When William R. Johnston, curator of 18th and 19th century art at the Walters Art Gallery, decided to tell the story of the museum's founders, William and Henry Walters, he had no idea what it would entail.
That was 25 years ago -- 25 years in which Johnston read hundreds of history books, perused thousands of pages from inventories or minutes and pored over what surely must have seemed like tens of thousands of footnotes.
You see, William and Henry, father and son, were very private people.
Private enough to make Howard Hughes seem extroverted.
Private enough to prompt the Wall Street Journal to note in 1910 when Henry succeeded John D. Rockefeller Jr. as a director of U.S. Steel:
"Walters might be called the Wall Street Mystery, if enough were known about him to stimulate general curiosity. But he has succeeded so completely in effacing his personality and his acts, that he is not even a mystery. He is unknown."
And that was when the man was alive.
So you may imagine that what began as a simple history book turned into a jigsaw puzzle of sorts, as Johnston pieced together the story of two adept businessmen who built a public museum for Baltimore but left few clues as to their inner lives. The results of Johnston's efforts have been published this month by Johns Hopkins University Press in a book titled "William and Henry Walters, The Reticent Collectors" ($39.95). Johnston has woven a minutely detailed story of two men who amassed great wealth from whiskey, steel and railroads as well as one of the foremost private art collections in the country. He tells how the Walters Art Gallery, which opened in 1934 and is renowned for its illuminated manuscripts, ancient Roman artworks, artifacts from late Egypt and 18th French porcelains, came to be. In the telling, Johnston offers tidbits such as how William Walters, industrial giant, added an inch to his height each time he filled out a passport application. He also shaved a year off his age.
"When I began, the Walterses seemed to be two-dimensional characters. I saw William Walters as a sort of grouchy man who collected the art of his time," he says. "Now I see him as a real lover of art and Henry as really quite a remarkable philanthropist."
The book is the culmination of a long-term hobby: Johnston, a native of Toronto, did most of the research in bits and pieces on an early morning here, or a Saturday afternoon there. As the gallery's associate director, Johnston has plenty else to do. Among other things, he is known as the curator of the first "blockbuster" exhibition held at the Walters, a retrospective of impressionist master Alfred Sisley, which in 1993 drew 134,537 visitors.
Another Johnston book, "From Romanticism to Art Nouveau," a survey of 19th century art based on the Walters collections, will be published in March.
That same month, a book by Johnston and his wife, Sona, the curator of painting and sculpture before 1900 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, will be published. Titled "The Triumph of French Painting: From Ingres to Matisse," it will accompany another joint venture: an exhibition organized by both the Walters and the BMA, which will open in March at the BMA.
Both William and Henry Walters would be pleased to hear that they are considered mysterious. "William belonged to a generation of businessmen who valued self-reliance and believed in keeping their own counsel," Johnston writes. " Even in a society that valued privacy, Henry Walters's reserve was regarded as excessive. He shunned interviews, was almost never photographed and was said to be so secretive that he would not sign a hotel register."
In 1841, William Walters moved from Pennsylvania to Baltimore, a booming port city and hub of railroad activity; two decades later, he was worth more than $1 million. He formed W.T. Walters and Co., which specialized in liquors, and soon expanded into railroads and shipping. In 1846 he married Ellen Harper, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. They had three children: William Jr., who died in childhood; Henry, born in 1848; and Jennie in 1853. The family lived in downtown Baltimore until 1857, when they moved to what is now 5 West Mount Vernon Place -- which forms part of the Walters Art Gallery.
As an art collector, William Walters patronized artists, sparing nothing to support those he favored. "It is perhaps as a proselytizer for such diverse fields as European and American painting, Far Eastern art, fine book printing, and the breeding of the sturdy Percheron horse that he should chiefly be remembered," writes Johnston.
Henry, who spent a great deal of time abroad, was perhaps an even better businessman than his father. He was short, a bit stout and, with a full beard and mustache, resembled a sea captain.
For years, he was the permanent houseguest of a married couple, Sarah and Pembroke Jones, who lived and entertained in Wilmington, N.C., and New York. Johnston notes that the "Wilmington wags alluded to Sadie as 'the woman with two husbands' "
Henry and the Joneses often traveled on Henry's 224-foot steam yacht. And the Joneses, renowned entertainers, once built a platform in an oak tree so that their guests could dine a la treetop. In 1922, three years after Pembroke died, Henry and Sarah were married.
As an art collector, Henry had an unspoken mission: to create a public museum as a memorial to his father. As he traveled, he purchased boxes and boxes of art objects, which he then sent to Baltimore. But he spent little time in Baltimore, so, unlike many collectors, he did not live with his art.
"He had some things that he did keep with him -- I don't want to diminish his connoisseurship," says Johnston. "But much of the material he purchased was shipped from Europe to Baltimore, where it would be unpacked and recorded and put back in boxes."
Few letters written by Henry remain. His office records are largely lost, and he was known to remove the prices from records of art purchases. As he explained to an art dealer, "I don't want anyone in later years to talk of my collection in terms of money spent. That is my business, they'll have the works of art and their pedigrees."
When Henry died in 1931, he left more than $14 million. He bequeathed to the mayor and the city council of Baltimore "for the benefit of the public" the gallery, its contents and the adjoining house at 5 West Mount Vernon Place. He also left about $2 million for the gallery's endowment.
And so, after all the painstaking research, is Johnston relieved that his years of work have come to fruition? Maybe yes and maybe no, says Johnston. "I am happy with the portrayal of William. But Henry -- Henry, I'm afraid, is still a bit of a mystery."
William Johnston will sign "William and Henry Walters" Nov. 4 at Barnes & Noble, Power Plant, 6 p.m.; and Nov. 18, Barnes & Noble, Towson, 7: 30 p.m. He will also appear Nov. 7 at the "Book Bash," Bibelot Woodholme, 6 p.m. to 9: 30 p.m. "Book Bash" tickets cost $40 in advance, $50 at the door. Information: 410-887-2001.