Yesterday evening, my "favorite uncle" Charles Rand Penney died. This was quite a shock, coming just seven months after the passing of my father, and a mere two months after the death of my mother, his sister Virginia Penney Lane. Uncle Charlie was quite a remarkable man and I wrote a post in this blog about him just about a year ago. I am incredibly sad, but I am also grateful that I had Charlie as my uncle and was able to get to know him and love him over the last 30 years. Interestingly, our relationship was built on our shared interest in antique prints.
Charlie was probably the most enthusiastic, curious, and dedicated collector I have ever met. I got into the business I am in because of my enthusiasm for original graphic depictions of history. I did not learn my enthusiasm from Charlie, but we certainly shared that and I am convinced it runs in the Penney blood. What I did learn from Charlie is what can be done if one takes ones enthusiasm and channels it with focus and dedication.
Charlie at one stage had 100 collections, and while he spent the last decade or so deaccessioning so that he could find appropriate, lasting homes for his collections, he never lost his love of what he was doing. Until his health slowed him down, Charlie used to do everything himself. He had files on everything and everyone he came in contact with, he collected books and archives related to his collections, and he even lived in the midst of his statues, furniture, paintings, prints, Mr. Peanut memorabilia, and wooden hotel hangers!
Some of his collections were not terribly impressive, but others were absolutely world class. Charlie was interested in almost anything he came across and he probably would have collected a little of everything if he could. Charlie always brought enthusiasm, interest, and a willingness to invest to all his collecting; sometimes he needed a bit of focus and discipline and that is where our relationship bloomed.
I like to think that our relationship vis-a-vis his collecting was something that benefited both me and him. Obviously I had known Charlie all my life and he was always an interesting figure. Rather exotic and unusual, but always fun to be with and talk to. When I studied in Oxford, Charlie came to visit and that was when as an adult I first really got to know him. I told him how I was getting interested in old maps and prints. Charlie encouraged me and told me how he had quite a number of old prints in his collections.
Then when I went into business, he approached me about helping him improve his collection of antique prints. At that stage he had a lot of prints, mostly showing scenes in western New York, from Rochester to Niagara Falls. Some were in good shape, some not so much; some were in their "original state," others with new color added. I talked to him about how he should really focus on one particular topic (he chose Niagara Falls) and how he should use a series of criteria for what he would accept in his collection (for instance, avoiding "new" colored prints where possible).
Together we spent over a decade expanding and refining his collection of Niagara Falls prints. We got rid of the prints that didn't meet his new criteria and looked for better examples. We used references to build a list of what prints were out there and tried to acquire the most important ones. Whenever I came across a Niagara print not in his collection, Charlie would always agree to add it--rather of a dream for a printseller!
Soon it became apparent that his collection was the best there was on Niagara Falls prints; better than that in the Erie County Library, the Erie County or Niagara Falls Historical Societies, or even the Library of Congress. I also called to his attention that while there were a number of good books on Niagara Falls images and prints, there was no really exhaustive work that tried to document the entire scope of printed views of the Falls. So, with his typical enthusiasm, Charlie gave me the go ahead to write a book and even plan an exhibition on the topic from prints in his collection. After many years collecting and research, Impressions of Niagara. The Charles Rand Penney Collection opened in the summer of 1993 at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University. This was certainly one of the highlights of my professional life and I know also of Charlie's collecting.
To be able to share our enthusiasm and dedication together and produce something as worthwhile as that exhibition and the accompanying catalogue was a great thing. It showed me what was possible and it bonded us together in a lasting relationship, which unfortunately yesterday I lost. I think I carry my enthusiasm and dedication for antique prints and maps with me every day and while some of that I was born with, without doubt it is the model of Uncle Charlie which gives me a constant reminder that this is the way one should approach one's life. Charlie did not waste his time in the world; every day he got the most out of life that he could. He, I and everyone who knew him was enriched by this remarkable life. Thanks Uncle Charlie.