In 2016, I stumbled across a surprising body of materials at Houghton Library while conducting research for my dissertation project on the establishment of East Asian art history as a discipline in the United States, circa 1900-1960. I had been aware for some time of the life and legacy of Langdon Warner (1881-1955)—the first curator of Asian art at the Harvard Fogg Museum. Like many others, I was cognizant of Warner’s involvement with two expeditions taken on behalf of the Fogg Museum in the 1920s to western China. Warner’s actions on these trips have long overshadowed a lifetime of study, teaching, and travel. However, my research concerned his role as an early American educator in the field of East Asian art history. Having already examined the Warner materials at other repositories across campus, I expected to find only a small body of letters and journals related to Warner’s expeditions in the Houghton collections.
Digging deeper into the Houghton collections, I was astounded to find nearly twenty linear feet of boxes containing unprocessed materials related to Langdon Warner. Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books & Manuscripts, gave me access to take a careful initial look through the materials. Over the course of several weeks, I found an amazing array of correspondence, notes, books, photographs, and other materials detailing all periods of Warner’s life and work. More than I could have possibly hoped for, I discussed the possibility of working with Houghton to process the materials, write a finding aid, and make them accessible for general research. In 2017, I was given the wonderful opportunity to do just that, in conjunction with a position as graduate intern at the Harvard Art Museums—where I was appointed as a specialist researcher on a large group of objects related to Langdon Warner.
After concluding related fieldwork and archival research in China, Germany, and around the U.S., I joined Houghton in earnest during the late summer of 2017. I spent the next five months working intensively at both Houghton and the Harvard Art Museums. As I processed the materials at Houghton, many details emerged concerning the construction of the collection. Letters between Theodore Bowie (1905-1995), a former student of Langdon Warner who later became the first professor of Asian art at Indiana University, and Alice Sizer Warner (1929-2006), Langdon’s daughter-in-law, revealed that the bulk of the materials were gathered as the basis for Warner’s biography. Bowie contacted members of Langdon Warner’s immediate family and extended network of friends to gather materials that could provide an intimate window into the life and work of the great proponent of East Asian art.
After settling on Houghton Library as the primary repository for the collection, significant donations came in under the direction of Alice Sizer Warner and Caleb Warner (1922-2017), Alice’s husband and Langdon’s only son. The family gifted decades of personal correspondence with Langdon, including over forty years of letters exchanged between Warner and his wife, Lorraine d’Oremieulx Roosevelt Warner. These remarkable letters present a vivid picture of the arc of their intertwined lives, from their long-distance courtship during his first years of travel in Japan, to their travels together in China and Korea, and the subsequent building of their family and international lives. Processing these personal letters revealed a number of surprises, including early correspondence with a famous cousin of Lorraine—President Theodore Roosevelt.
The cache of family letters also include detailed correspondence between Caleb and Langdon during their respective service during and after World War II. Caleb, who had worked for a time as a shipbuilder in New England, served with distinction as a naval officer in the Atlantic theater of the War. Langdon, already 62 years old by the outbreak of the War, was still able to utilize his training as an expert civilian consultant on Japanese art following the surrender of Japan. He spent the majority of 1946 in Japan with a number of his famous disciples, including Laurence Sickman (1907-1988), first curator of Asian art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, advising on the preservation of Japanese monuments. The family’s war correspondence provides a unique picture of Warner’s relationship with his son, as well as their respective service rendered to the nation.
Ultimately, Bowie utilized this body of family correspondence, Warner’s personal field journals and research notes, as well as extensive groups of letters donated by his closest friends to write a moving tribute to his mentor. Bowie’s biography, Langdon Warner through his Letters (Indiana University Press, 1966), remains one of the best resources on Warner’s life and travels. Moreover, Theodore Bowie and the Warner family’s efforts to preserve the personal ephemera of Langdon’s life ensured the prospect for further research into many facets of his life and work.
Processing the Warner papers at Houghton Library (MS Am 3138) and researching associated objects at the Harvard Art Museums provided an invaluable opportunity to advance my own dissertation research on the establishment of East Asian art history as a discipline in the United States. As one of the earliest institutional educators of East Asian art history, Langdon Warner is a crucial figure in my work, as well as the network of students that he trained alongside Edward Forbes, Paul Sachs, and other figures involved in the famed Fogg courses. An art historian by training, my research focuses on the teaching collections assembled by these individuals, as well as their pedagogical methods and theorization of the field. Drawing on antiquarian practices from Europe and Asia, these instructors truly built an academic discipline, while exerting a profound influence on the collecting and reception of Asian art.
As my project nears completion, I look forward to bringing to light the importance of many previously neglected individuals and objects that played an outsized role in the historiography of East Asian art. It gives me great pleasure to know that the Langdon Warner papers at Houghton Library will continue to provide surprises for my own work, as well as facilitate many new insights by researchers across disciplines.
Post contributed by:
Fletcher Coleman, Doctoral Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University, firstname.lastname@example.org