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Pee Dee Provenance

William Henry Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1901, but spent his professional career in Denmark, Norway, and France. Though enthusiastically collected by discerning connoisseurs and represented in major museums across America and around the world, the most notable collection of Johnson’s works outside the Smithsonian is held by the Greenville County Museum of Art in the artist’s native state.

Louis Wright, not a native of South Carolina but a collector of its art, lived and practiced medicine in Florence for much of his adult life. Louis is a pathologist and, as such, is trained to observe. Early on he saw Southern art and understood that it was a force to be reckoned with. Some of us see paintings with our eyes—have an eye if you will—while others understand the mechanics of it all. Louis has the understanding and was lucky in choosing a wife and partner, the late and lovely Ann, who had the eye.

William Henry Johnson never knew Louis and Ann Wright, but the Wrights knew Johnson’s work, appreciated its place in the canon, and could support an appetite for its acquisition. Louis thrives on discovery. To that end, the couple actually spent a summer in a small village in France from which they scouted for Johnson’s canvases in all the likely and unlikely places; they found none.

On April 15, 1930, Johnson—recently returned from Europe to his hometown—had the briefest of exhibitions at the Florence YMCA. The event, which lasted all of a single afternoon, was arranged by the custodian there, “Aunt Alice.” A young man, William Haskell Gardner, assisted Johnson in the hanging of that show and at its close the artist gave William three canvases as a token of his appreciation. Gardner passed each of these to his widow, Katherine, upon his death in the 1970s. Were I worthy of the appellation “art dealer,” I would have tracked those works to their Shreveport, Louisiana, home. But life wouldn’t be fair had Louis not gotten there before me. Johnson was his quest. I am delighted that in good time one of Gardner’s trio came to me and, in this instance, there is no need to obscure the final name in the provenance: Johnson to his helpmate, to Louis and Ann. There is value in that veneer.

Florence is situated in the Pee Dee, on the flood plain of the Great Pee Dee River, two hours from Charleston and a world apart. William Henry Johnson left there for the inspiration and acceptance found in Europe; Louis and Ann sought it out as a good place to raise their family and pursue a profession. Johnson was a South Carolinian and that connection was enough for the Wrights. It was, however, the works of the Charleston Renaissance that became their abiding passion.

Louis attended medical school in Charleston; he knew Mrs. Verner and collected her pastels early on. That led him to the others—Alfred Hutty, Anna Heyward Taylor, and, of course, Alice Smith. Louis, however, dug deeper than these obvious Renaissance celebrities to seek out the obscure, the ones only the studied collectors knew, collectors like Ted Phillips.

Of Ted, it can genuinely be said with both pleasure and regret that there will never be another. Ted’s father, Ashton, was an ambitious farmer from the Pee Dee, a place called Lynches. He made more money selling fertilizer, however, than he coaxed from the dirt. The family came to town; the town was Charleston, and Charleston became Ted’s.

Ted began cutting grass during high school summers at Magnolia Cemetery and came to know the locations of most every grave there, eventually applying his considerable intellect to learning what he could about the occupants of those small plots of earth. Ted and Ashton are buried there today.

I introduced Ted to Louis and a wonderful friendship was formed; the same is true of Ted and Philip Mould. The commonality was their curious minds. There just wasn’t much about the Charleston Renaissance that Ted didn’t know, at least that which was centered on the people and the literature. Harvard-educated, Ted was a reader and collector of books on Charleston, its renaissance and, indeed, South Carolina.

Maybe the most fun I had in my early years in Charleston was a late night visit to Magnolia with Ted and my friend Sam Vickers, in town for a visit. As a cemetery trustee, Ted had the key to the massive Christopher Wren wrought iron gates that would have stopped anyone else, and we drove right in, locking the entrance behind us. I parked deep enough in the field of stone to hide the car from passersby. Ted carried a bag that contained two flashlights, a bottle of vodka, and several cups, and, damn, if we didn’t have a time.

We got the tour as only Ted could give it. There was the grave of Alice Smith alongside her old Charleston forebears. (Verner is buried at First Scots and Taylor in Columbia. I suppose that Hutty is in Woodstock, his other seasonal home.) Through the garden we walked, moving from artist to artist. We noted the headstones for William Aiken Walker and each of his brothers and concluded at the resting place of Fanny Mahon King. Several years earlier, Ted, Louis, and I had chipped in a couple of hundred dollars each to place a stone on her previously unmarked grave. Intermingled with the artists were writers, statesmen, and blowhards, as well as several of the crews of the Confederate submarine, the Hunley. Ted knew them all—and who was sleeping with whom.

The Charleston Renaissance and many of the storied personalities of the city lived again that night. Of our threesome, today only Sam and I live to tell the tale of that night. We are, along with the city and the lore, poorer for Ted’s absence.

William H. Johnson (1901-1970)
Chapel of Notre Dame de la Protection, Cagnes-sur-Mer ()
Oil on canvas
19 5/8 x 23 5/8 inches
Signature Details: Lower left
Owner: Florence Museum of Art, Florence, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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