We visit the Raymond E Holland Automotive Art Collection, home of some extraordinary riches, least ways for the time being . . .
It’s hard to think of many reasons to visit Allentown, a small town in rural Pennsylvania, USA, but when a senior US collector and the editor of one of the most prestigious American car magazines both offered to make arrangements for me to visit a private collection there, I was intrigued. What I found made their glowing descriptions sound hollow; in a 19th century house just opposite the prison is surely the finest assembly of automotive art and automobilia in the world — the Raymond E Holland collection.
Holland made his fortune in the beauty business — he has 200 salons in six US states — and like many successful men began to gather cars. But in 1982 he started to concentrate on automobilia, and by 1987, with the help of John I Zolomij, curator of the collection, he had amassed some 4000 items — the finest, the rarest, the most important items in every field from ephemera to pure art. For rival collectors in the ’80s it must have been like meeting the Schlumpf brothers at every turn.
They bought only pre-WW1 objects, focussing on the infancy and adolescence, as it were, of the car; the result is a comprehensive picture showing that as the machine itself matured, so did the vision of it, from naIvety, through realism, and on to stylisation. In an age when the motor car was a novelty, its image not only added glamour to advertising, but also inspired artists, particularly sculptors, in a way in which it no longer does. Today racing and nostalgia seem to be the only subjects which are tempting, or perhaps profitable enough, for the artist; car stylists appear to be the only people excited about the future of the everyday motor car.
It is perhaps difficult for us to remember that these images from before and after the First World War have only become nostalgic, typical of their period, quaint, as we look back on them now; they were always romantic, but it was once the romance of freedom, progress and achievements to come, To display this material, Holland bought and restored a 24-roomed mansion of what we would call High Victorian style.
Elaborate architraves, chandeliers and lavish overmantels sound a distracting background to an art collection, but not so; the polished floors and lack of furniture allow the artifacts their own space, and the impact is terrific. Also, it remains a private assemblage, and visits are by arrangement, so this grand stage-setting was almost empty as lohn Zolomij showed us around. Only two other visitors arrived in the hours I was there. Perhaps the most stunning room is the first you reach, a large, high, softly-lit chamber; in it are some of the sculptures, and what you see is so fine that it is hard to concentrate on any single one.
They range from naïve 19th century beginnings, through Edwardian romanticism and ’20s stylisation, on to streamlined minimalism from the late ’30s. Ahead are weighty showroom bronzes of the stork sculpted by the Frenchman Bazin to epitomise Hispano Suiza, and of Charles Sykes’s Spirit of Ecstasy; expressionist sculptures of French touring cars in brass and onyx; ‘Bolide’, a famous chromed automotive abstract by Hungarian Futurist Gustave Miklos. On carved mahogany shelves opposite are intricate brass models of steam omnibuses and Italian miniatures in silver filigree; elsewhere, a speeding Bugatti in marble Miles Goux in a plume of dust at San Sebastian in 1926 by Eduoard Diosi, and an astonishingly fine ceramic representation of Gabriel’s Mors and Louis Renault’s racer in the deathly 1903 Paris-Madrid race, detailed down to the radiator tubing and the clearly recognisable faces.
Amongst the show-stoppers, Charles Maillard’s Coupe de /’Atlas is a glorious trophy for a race which never was, an adventure across the Atlas mountains. Standing two feet high, a marble lion and lioness crouch on rocks watching a bronze racing car career past below them; plaques depicting transport across Africa decorate the plinth. Massive and self-confident, it was never awarded: the race was prevented by the First World War. On the walls and in display cases are medallions to commemorate Austrian trials and French endurance races, exhibitions, industrialists, and the death of Marcel Renault, as well as a plaque commissioned by the Automobile Club de France in 1893 and awarded to Charles Jeantaud for technical Innovations.
This bears the first known example of the winged wheel, soon to become a popular artistic symbol of powered travel, and widely visible amongst the sculptures and awards in this collection. There is also a personal touch from Holland here: he has commissioned a silversmith to create a three-dimensional realisation of a photo of his childhood, a shot of the family in front of their run-down caravan, it’s all there in model form, down to the junk lying in the mud; a cogent reminder of his change in circumstances.
