations benefited from McIlhenny's support as well.

During McIlhenny's lifetime, three major exhibitions were devoted to his celebrated art collection: at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1962; at the Allentown Art Museum in 1977; and in 1979 at the High Museum in Atlanta. In 1949 the Philadelphia Museum of Art featured his collection, including works by living Americans, in one of its transient galleries. In 1974, McIlhenny gave an interview conducted as part of the Archives of American Art's Oral History Program. A decade later, he was one of those featured in the British Broadcasting Corporation's television production, "The Great Collectors."

Henry McIlhenny died at the age of 75 as a result of complications from heart surgery on May 11, 1986. It was Mother's Day, and just two and a half weeks after the death of his sister. McIlhenny bequeathed his art collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which held a special exhibition of his gifts at the end of 1987. Prior to their exhibition, the Museum lent 50 of McIlhenny's objects to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for a show McIlhenny had enthusiastically agreed to in the fall of 1985. One of New York's major auction houses, Christie's, held a two-day sale of the remainder of McIlhenny's estate. Prior to the sale, which fetched $3.7 million, 200 guests gathered at Christie's for a benefit dinner to honor McIlhenny and to remember the man and his "unerring sense of quality."

Works Consulted

The dictionary of art historians, s.v. "McIlhenny, Henry P[lumer]." Duke University (Durham, NC). 15 May 2005.

Henry P. McIlhenny Papers. Art collection series. Photographs and publications subseries. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. Includes exhibition catalogs of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (1962) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1987-1988), and the 1987 auction catalog of Christie's.

Henry P. McIlhenny Papers. Articles, interviews and lectures series. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. Includes magazine and newspaper clippings and transcripts of the 1974 and 1984 interviews.

Philadelphia inquirer (Philadelphia, Pa. : 1969). 12, 14 May 1986.