“My wish is that my drawings, my prints, my curiosities, my books - in a word, these things of art which have been the joy of my life - shall not be consigned to the cold tomb of a museum, and subjected to the stupid glance of the careless passer-by; but I require that they shall all be dispersed under the hammer of the Auctioneer, so that the pleasure which the acquiring of each has given me shall be given again, in each case, to some inheritor of my own tastes.”*
*The above quote is featured in Another Quire of Quotes written by Wendell Garrett that was part of Mr. du Pont’s personal library. He had made several asterisks next to it. His family believes that this sentiment truly summarizes the thrill that Bill experienced whenever he found wonderful objects to collect.
W illiam K. ‘Bill’ du Pont was an adventurer, a conservationist, a lifelong student of history and the consummate collector. As a child, having been raised among fine art and antiques, his eye was naturally honed with an appreciation for beautiful things. This keen sense of taste and appetite for quality continued throughout his lifetime as he evolved into a prolific collector of Americana.
Bill loved life and the natural beauty the world had to offer if one was observant. As a young man, he befriended the little-then-known photographer Peter Beard. They traveled together on a remarkable months-long foot safari through the Northern Frontier District of Kenya’s desert and bush country. Bill and Peter attempted to recreate the walking tours of early hunters like Blixen and Finch Hatton. Not surprisingly, Bill was the group’s best marksman, having been a champion pistol shot as a teen.
These experiences set Bill off on a lifelong quest to bolster wildlife conservation. By the late 1960’s, he was instrumental in founding the Delaware chapter of Duck’s Unlimited and then serving as Vice President for many years. In 1974 Bill was also appointed Chairman of the National Advisory Board for Sport Fisheries and Wildlife by the U.S Secretary of the Interior. Throughout his life he was an active member of DU, among other organizations that had lasting impacts on the conservation movement in his home state. His passion for the protection and improvement of open spaces and wildlife habitat was unparalleled. As Kate Hackett, executive director of Delaware Wild Lands (where Bill was a past Board Director), stated “I think it would be difficult, and nearly impossible, to overstate the impact Bill had on Delaware’s landscape … He was instrumental … in achieving on-the-ground conservation in Delaware.”
Bill’s deep love of the natural world was perhaps only equaled by his passion for the decorative arts and American history. These two loves were intertwined in the fabric of his collecting. Any visitor to his home, Rocky Hill, was apt to leave with a deeper appreciation of the outstanding craftsmanship of America’s earliest settlers and their remarkable history and culture.
Bill’s pursuit of collecting antiques began soon after he married for the first time in the 1960’s. Seeking advice from friends and family, he began frequenting the shops of the top dealers of the time such as Joe Kindig, Harold Sack, Bernard Levy, and John Walton. He also learned about American silver from fellow collector and mentor Bob Stuart. With their assistance, he developed an outstanding collection of Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture mainly focusing on pieces made in the Philadelphia area. Joe Kindig once stated that Bill’s formal living room at Rocky Hill was the finest representation of Queen Anne furniture known to exist, other than at Winterthur. To be sure, when Bill did something, he did it right.
However, always seeking to expand his knowledge; Bill’s interests and collection evolved over time as he sought new ways to expand his breadth as a collector. After having compiled such an important collection of urban pieces, his fascination with earlier material crafted in Southeastern Pennsylvania increased and he pursued the challenge of collecting fresh material. And so, in the mid-1990’s Bill sold much of his exceptional collection and began in earnest to collect the most outstanding examples of Southeastern Pennsylvania William and Mary objects.
He came to love the nuances of the craftsmanship found in the brilliant creations of more rural cabinetmakers. He was also enamored with their way of life. Interestingly, one of his first purchases as a young collector was an exceedingly rare two-part line-and-berry chest of drawers, proof that even at an early stage these rurally made pieces had caught his eye. Certainly, his tenure as an active member on the Board of Trustees of Winterthur Museum for over forty years, at one point heading its Acquisitions Committee, must have also directly impacted his appreciation and understanding of early American decorative arts. He grasped Henry Francis du Pont’s reasoning for collecting regional Southeastern Pennsylvania furniture and followed suit.
He not only collected furniture, but rifles, fraktur, pottery, pewter, copper, needlework, ironwork, and even regional architectural fragments and building materials. It is, however, undoubtedly his assemblage of exceedingly rare line-and-berry furniture that has no equal. This style, brought to our shores by Welsh immigrants in the early eighteenth century, was an ornament of choice for many Southeastern Pennsylvania craftsmen. The simple yet ingenious elegance of light wood inlay against a dark walnut background still resonates with collectors today. Given the exacting and time-consuming skill required to decorate a piece with this technique, it was quite costly and therefore not produced in great abundance. Nevertheless, Bill was able to procure many important examples of line-and-berry, including a candlestand, spice boxes, a tall chest of drawers, bible boxes and most notably the Montgomery family desk-and-bookcase.
However, Bill’s collecting reached even beyond Southeastern Pennsylvania material. He found great interest and joy in a diversity of subjects, and as an avid reader throughout his lifetime he could add to the discussion of nearly any topic. Over the course of fifty years, he amassed a substantial reference library of over 1,500 books and hundreds of catalogues covering all manner of antique-related and historical subjects, which has since been donated to Historic Trappe.
Aside from furniture, his numerous examples of early English and Northwestern European candlesticks is unrivaled. Further, his love of hunting and military history naturally drew him to the outstanding long rifles made by Pennsylvania gunsmiths. Over the years, Bill handled some of the best extant examples of antique firearms including a unique pair of Jacob Kuntz pistols. These lifelong interests also fostered his later enthusiasm for powder horns, tomahawks, and Ohio’s Native American flint points as well.
A momentary glance inside Bill’s ‘Cabinet of curiosities’ outside his library which he jokingly referred to as “the pawn shop” would set a visitor’s mind asunder. One couldn’t help but wonder how he could have possibly collected such an astonishing array of interesting and rare objects. As a tour through Rocky Hill continued, visitors would naturally come to understand his collection as more than aesthetically driven. Bill’s interest in antiques was indeed his lifelong endeavor to preserve America’s great past as embodied in beautifully rendered objects.
Bill du Pont was an avid hunter − of both game and great antiques - and he was also a great conservationist. From the time he was a young man, Bill understood the critical importance that preservation played both for wildlife and history. He applied that same perspective to his pursuit of collecting and it is that ethos which sets him apart. His quest to preserve so many important artifacts of American history has granted future generations the opportunity to treasure them as well.