A Legacy Assembled : A Preview of the Villa Finale Collection On exhibit October 2009 through May 2010 in the Villa Finale Visitor Center 122 Madison Street, San Antonio Texas 78204. Villa Finale’s A Legacy Assembled.
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A Legacy Assembled: A Preview of the Villa Finale Collection On exhibit October 2009 through May 2010 in the Villa Finale Visitor Center 122 Madison Street, San Antonio Texas 78204
When Walter Mathis set eyes on the 1876 Italianate home at 401 King William, he knew it would be the perfect showcase for his growing collection of fine and decorative arts. Renamed Villa Finale to recognize it as his last home, the building still houses Mr. Mathis’s incredible 12,000-piece collection – one that delighted visitors for over forty years. Mr. Mathis donated the property and its contents to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2004 to share it with the public for generations to come. After undergoing a modern restoration, Villa Finale will open its doors, and visitors will once again be treated to the extraordinary collection within its walls. The exhibition, “A Legacy Assembled,” explores Villa Finale room by room and displays a representation of the collections you will find there when the museum opens to the public.
This diminutive chair was created using thirteen single antlers and one deer hide, all from animals hunted by Walter Mathis’s grandfather, Thomas Henry Mathis. Mathis made the chair in Rockport, Texas for use by his four grandsons. The chair is located in the Basement, with other early Texas furniture.
The Meyer Pottery was founded by Franz Schultz and his son-in-law, William Meyer, in 1887 in Atascosa, a community about twenty-three miles southwest of San Antonio. Clay from the area was used to make this churn. Villa Finale’s collection of over sixty pieces of Meyer Pottery is located in the Basement.
Walter Mathis’s grandfather, Thomas Henry Mathis, co-founded the Coleman, Mathis, Fulton Cattle Company and also owned the Henry Bend Ranch, now Mathis, Texas. The iron’s unusual shape represents a tadpole, which was the Mathis family cattle brand. The branding iron is located in the Basement with other Mathis Ranch relics.
Villa Finale has twenty-six bronzes by French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye (pronounced bar-ay). Although Barye was most famous for his depiction of wild animals, either alone or in grisly animal interactions, he did sculpt a few equestrian statues. This is one of four that are located in Villa Finale’s First Floor Hall. They were purchased for Mathis as a surprise by his sister, Agnes Bain, while both were in London.
This tiny snuff bottle, characterized by a Persian-inspired relief in the Indian Mughal style(1526-1707), is actually made from a solid emerald. It is located in a cabinet at the rear of the First Floor Hall that is filled with other small glass and stone objects.
One of the most widespread collections at Villa Finale is the snuff box collection, most of which are located in the Library, where these boxes sit with fifty-six others. They are made out of every possible material, from a donkey hoof and papier-mâché to gold and silver. Technically, not all of the boxes are snuff boxes, some being vestas, or match cases, and others, patch boxes. A patch box had a most unusual use: it held small pieces of cotton which were stuffed into a musket barrel with the musket ball and acted as a sort of gasket to maximize the pressure behind the ball.
One of twenty-two Russian and Greek icons in Villa Finale’s Library, this one is true to its original function as a story without words, using “icon-graphics” to illustrate a religious event. The middle frame illustrates the “anastasis,” or resurrection of Christ, surrounded by the twelve feasts of the Catholic Church. Because icons were venerated and often touched by church-goers, many of the museum’s icons have an “oklad,” a protective cover made of silver or other metals, with openings only for the faces of those depicted. Icons are typically painted on wood panels using egg-tempera paint with gold leaf detail.
Walter Mathis was once asked if a fire occurred within Villa Finale, which object would he save first? The answer was this bronze death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte. This bronze is a cast of the death mask taken of Napoleon on his death bed in 1821 by his Corsican physician, Francesco Antommarchi. The mask is located in the Front Napoleon Parlor in its original box.
This bronze four-part model of Napoleon Bonaparte’s sarcophagus is one of the hundreds of Napoleonic souvenirs that fill Villa Finale’s Napoleon Parlors. Many of the pieces Walter Mathis purchased were manufactured to commemorate Napoleon’s exhumation from his grave in Mt. Elba and second funeral in Paris in 1840. This piece is an accurate representation of the French leader’s tomb in Paris, and shows him in his signature bi-corn hat and riding boots
These two heavily-carved ivory figures, one of Napoleon Bonaparte and one of his second wife, Austrian royal Marie-Louise, sit on the mantle in the Rear Napoleon Parlor. Their torsos open to reveal what Walter Mathis described as “their lives carved in ivory”. While Napoleon’s depicts battles and victories, the unfortunate Marie-Louise reveals only her marriage to Napoleon.
