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Collecting is in my DNA

Guest post by Michael Howard. The Michael Howard Theater Collection will be offered at auction in two parts: on October 6, 2012 in the Skinner European Furniture & Decorative Arts auction and also on November 18, 2012 in the Fine Books & Manuscripts auction.

Michael Howard Theater Collection Auction

Commedia dell’Arte Needlework, France, c. 1690, wool and silk, depicting the characters Harlequin, Il Dottore, and Scaramouche performing before an audience on an outdoor stage. (Lot 544 in the October 6, 2012 auction, Estimate $4,000-6,000)

I think collecting is somewhere in my DNA.

As a child I collected stamps and multicolored beach glass. As a young person I read that Alexander Calder collected “stones with holes right through them,” so I collected, and still have, shells and stones with holes right through them. Throughout my adult life, my collection focused on actors, acting, and the history of both.

After World War II, at the age of 22, I was discharged from the army and joined Lee Strasberg’s professional acting class. In many ways, Mr. Strasberg was a controversial figure in the world of the theater. However, one thing is beyond dispute – he was an extraordinary scholar of the theater, of actors and of the acting profession.

From the early days and later into his work in The Actor’s Studio, of which I am a member, he would share with us not only his knowledge but also his deep admiration for the profession of acting.  His respect for the Siddons, Keanes, and Duses of our profession led me, and many others, to begin honoring our work and collecting prints, playbills, and artifacts of our history.

So, as much as 60 years ago, with the limited means of a young actor, I began searching antique shops, book stores, and fairs for anything and everything that related to the international acting profession. It was exhilarating to find a book print from the 1780s of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth for three dollars, or later a 1690s needlework of Commedia dell’Arte actors for four figures.

Over the years as my career moved from acting into directing, and from directing into teaching, the walls of my home became covered with these ancestors of mine, helping me to share with my students knowledge of those who came before, their lives, the clothes they wore, and the choices they made.

Three or four pieces of art in my collection relating to the theater could only have been done by someone centuries ago who cared as deeply about actors and the theater as I do.

One is an English needlework picture of the 1790s, beautifully accomplished, with animals, bees and insects. With tiny stitches in black thread, a young child sewed into the needlework every single word of Jacques’ speech, The Seven Ages of Man, from As You Like It.  How that young girl (or her teacher?) must have loved Shakespeare. I also adore a 1690s French needlework, depicting three of the great Commedia actors of that period, doing their work. Those comedians were the rock stars of their time. Following prints of the actors and stitching them into a scene that includes an audience watching was an enormous amount of work.  We will never know the needle pointer’s name, but I feel that he or she had to care about the theater and those actors the way I do.

Like many other collectors, I recognize profoundly that I have been a caretaker of these objects large and small; my private pleasure is in restoring, repairing and museum matting as many as I can – no matter their significance. I hope another will find as much joy in them as I have.

3 thoughts on “Collecting is in my DNA

  1. have a collection of shakespeares-the tempest-the taming of the shrew-as you like it-wondered if they are worth anything-

  2. also have collection of rudyard kipling-life’s handicap-songs from books -debits and credits-wee willie winkie-many inventions-traffics and discoveries-soldiers three @other stories-

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