The Stories They Tell…from the Herdeg Collection

Nov 22, 2021

by Matthew A. Thurlow

With the caveat that I housesat for Judy and John Herdeg as a graduate student and enjoyed their hospitality on numerous occasions during my academic and professional careers, their recent publication is nonetheless worthy of your interest and attention. In fact, The Stories They Tell…from the Herdeg Collection (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2021) recollects my housesitting experience, for, in preparation for my second stay, I kindly asked John and Judy to let the impressive collection of well-maintained tall case clocks wind down prior to my arrival. Their hourly chiming had proven too much to bear.

The tragedy of this volume is that John did not live to see it in print, having passed away in late June. Not only was the project a shared endeavor, but the Herdegs’ collection represents a lifetime of communal effort. Although the notion of a couple collecting together might appear commonplace, the phenomenon is actually quite atypical. Yet John  and Judy charged ahead, united in their pursuits and reveling in the opportunity to entertain scholars and guests with their acquisitions and research.

The location of the Herdegs’ splendid 18th-century house in Mendenhall, PA, should not be taken as an indicator of the heart of the collection. John and Judy arrived in Delaware in the 1960s and located a fire-damaged shell of an impressive brick and wood-paneled Georgian dwelling that they relocated to Chester County, PA. Other than the origin of the structure, however, the Herdegs’ focus was primarily on fine and decorative arts of England and New England. Judy’s 17th-century roots in Massachusetts provided a natural focus for their pastime. And although fine furniture abounds, their collection of portraits, ceramics, and needlework are particularly strong, all beautifully captured for the book by Gavin Ashworth.

Just as John and Judy adored the opportunity to discuss the collection, they had the great fortune to acquire objects that could naturally converse across time and place. Among a group of pictures and furnishings associated with Judy’s Henshaw ancestors is a splendid and rare embroidered coat of arms rendered by Sarah Henshaw (1736-1822) dated 1748 and hung alongside a 19th-century copy of a Sarah’s portrait by John Singleton Copley.

The Herdegs were also quite proud to discover a pastel portrait by Henrietta de Beaulieu Dering Johnston at the Chester County Antiques Show in 2000. The earliest recorded female artist in America, Henrietta reached Charles Town, SC, in 1705 and supported her minister husband through the sale of her portraits. John and Judy were able to reconstruct the lost identity of the sitter, who stands shrouded below a funerary hatchment in a church setting. They ultimately attributed the tender and forlorn likeness to Henrietta’s own daughter Helena, who died in Dublin in 1704.

John and Judy’s excitement as they told this tale of this discovery during a visit to their house still rings through my mind. Many eschew the label of “collector,” but the Herdegs embraced the term as warmly as the visitors who shared their appreciation. The collection of stories they recorded for this volume, in turn, allows us to share their enthusiasm and passion for the importance and meaning of material culture.

Matthew A. Thurlow is the Executive Director of the Decorative Arts Trust.

About The Decorative Arts Trust Bulletin

Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.


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