James Jackson Jarves

James Jackson Jarves

Visionary art collector and writer

Wed 28 Feb 2024 10:10 AM

Some men are born visionaries but have the misfortune not to live long enough to see their dreams come to fruition. Pioneering art collector and writer James Jackson Jarves was one such individual. Born into a wealthy family in Boston on August 10, 1818, his father, Deming Jarves, was the founder of the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company and was the first man in America to manufacture pressed glass on a large scale. Due to ill health, James Jackson Jarves was forced to abandon any idea of a university education. At the tender age of 16, he began travelling, visiting California, Mexico, and Central and South America, and publishing stories about his adventures.

Illustration by Leo Cardini

The next stop was Hawaii, where Jarves lived for 11 years working off and on as a printer, trader, missionary, historian, part-time diplomat and twice the editor of The Polynesian, the island’s first weekly newspaper. His History of the Hawaiian or Sandwich Islands and Scenes and Scenery in the Sandwich Islands and A Trip Through Central America were seminal. In 1848, he returned to the USA, only to set sail for Europe in 1851. He and his family stayed briefly in Paris before arriving that same year in Florence, his desired destination where he would live for the next 40 years, studying and collecting art, particularly Italian paintings from the 13th to 16th centuries. These Primitives, as they are known, were unfashionable and unappreciated at the time, even if Jarves was convinced otherwise, and they were often destroyed to retrieve the gold on them. For the rest of his life, he would write extensively about art and life in Italy, guided by his firm belief in the educational role of galleries and museums, which he hoped his fellow countrymen would come to share.

By 1860, even with his relatively limited economic means, Jarves had accumulated 145 paintings over a nine-year period, which he showed as a collection he wished to sell together first in New York and then in Boston, but it failed to arouse interest. For this reason, he agreed to deposit 119 of the paintings at Yale College for three years as security for a 20,000-dollar loan, plus interest. Unable to repay the debt, despite Yale extending the time limit, the collection was auctioned. With no bidders, Yale closed the matter by agreeing that the collection covered the loan and interest owed to them. It can now be seen in the university’s art gallery. With hindsight, this transaction was a deal of a lifetime.

Back in Italy, between 1880 and 1882, Jarves became the US vice-consul in Florence, but he never stopped collecting art. His new collection soon numbered 54 paintings, which became the Holden Collection after it was bought by the silver mining baron Liberty E. Holden. It is now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Although Liberty’s daughter said her father “saw nothing” in the paintings, her far-sighted mother refused to let up until her husband acquired them. Jarves’ Venetian glass collection is housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, while his collection of fabrics, lace and Renaissance costumes can be found at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. Jarves was also one of the first connoisseurs of Japanese art in Europe, despite never having visited the country.

The family life of the often unsavvy and, at the end of his life, impoverished businessman-collector was often an unhappy one. His first marriage to Elizabeth Russell Swain in 1838 was troubled, although they had two children, Horatio Deming (1839-83), who fought in the American Civil War against his father’s wishes, and Florence Amey (1855-1967). A year after Elizabeth died in 1861, Jarves married Isabella Kast Heyden. They had a daughter, Annabel (1866-1954), and a son, James Jackson Jr. (1869-1883), who died at 15 years old. The boy had artistic talents, which is why his father, who never fully recovered from his death, wrote Pepero, The Boy Artist in his son’s memory. Isabella passed away in 1887, soon to be followed by Jarves, who died of jaundice while vacationing in Tarasp, Switzerland in 1888. He is buried in Rome’s English Cemetery, not far from where his beloved son was laid to rest. It almost seems like Jarves prepared his own eulogy when he wrote in Art Thoughts, The Experiences and Observations of an American Amateur in Europe that “the genuine collector has in him a force of enthusiasm that sometimes makes a fool of him, but in the end carries him triumphant through many a strait, giving to his labors a pleasurable zest such as can be appreciated only by those who have partaken of it…A born collector can no more avoid taking impromptu risks and committing extravagances than the gosling fail to take to swim.”

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