Race trophies abound, too: the shield won by Ralph Mulford for his controversial second place in the first ever Indianapolis 500 in 1911, a magnificent 28in-high sculpture by the Crown Jeweller of Austria for the 1912 Austrian Alpine Trial, bronzes for Prince Henry Tour winners, two examples of the Coppa Florio which predated the Targa, showing a rather tough angel driving an Edwardian racer; Targa Florio plaques from 1924 (Borzino) and 1926 (Costantini); a delicate hollow clock-rim awarded after the inaugural 24 Heures du Mans in 1923, a Gordon Crosby bronze commissioned by friends for Sammy Davis after his crash in 1930; Vanderbilt Cups, the inaugural Los Angeles MotorDrome Trophy collected in 1910 by Ray Harroun; cups, sculptures and plaques from all over Europe and America, and often still in their presentation cases of mahogany and morocco leather. Through an elaborate doorway are shelves of smaller objects, everyday items with a motoring flavour from the 19th century to the ’30s, whether keepsakes, presents, or promotional gee-gaws.
There are cigarette boxes showing bustled ladies in Benzes, match-safes with fin-de-siecle sirens experiencing their first run in the new horseless carriages; paperweights in every conceivable material; pipe-holders, pincushions and pocket-knives; fans, flasks and photo-frames; lighters, calendars, an opium box, . . There can surely be no artifact which has not been decorated with a car of some sort, at some time, and scarcely one subject which has not been garnered by Zolomij and Holland in their relatively short but extremely thorough hunt. Did I mention the weather-vanes, or the complete, intricate five-foot-long model of a Model T production line? In a further room, I began to realise how little I really knew of the breadth of automobilia and I hadn’t been upstairs yet.
I was completely unaware of the wealth of early painted ceramics depicting automobiles, yet here were souvenir egg-cups from the 1896 Paris-Marseilles-Paris race, Art Nouveau vases shaped as cars, and frankly ghastly but important china replicas of the Gordon Bennett Trophy, Rococo in style, with cherubs and the Goddess of Speed cavorting in a garlanded Panhard vis-à-vis. Vases, plates, condiments, ashtrays, candyboxes, beer-steins, dinner services, spittoons, umbrella stands, shaving mugs. . . the range is astonishing, and the quality, as of almost everything in the collection, top-rank.
There is not a chip or a scar visible, despite some of these fragile ceramics being nine or 10 decades old and there are multiple examples of many items stored in the warehouse should the worst happen. . . Vulnerable sets seem still to possess their rarest elements; the Doulton ‘Motorists’ dinner-service (1903-13), for example, still boasts spittoon and biscuitjar as well as cups and plates, while amongst a dozen or so of the popular Sadler Art Deco car-teapots are several of the rare matching caravan sugar bowls.
Still on the ground floor is another room devoted to paintings, mainly rather grand, and hung against glowing wood panelling. Only a small proportion of the two dimensional works can ever be displayed at one time, solam referring here to the lavish collection catalogue as much as to the notes of my visit. Thus if you are lucky enough to get there, you may not see a particular item; but you will certainly see something spectacular.
A prize piece is The First American Race, a gouache, circa 1895. of primitive vehicles on a trotting track and there are six entries! As well as the first known European depiction of a car in a street, La Promenade en Torpedoof 1896, there’s a wide selection of early American car paintings, often done as magazine illustrations, sometimes romantic, sometimes satirical, of whom the doyen must be JC Leyendecker: his almost photographically detailed style spanned the Boer and Korean wars.
Continental prints embrace cartoons of bolting horses, indignant policemen and perspiring puncturemenders; grim depictions of death and mayhem in those dust-ridden early French races, saucy Belgian drawings involving actresses and automobiles, an 1898 print by Toulouse-Lautrec of his cousin at the wheel; vibrant Edwardian lithographs by Montaut, Gamy and Vavaleseur, original artwork for continental and British magazines, sketches by the great American artist Peter Helck, and the finished works too (some of the very few post-WW2 items in the collection).