Because of Walter Mathis’s fascination with Napoleon’s military valor and skill, Villa Finale’s collection holds many helmets and swords of varying countries of origin, but mainly French. This helmet was worn by a high ranking cavalry soldier in the French Guarde National à Cheval, or Cavalry, and its decoration is made almost entirely of horse hair. The sword is a French Court Sword, a type that one would never see combat, only ceremony. These two pieces are located in the Rear Napoleon Parlor.
The Onderdonk family is well represented in the collection at Villa Finale. Between patriarch Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, son Julian and his sister Eleanor, there are almost thirty of their works at the site. Julian was and remains most famous for his depictions of the fields of bluebonnets that surround San Antonio. Bluebonnets, a prolific brilliant-blue Texan wildflower, still literally cover country landscapes in south Texas in the springtime. This painting, which also includes the artist’s second favorite subject, the Prickly Pear Cactus, hangs in the Dining Room.
Villa Finale has eighteen of these whimsical cow creamers. This one is the most beautiful in the collection and is made of sterling silver which has been gilded. It was made by Thomas and Company in London, England and retailed by the famous Tiffany & Company. Cow creamers were novelty items, first produced in the 1750's and 1760's by Dutch silversmith John Schuppe, who was based in London. Many copies such as this one were made in the 19th and 20th centuries, mostly in England and the Netherlands. This creamer is located in a special cupboard in the Dining Room, separated from its sterling silver counterparts.
Walter Mathis purchased this compotier, or dish for a compote dessert, in 1968 while in London with his sister, Agnes Bain. It is part of a silver gilt and crystal table service that was made to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. It includes two compotes, candelabra and a towering epergne that decorates the Dining Room table. Mathis acquired these during the same trip on which he received four Barye equestrian bronzes, one of which is representing the First Floor Hall in this exhibition.
This heavily ornamented gilt silver, enamel and faux-jeweled goblet stands with another larger example on a Scottish sideboard in the Dining Room. There are thirty-one goblets in the room, mostly sterling, all highly decorated, and all used at some point by revelers at parties thrown by Walter Mathis.
Between Villa Finale’s Kitchen and Dining Room is a beguiling little room called the Bar. Walter Mathis was a great and accommodating host, and this room holds the majority of his glassware, barware and other equipment for entertaining. Mathis was very pleased to be able to use all of his crystal decanters according to their original purpose. Most of them have sterling tags identifying their contents. This lovely piece resembles a thistle and most likely held Scotch whiskey.
Villa Finale owns ninety-eight works by Wedgwood, the venerable 250 year-old English porcelain company, best known for its iconic neo-classical blue jasperware. This incredible pattern is like no other by Wedgwood. It was created by Daisy Makeig-Jones, one of history’s few recognized female potters, and a character in her own right. In 1909, with little experience, she demanded a job from Wedgwood pottery, and succeeded in obtaining a position as a ceramic painter. By 1915, she had launched her own line, Fairyland Lustre, whose fantastical designs became enormously popular after World War I with a clientele weary of war. Over the years, Fairyland Lustre has become Wedgwood’s most valuable product. The bowl is located in the Bar.
In 1786, Josiah Wedgwood borrowed the celebrated Portland Vase, a stunning 1st century B.C. Roman glass amphora owned the 3rd Duke of Portland, for the purpose of reproducing it in porcelain. He painstakingly copied the figures, all classical and quite nude, and marketed his reproductions at steep prices to collectors and aristocrats he knew were accustomed to classical nudity. In the 1830’s, however, the firm became obliged to carefully drape the figures, as in this example, due to a shift in patronage to the middle class who were much more modest in their tastes. Walter Mathis collected four of these vases, which are displayed in the Kitchen.
This Portuguese plate was inspired by figurines rustiques made by French potter Bernard Palissy (pronounced palace-ay)(1510-1590), who was formally trained as a stained glass artist. After receiving a Chinese porcelain cup as a gift, however, he became obsessed with the idea of making one himself. He succeeded, but did not continue to produce fine china. Instead, he created his own style of pottery, casting real fish, reptiles, insects and amphibians in clay, and composing them all together on a plate. People admired the wares, purchased them and promptly placed them on their sideboards as decoration, for no one could possibly eat off of them. Villa Finale has five of these 20th century reproduction plates, which are hung on the Kitchen wall.
