Keeping Tabs on Ker-Feal
Barnes’ Chester Springs estate could be lost in the multibillion-dollar shuffle
To listen to Kimberly Camp tell the story, it’s all too reminiscent of the opening scene in the movie Titanic. A refined, elderly lady is holding a treasure, a model she once constructed of Ker-Feal, the rural Chester County estate of Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Found in a closet there, it sparks million-dollar memories as she offers a priceless oral history in exchange for the right to celebrate her 90th birthday inside the 18th-century farmhouse.
Camp, who shepherded the Barnes Foundation through its seven most controversial years, first found the woman, a former art student, in the gallery at Merion a year prior. There, too, she reflected, prompted by a popular photo postcard of Barnes sitting in the main gallery with his Brittany spaniel, Fidele—Ker-Feal’s namesake—in his lap. He’s surrounded by 15 or so students.
“Initially, she was reluctant to share anything,” Camp recalls. “She wouldn’t even return our calls—then her birthday arrived. She said that when Barnes bought Ker-Feal in 1940—when she was one of those students gathered around him in the photo—it was all fields.”
Most associate Barnes with the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces in the gallery that bears his name—and with the cantankerous controversy about the Pennsylvania Supreme Court-ordered transfer of the pristine, multibillion-dollar collection (some 3,200 pieces) to a space on the Ben Franklin Parkway. Yet Ker-Feal may be the real—if remote—gem that gets lost in the bitter dispute. Built in 1775, it sits on 137 prime open acres along Bodine Road off Yellow Springs Road in Chester Springs. Barnes, a medical doctor who made a pre-antibiotics fortune selling the antiseptic Argyrol, was 78 when he died in a 1951 auto accident while returning to Merion from Ker-Feal, its name Breton Gaelic for “House of Fidele.”
Unlike the gallery at Merion, Barnes filled Ker-Feal with rare American decorative arts, including Pennsylvania German furniture, elaborate hand-wrought metal work and pottery. There are no paintings. The botanical garden was developed by his wife, Laura Barnes, who died in 1967.
“The Impressionist collection is so seductive, it’s very easy to ignore his American collection,” says Camp, an artist and doll maker who has since left The Barnes and returned to her studio. “Before me, there was no passion for Ker-Feal, so for 50 years it was deferred.”
Camp says that when she began at the Barnes Foundation in November 1998, its board of trustees was unaware Barnes had specifically addressed Ker-Feal in his will. In fact, in the 1 1/2-page document that’s separate from the foundation’s charter or trust, Barnes made Ker-Feal and its contents part of his more heralded collection, and stipulated that the estate be turned into “a living museum of art and a botanical garden,” says Camp.
That uncovered, Camp converted four convergent grants in 2001, including $200,000 from West Pikeland Township, to stabilize and safeguard Ker-Feal. After curing a massive mold problem and addressing pest issues, the funds paid for a temperature-control system and a conservation and curatorial assessment. By late 2003, Ker-Feal was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
But now, following Camp’s departure and a year-plus lapse in leadership until the mid-October 2006 appointment of new executive director and president Derek Gillman, progress at Ker-Feal has stalled again. Critics fear that, with the focus on shifting the gallery to the city, any attention paid to Ker-Feal will become “virtually extinct.”
Sidney Gecker, a New York dealer specializing in fine 18th- and 19th-century American antiques, says there’s been little if any effort to showcase the “other side of Barnes,” or to celebrate his American collection as “a major artistic achievement.”
Simply put, Gecker says, “[Ker-Feal] should be made better use of.”
House in the Country
Emily Croll, senior administrative officer at Barnes, says the foundation is committed to maintaining the collection at Ker-Feal and to making it more accessible. There’s still a need for additional capital funds for structural work. Even the estate’s location, off back-country roads, is problematic, she says. However, there are no fundraising goals or a timetable for making Ker-Feal “a living museum.”
“What we don’t know is how [Dr. Barnes] would have planned it,” Croll says. “He left no document that says how he envisioned it.”