You can revel in race depictions by F Gordon Crosby and Bryan de Grineau, dramatic gouaches by Roger Soubie for Bugattl’s memorable adverts, a Geo Ham original drawing for a French GP poster, the framed cover of the music for Get Out and Get Under (1917), fly-bills, and pre-1900 posters for De Dion Bouton and La Parisienne motor-cars and for glass bottles of essence.
As well as the purely artistic, there are lithographs and original artworks for the best advertisements of the best periods romantic Art Nouveau water-colours, and the bold, confident graphics of the ’20s; not reproductions, but originals, and usually in excellent condition.
Nor is it all glamourising the automobile: a reproving litho Killing Pace of a champagne-quaffing couple in a death’shead car, warns of drink-driving as early as 1903, while a remarkable prophetic image is Emile Guillemin’s 1903 engraving depicting an endless stream of cars filling a road, three and four abreast, their swirling clouds of fumes and smoke almost obscuring the sun this at a time when few had seen a car, let alone imagined what we know now. At this early period, as the first naive renditions give way to increasing accuracy, the artistic element begins to diverge from the commercial, and the collection includes a significant example: dated 1901 and signed only CL, it is an oil of larrott racing his Panhard from Paris to Berlin.
Blurred and distorted, it shows the leaning oval wheels which the rolling shutters of contemporary cameras produced; surely an early example of the feedback of photography into art.
In the upstairs rooms, sculptures, artworks and miniatures mingle in looser groupings: two feet of solid silver formed into Campbell’s 1929 Bluebird, a Bluebird Trophy from Sydenham MC to G P HarveyNoble, a casting of a Touring-bodied 2900B Alfa Romeo; table lamps; enamel signs; Edwardian prams in the shape of automobiles. An aeronautical note creeps in too, with a huge Michelin flying trophy and biplanes and dirigibles fashioned in copper and brass. In this torrent of cataloguing, I haven’t yet mentioned the glass-ware crystal decanters, Tiffany lampshades. a stained-glass window from 1904 or the textiles: printed silks, lap rugs, even Aubusson tapestries commissioned by the Marquis De Dion; nor yet the fabulous selection of toys.
Magnificent Gordon Bennett Cup racers in German tinplate line up alongside clockwork raceways and matched sets of 19thcentury ‘transition’ toys, where the same carriage body has been converted by the factory to an automobile; wind-up cast-iron buckboards from as early as 1895; the very first electric slot-racing set 1915, by Lionel; wonderful ’20s tin garages with pumps and hoists; wooden assembly kits; jigsaw puzzles, biscuit-boxes, candy moulds; it goes on and on. And, in the last room you come to, the pedal cars!
Chaindrive Panhards; miniature coupes with roof. doors and folding screen; a coachbuilt Packard with full electrics; and the most sensational, outrageous six-foot long ’30s sportster (could it be a Delahaye?) with enclosed wheels in streamlined Figoni and Falaschi style.
As you walk down again through rooms you have already visited, you inevitably see treasures you missed before, and you risk starting all over again. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the breadth, and the superlative quality of everything here; yet ‘only’ 1500 items are on show there is twice as much again in storage.
And yes, unlikely as it may seem among this pantheon of the finest, most stimulating assembly of motoring art I ever expect to see. I did come away with one object uppermost in my mind, the one I’ll grab first if someone distracts the staff long enough; a 1907 bronze bust of Camille lenatzy, the Red Devil.
German sculptor Rudolf Stocker has shown us not only the great driver’s head and shoulders, but also his forearms and tensed knuckles grappling with a huge steering wheel, of which only two-thirds is seen. There is nothing else to depict car or setting, merely these straining arms and a portion of wheel-rim below lenatzy’s muffled face with its bristling moustache, and yet the effort and discomfort of racing those monstrous early machines is palpable.
Theft is not the only option, however. Holland’s interests have moved on, and he is assembling another collection (subject confidential so far). For this he wants the Victorian house emptied, and the entire automotive collection Is for sale. The asking price is $3.5m. It adds a piquant touch to your visit to think that this astonishing display may not be kept together for much longer. — G C
The Raymond E Holland Collection is at 111 North Fourth Street, Allentown. Pa, USA. The catalogue, a splendid hardback reference work by Zolomil and published by Automobile Quarterly, effectively charts the whole development of automotive art and costs $99.95 from the same address.