Walter Mathis knew that the ground glass stoppers and lids on antique apothecary jars and bottles rivaled the seals on modern plastic storage containers in their ability to keep food fresh. Mathis, ever the aesthete, liked the way they looked in his kitchen and he filled them with cereals, pastas, spices and dried fruits. This giant French apothecary bottle sits on the refrigerator in Villa Finale’s Kitchen and was undoubtedly a 19th century equivalent to the oversized perfume bottles seen in department stores; an eye-catching advertisement.
Walter Mathis loved the idea that this double porringer was made to hold soup and food for French soldiers on the battlefield. The two-handled design allowed the diner to eat soup or gruel without a utensil. This set has the former owner’s initials, J.C.R., carved on the bottom of the bowl. It is found in the Pewter Room on a Welsh dresser covered with other pewter ware. There are 135 pewter plates, vessels and decorative statuary in Villa Finale’s collection.
The Pewter Room is one of the most European rooms in Villa Finale, with forty-four paintings of Italian and Spanish origin covering all four walls and English pewter ware and German steins in the cupboards. This beautiful example of a Continental painting depicts a subject typical of those found in European country houses and castles.
San Antonio artist Mary Bonner, painter and printmaker, died in 1934, leaving her sister Emma with an example of almost every work of art she had created. When Emma died in 1956, her estate, including her sister’s works, was put up for sale. Rumor has it that Walter Mathis arrived early to the sale and was able to purchase the entire collection. Villa Finale currently has sixty-five Bonners hanging along the First Floor Rear Stairs. There were many more however: Mathis gave a great number of the French scenes to Trinity University, the rest were gifts to friends or family members. Bonner created cowboy and rodeo scenes in the 1920s while working in Paris, where they were wildly popular with the French.
The patriarch of the artist-filled Onderdonk family, Robert Jenkins Onderdonk came to Texas from Maryland in 1879 and settled in San Antonio. He was able to support his wife and three children with his art and his work as an art instructor, which may account for the lack of spontaneity that is so evident in his son Julian’s work. Onderdonk’s most appealing pieces are not his carefully rendered portraits, but his casual sketches of people and pastoral scenes around San Antonio. This sketch is among those and hangs with others along the First Floor Rear Stairs.
These Austrian circus animals are among the hundred or so that occupy an open armoire at the top of the First Floor Rear Stairs in a space Walter Mathis called the sewing room. They were given to Mathis by the Scapalandra family who last owned Bell & Brothers, his grandfather’s jewelry business. They are part of a collection that was another of Mathis’s favorites.
Walter Mathis was not a particularly religious man, but enjoyed and collected art that was created for religious purposes. Because of this, Villa Finale has a very strong collection of retablos, santos, icons, and paintings like this one by the Peruvian Cuzco school. These very valuable paintings were the product of European and indigenous artists who established an art colony in Cuzco, Peru in about 1530. Nine of these paintings hang along the First Floor Stairs.
Walter Mathis came by his desire to collect from his family. His grandmother, for one, had amassed a very large collection of glass from the 1876 Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, and upon inheriting it, Mathis continued to collect more. Centennial glass makes up a major collection, about 240 pieces, in the Second Floor Hall. This dish is of the Frosted Eagle pattern and is displayed in an English bookcase.
Villa Finale’s collection contains many early religious pieces that Walter Mathis discovered on trips to Mexico. According to friends, he could stand in front of a “trash heap” and pick out treasures, one of which was a Spanish colonial santo crown, not unlike the halo on this figure. This wooden santo can be seen in pictures of Mathis’s residence on East Mulberry Street in the early 1960’s, and now sits with hundreds of other Spanish colonial artifacts on the piano in the Second Floor Hall.
This charming watercolor of a peaceful water scene is a fine example of Julian Onderdonk’s early mastery of this medium. It was given to Walter Mathis’s mother, Jessie Bell, who was fifteen years old at the time when Onderdonk, only seventeen himself, painted it. It is sweetly inscribed on the back: “From a friend, to a little friend in a little friendly way. Miss Jessie Bell.” Arthur Mathis, Walter’s older brother, inherited the painting and Arthur’s children gave it to Walter upon Arthur’s death in 1973. It has hung in the Second Floor Hall ever since.
