By Ashley Mackin
Kicking off its 50th anniversary, the Torrey Pines Rotary Club held its first meeting of 2014 on Jan. 8 with a guest appearance by Timken Art Museum Director John Wilson, who noted the Timken is also celebrating 50 years.
Opening the meeting with a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and a glass of wine, Rotary President Gordon Shurtleff called upon each member to bring someone to a Rotary meeting in 2014 to spread the word on what Rotary is all about. Rotarians partake in community service projects and internationally work on global issues, such as children at risk, hunger, poverty, literacy and the eradication of polio. Rotarians host a speaker at every meeting to explore a variety of topics.
During Wilson’s presentation, he explained how the Timken Museum came to acquire the notable art in its collection, and he shared a history of the location. “One thing we need to remember is that the quality of the works at the Timken are Louvre-quality works of art. These can hang, and in many cases have hung, in the best museums in the world,” he said.
Those who have visited the museum in Balboa Park may have noticed that on the left of the entrance it reads “The Putnam Foundation” and on the right it reads “Timken Foundation.” That’s because in the 1960s, museum founder Walter Ames persuaded the Timken Foundation to build a museum to house the Putnam Foundation art collection.
The two Putnam sisters moved to San Diego in the early 1900s and inherited a large sum when their uncle died. He made his fortune as an inventor, including the creation of a machine that capped bottles.
The sisters acquired an impressive art collection and formed the Putnam Foundation with the help of their lawyer, Ames. Some of these pieces include Rembrandt’s image of St. Bartholomew and two portraits by Nicolas de Largilliérre. Regarding the latter, Wilson said the two portraits are the best works by de Largilliérre outside of France.
Further, the Putnam sisters — one of whom studied Russian at Stanford in the 1920s — collected art works of religious iconography. “Right after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets proclaimed official atheism,” Wilson said. “They were going to wipe out religion (which they considered) the opiate of the masses, so they were taking the work of Russian orthodoxy and getting rid of it.” The Putnams purchased works depicting a Madonna and Child, The Nativity, and others.
“So we have this great collection of stuff, now we just need a place to put it,” Wilson said. “Walter Ames negotiated with the city for a building on the Plaza de Panama that was literally falling down. Bob Ames, the son of Walter Ames, remembers going into that building when it was a city office and someone would yell ‘look out’ and plaster would fall out of the ceiling. So they took it down and built what is now The Timken.”
As the Museum was established and gaining notoriety, collectors for the museum were able to gather more notable pieces. Wilson said the most famous piece in the collection is the portrait “Mrs. Thomas Gage,” by John Singleton Copley. “It’s not his most famous painting, but it is probably his best,” Wilson said.
It was acquired at a closed-bid auction based in London to which bidders wrote their sums on a piece of paper and mailed them in. The sellers opened all the envelopes at once and the biggest bid cast won. In the case of “Mrs. Thomas Gage,” it was the Timken.
“This little museum had spent over a million dollars on this picture,” Wilson said.
Now fully established, the Timken strives to be the best, free resource for art in San Diego. “When we first opened, our public was a public that understood great works of art, these are now our supporters. Now, we are the entry-level museum for most people, if you’ve never been to a museum before, you can come to Timken and see great art. We feel a strong responsibility to community and to service.”
If you go
■ What: Torrey Pines Rotary meetings
■ When: Noon on Wednesdays
■ Where: Rock Bottom Brewery, 8898 Villa La Jolla