Fans of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" will get a voyeuristic Richmond version with the Virginia Historical Society's new exhibit, "For the Love of Beauty: the Collections of Lora and Claiborne Robins."
The colonial furniture and 19th-century Hudson River School landscapes from their West End home, Clearview, are on public display for the first time. They were bequeathed to the society by the philanthropist couple, who enjoyed a long relationship with the institution. Lora Robins died in 2010, 15 years after her husband.
The furniture and paintings are put into context with large-scale murals of the house's rooms from which the pieces came. Tea tables, sideboards and lowboys from the 18th century display a level of craftsmanship and quality of wood seldom seen in everyday living.
"Some colonial furniture makers were really creating sculpture," lead curator William Rasmussen says of the intricate detailing found on virtually every piece of furniture in the show. "You couldn't really see it when the pieces were in the house, but here in the natural light, you can really see the details."
A goal of the exhibition was to make it educational; visitors will learn about specifics such as rococo detailing, acanthus leaf motifs and block-front pieces by reading explanations of terms that accompany the furniture. The pieces displayed are notable because, despite the obvious value, they were chosen to be used as part of daily life and not merely as decorative objects.
"They didn't have a board [of directors] telling them what to buy," Rasmussen notes. "They didn't care who made something or where a piece of furniture was made. It was collecting based on the beauty of stuff she loved."
In fact, the title of the exhibit comes from a Lora Robins quote, "I just love beautiful things."
Natural beauty is abundant in the Hudson River School landscapes that hang over the furniture as well. As with the furniture, details are exposed in the natural light of the gallery. Scenes of upstate New York exemplify the themes of the 19th-century art movement — discovery, exploration and settlement — with enormous skies and an emphasis on serene views of the natural world.
But the Robins' taste also extended to the occasional scene of Italy and even Virginia, as in "The Relief of Jamestown," showing a supply ship arriving during the "starving time" that almost killed the nascent colony.
And all were on display in Clearview. Short of being able to peek in their medicine cabinet, it's a voyeuristic look at a lifestyle most people will never know. Call it a Richmond-style "Cribs."
"This collection shows how an executive lived in Richmond in the 1950s. Lots of West Enders had colonial houses, but few people did it so well," Rasmussen says. "We're replicating how they lived, and there's a fascination with how rich people live. We're pulling it out of the context of a house and examining it from a completely different perspective." S
"For the Love of Beauty: the Collections of Lora and Claiborne Robins" is at the Virginia Historical Society, 428 N. Boulevard, through Dec. 30. For information, visit vahistorical.org or call 358-4901.