Villa Finale has 317 stickpins in its collection. Walter Mathis very cleverly outfitted a group of these porcelain figures to hold stickpins, which are displayed in the Blue Room. Mathis was a child when he was given three stickpins by his grandfather. From then on, as he did with other favorite collections, he added to it until he was satisfied with its breadth and variety.
One of Walter Mathis’s first collections is the shaving mug collection located in the Blue Room. All 126 mugs are displayed in purpose-built cabinets, along with barber bottles and straight razors. These mugs come in every imaginable shape and form, their only requirement being that they hold a shaving brush and hot water.
The Bell Jewelry Company in San Antonio was owned by Walter Mathis’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Bell. The case on this gold and silver pocket watch was made by Bell for a prominent San Antonio cattleman, whose widow was forced to sell it back to the company because of financial troubles. It remained at the store as a showpiece until the company went out of business in 1961 when it was purchased by Walter Mathis. The watch represents Villa Finale’s large collection of Bell silver as well as the collection of pocket watches and other portable timepieces displayed in the Blue Room.
Located on the Yellow Room on the mantle, this Italian micro-mosaic sits with six others. It is one of a pair with five Roman scenes, St. Peter's square with the Basilica, the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Atrium Vestae, and the ruins of the Roman Forum. These were primarily produced in the Vatican Studios as gifts for heads of state and other important people, but eventually developed into souvenirs for those taking the “Grand Tour” in the 19th century. The tiles of micro-mosaics are sometimes so small that they need magnification to be seen.
During Walter Mathis’s travels, he often found inspiration for the display of his pieces. Such was the case with Villa Finale’s collection of Bohemian glass displayed in the Yellow Room. Mathis began assembling and displaying his own collection of Bohemian glass after viewing fantastic collection of glass at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, arranged by Empress Carlota. This vase sits with twenty-seven other colorful glasses and vases on a tiered shelf. A technique known as “cut-to-clear”, literally cutting the color away to reveal the clear glass, was used to decorate this piece.
Staffordshire pottery is best known for its figures of somber King Charles Spaniels, often placed in pairs on mantles in affluent English and American country homes from the 19th century to the present. Villa Finale has such a pair in a sizable collection of Staffordshire ware that features another popular type known as “flat-backs” These figurines were amusing depictions of famous men or rather androgynous characters wearing kilts or skirts (the viewer can decide which) gamboling in pastoral settings. This figure, located in the Yellow Room with thirty-two others, is labeled “Washington”, but it clearly depicts another founding father, Benjamin Franklin. The mistaken identity may have been made by an English child laborer who didn’t know, and probably didn’t care, who was who.
Walter Mathis organized the Green Bedroom as a sort of homage to his ancestors. Family furnishings decorate the room and family photographs hang on the walls and fill the chests of drawers. On one side of the monumental bed are photographs of his paternal ancestors, on the other side, maternal. This excellent photograph is of Mathis’s father, Arthur, and his uncle, Henry, in the side yard of the 1868 Mathis family home in Rockport, Texas, which is depicted in the older photograph not long after it was built.
Mary Jane Nold Mathis, Walter Mathis’s paternal grandmother, was given this sterling silver calling card case on her sixteenth birthday, the date of which is engraved, along with her name, on the cover. Calling cards were an essential part of 19th century social life, acting as a sort of a “caller ID” for those being called upon. The chain enabled the bearer to carry the case a like a purse, or attach it to her belt. The case is located in the Green Bedroom, with various other Mathis family artifacts.
Finding the time to quilt while tending eight children is nothing short of miraculous, but Walter Mathis’s grandmother, Mary Nold Mathis, managed to create this Dresden China Plate pattern quilt during her spare time. The quilt is made of fine cambric cotton and was made and used at the Mathis family home in Rockport, Texas. The quilt is one of fourteen that Mathis used and stored in a wardrobe in the Green Bedroom.
Walter Mathis said that this highchair was used by all the Mathis children except for him; he claimed he was too large a baby and just wouldn’t fit. The chair, made of walnut in the late 19th century, was cleverly designed to act as a stroller, a walker and a highchair. It sits in the archway between the Green Bedroom and the Green Sitting Room.
This stunning earthenware oyster plate was made in Stoke-upon-Trent, England, by the Minton factory. The plate is Art Nouveau in style, characterized by graceful curves, shells and seaweed, and represents Minton’s sole contribution to this art movement. These plates came in a myriad of colors, and, as the name suggests, were used for serving raw oysters, with a middle receptacle for sauce. This plate is displayed prominently in the Green Sitting Room.