In 2006, another Camp-initiated grant arrived from the state totaling $40,000, for grounds and green stock assessment. The second phase of that grant, Croll says, is to involve program development. A full-time caretaker remains on site, and two collection staff members come in weekly, she adds.
Gecker, who once taught decorative folk art classes at Ker-Feal, is also the organizer behind the small but vocal Friends of the Barnes Foundation, which is opposed to the commercial motivation behind moving the gallery. Likewise, he says, there’s too much potential for educational programming at Ker-Feal to let it languish. “I don’t think the trustees are seriously thinking of doing anything [with Ker-Feal],” he concludes, “and in no way is a full-time museum on the parkway relevant to what Dr. Barnes intended. The move disastrously diverts and changes the educational program.”
The value of the 9,000 catalogued and databased pieces—which includes those at the gallery and Ker-Feal—is incalculable. Some estimates place it between $25 and $70 billion. In Merion, there are 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cézanne, 59 by Matisse, and multiples by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Degas and more. For its part, the Barnes Foundation won’t comment on what everything is worth.
The impending move, critics maintain, is a violation of Barnes’ indenture of trust that “no picture belonging to the collection shall ever be loaned, sold or otherwise disposed of.”
At Ker-Feal, based upon a comparison of inventories over time, Camp says some—a number “less than 100”—of the 2,000 decorative items have already been stolen. Worse yet, they were actually strategically replaced with reproductions.
It’s a misnomer, she says, that Barnes used Ker-Feal as a regular weekend retreat. Plus, he spent summers in Europe. However, he did allow guests to stay at Ker-Feal—but Camp pins the thefts on staff at the foundation who had access.
“They were abusing [Ker-Feal], frankly,” she says. “Employees were hanging out there on weekends, cooking dinner in the hearth, things like that—not appropriate. Things had grown lax, and some took advantage of it.”
Her crackdown, and the care she shared for Ker-Feal, was part of her insistence that the place get its due credit. However, as a society, we don’t value the decorative arts, says Camp, adding that such work is valuable, requires documentation and deserves aesthetic presentation. However, she concedes, “It’s a harder sale to argue [the prominence] of a redware collection vs. a Cézanne or Matisse collection.”
Camp has been back to the Barnes gallery twice since her departure in mid-2005 but says she really misses Ker-Feal—made up of the original center house, where eight rooms, including the original kitchen, were left more as parlors for viewing objects and decor; and the two period additions on its wings.
“It’s such a wonderful place,” Camp says. “In a way, it has more aesthetic and cultural integrity than the gallery, but it’s such a small snapshot compared to what’s at Merion.”
Actually, Ker-Feal may provide more of an insightful picture into Barnes the person, not the patriarch. In a way, the collection there is more personal and private. “That was always the draw for me,” Camp says.
Croll, who calls the collection “different” and “wonderful in its own right,” disagrees that Ker-Feal offers a more important window to understanding Barnes or his collection. “It’s just another dimension of his collection,” she says. “We don’t know if it’s more personal. The paintings in the gallery were very important to him, too. He was still arranging and rearranging the gallery until the day he died.”
But Camp says that when she arrived, she was point-blank instructed to prepare Ker-Feal, the estate and its contents, for liquidation to help fund operations at Merion. “When I went out there, I said, ‘You can’t sell this. You’ve got to be kidding me!’ Camp remembers. “We did all we could for Ker-Feal. Now it’s all about the current passion and the leadership of the foundation.”
The possibilities at Ker-Feal are endless. Among the suggestions are an artist’s residence, a fundraising site, an arboretum to rival Longwood Gardens, or an educational center.
“My dream for Ker-Feal was to turn it into that living museum of art and botanical garden,” Camp says. “To preserve and protect its plantings, to create a place where a family can take a hike in the morning, then tour the house in the afternoon.”
One time a year, Camp would like the estate to host a Ker-Feal antique show and fair. “It’d be like a walk through Grandma’s attic,” she says. “It ought to be a part of what helps make us understand our heritage.”