Villa Finale has 235 of these two-part Victorian calling cards most of which are displayed in a crystal punch bowl in the Green Sitting Room. These “hidden name” cards were sold in packages of ten or more, and printed upon purchase with the buyer’s name under the decorative Victorian “scrap”. The “scrap” typically was a highly-detailed lithograph of flowers or birds upon which was printed a lovely verse or saying. This card was already in two parts when Mr. Mathis acquired it.
This case contains all of Walter Mathis’s World War II medals, awarded to Captain Mathis for his service as a Pathfinder Pilot in France and Germany. As he received them, he would send each one home to his father, who eventually had them all mounted and framed. The medals hung in Arthur Mathis’s office until they were passed on to Walter Mathis, who modestly hung them in the Bedroom Foyer, where they can be seen today. The case contains three Distinguished Flying Cross Medals, Air Medal, Presidential Citation and various European Theatre medals.
Walter Mathis’s bedroom walls are literally covered with these Nathaniel Currier prints depicting the Mexican War (1846-48). This one, entitled “General Z. Taylor Rough and Ready”, is one of thirty-two that hang in the Mathis Bedroom. During the mid-19th century, these prints were available relatively inexpensively to the public and provided a sort of pictorial documentation of the war. It wasn’t until the hire of James Merritt Ives in 1852 that the firm began to create quaint scenes that are so well known as “Currier and Ives” today.
The Mathis Bedroom has a certain austerity not found in the rest of the house. Among the few objects in the room that show any fanciful decoration is this western European silver-plate five-part jewelry box. The decorative theme appears to be anthropologically related, with farming activity on the cover, merchants and soldiers on either side, and a mother and child relief on the ends.
This Rand McNally depiction of San Antonio in 1878 was most likely part of the printing company’s newly introduced Business Atlas, which debuted in 1876 and is still printed today. The print hangs with several other hand-colored prints of early Texas towns in the Mathis Bedroom.
Many of Robert Onderdonk’s early works are painted in this illustrative, almost naïve, manner. He enjoyed painting scenes in and around San Antonio, not unlike fellow genre painter Theodore Gentilz (pronounced john-tee), who painted the same subjects fifty years earlier. This painting hangs in the Mathis Bedroom with other scenes, both painted and printed, of early San Antonio.
Artist Theodore Gentilz (john-tee)was an established young painter when he set sail for Texas in 1843, leaving his home in Paris, France, forever. He was invited to come to Castroville by fellow Frenchman Henri Castro, the founder of that town, but settled in San Antonio where he opened a studio in 1847. He left as his legacy a rich pictorial account of the people of San Antonio, its environs, and Mexico. He also worked as a surveyor, creating detailed, illustrated maps of areas surrounding San Antonio and most of northern Mexico. Many of his paintings of Mexico, like this one, were painted during surveying trips. All of Villa Finale’s Gentilz collection hang in the Mathis Sitting Room.
The Mathis Sitting Room, a comfortable second floor retreat, holds a remarkable collection of antique maps of Texas and Mexico. This hand-colored map of “Mexico or New Spain” was published in London in 1795 for a volume called “The History of America.” It was drawn and colored by Thomas Kitchin, Sr., who was at the time appointed His Majesty’s (George III) Royal Hydrographer. For those not familiar with the term, the great attention given by Mr. Kitchin, Sr. to the Lake of Mexico should be a give-away as hydrography is the science of surveying and charting seas, lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. Most of Texas on this map is amusingly labeled “Great Space of Land Unknown.”
This early American musket sits on an antique Texas cupboard in the Mathis Sitting Room, which contains a varied collection of weapons ranging from Japanese swords and Bowie knives, to American muskets and French pistols. The stock is made of maple and is decorated with relatively sophisticated brass work. This musket required an amazing amount of skill to use, as one would need to carry their shot, gunpowder and other accoutrements, as well as the gun, which could weigh up to fifteen pounds. The shooter had to stuff gunpowder and shot down the barrel with a ramrod, balance gunpowder on the flintlock, ignite the powder and shoot the lead shot in the direction of the quarry, who, hopefully had not strayed too far during the process.
Although powder horns are hopelessly clichéd, appearing in countless films featuring the American Colonial period, they really were used and valued by those who needed a water-resistant, portable vessel in which to carry their gunpowder. This powder horn in made from a cow’s horn and is fitted with a wooden lid and leather shoulder strap. It is located in the Mathis Sitting Room with a collection of items that were used to support musket use.