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Hobcaw Barony: Amid 16,000 acres, visitors focus on a few feet of wall space

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Bernard Baruch was an art lover, and his grand house overlooking the Waccamaw River and Winyah Bay bears rich evidence of that love. Hobcaw House hosts an eclectic collection of marsh scenes and horses, portraits and landscapes — 100 pieces in all.

Senior interpreter Lee Brockington led a group of visitors on an art tour of Hobcaw House recently, weaving the relationships of the artists with the Baruchs’ story of power and privilege on two continents. The Belle W. Baruch Foundation was established 50 years ago to protect and preserve the 16,000-acre property while encouraging the study of nature. Although the main focus of the foundation is scientific, with its research related to wildlife, forestry and marine science, Brockington said that in 1990 the trustees made an additional commitment to historic preservation. That would include the art. The foundation is in the process of raising $1.2 million for a new heating and air-conditioning system to control the humidity in the 13,000-square foot Hobcaw House. “We are trying to do our duty and do our best by this art,” she said.

The Hobcaw art collection is as well known for what’s missing. The theft of six paintings and seven Audubon prints more than decade ago was featured on a segment of the popular PBS television program “Antiques Roadshow”. Three oil paintings by Alfred Munnings, valued at $1.5 million, along with seven Audubon bird prints, valued at $605,000, and three paintings of Hobcaw by Louis Aston Knight, valued between $3,000 and $10,500, have never been recovered.

There is a large copy of Munnings’ portrait of Belle Baruch aboard her champion horse Souriant and another of the horse alone in the dining room to portray the size of the master’s works. Brockington said Munnings set aside work for kings and queens in order to paint Belle and Souriant after watching them compete in Europe. There is a thought, she added, that Winston Churchill might have suggested the subjects to the artist. Churchill visited Hobcaw Barony with his daughter Diana in 1932. There is a framed photo of them with Bernard and Belle Baruch on display.

“The Munnings portrait was the first thing Belle hung in her new home in Bellefield,” Brockington said. “It hung there above the living room fireplace until August 2003. A lot of things went missing that day.” The theft was reported by the former curator, Samuel McIntosh, on his last day of work after he was fired. Criminal charges were later filed against McIntosh after a search of his home in Kingstree turned up art and other items that belonged to the foundation, including a painting valued at $12,000 that he had reported missing. McIntosh received a suspended sentence and probation for filing a false police report, according to court records. “We do believe the art will show up eventually,” Brockington said. “You know what we would do with it: Hang it at Bellefield above the fireplace.”

The present day tour doesn’t dwell on what’s missing but on the 100 pieces in the house. Each seems to have a story that Brockington weaves into a tapestry of history, political connections, wealth and intrigue. She said Bernard Baruch likely first admired Knight’s work at the White House when visiting President Warren G. Harding. Baruch, adviser to seven presidents, knew how to win their favor. Among his papers is a note from Harding that says, “Thank you, Bernie, for the smoked ducks,” Brockington said. That explains those “100-duck days” at Hobcaw, she added. They were smoked and sent to friends.

Knight was celebrated for his French landscapes, and Baruch commissioned him to create at least 30 landscapes of Hobcaw. Knight’s paintings indicate he made two trips because some were done before the 1929 fire that claimed the old wooden house and others depict the new brick house and Bellefieid without shrubbery or its pool.

“Knight was known as ‘the artist in high rubber boots,’” Brockington said. “His first love was to go into the middle of the creek and paint, to get muddy, to put himself in the element.” Hobcaw is unique, she said, because it has every environment of the South Carolina coastal plain: upland and maritime forests, ricefields that have become freshwater marsh and saltwater marsh. Two of Knight’s paintings are not of Hobcaw: Prince George Winyah Church and the Georgetown clock tower. Brockington said the appearance of African-Americans near the clock tower suggests the painting was done late on a Saturday when the streets were turned over to them for shopping in a segregated city.

Among the large Knight oils in Hobcaw House are two views of Clambank Landing. Two cabins, one pre-Civil War and the other with a roof line similar to summer cottages that once stood at Pawleys Island, DeBordieu and North Island, are depicted. Also in the foyer is a pen-and-ink aerial view of Hobcaw Barony done in 1927 by artist Rockwell Kent, who illustrated an edition of “Moby Dick” and was a graphic artist for Vanity Fair. It was one of the few things saved from the 1929 fire, along with a keg of whiskey from the basement and mattresses for guests to lounge on while they watched the house burn. Kent’s mischievous drawing includes the flora and fauna, wildlife, waterways, structures and cohorts of Baruch at the pinnacle of his hunting and entertaining escapades at Hobcaw. The Portland Museum of Art borrowed the piece for its Kent exhibition and returned it with a new mat and frame. Designers of a new website of Hobcaw Barony were so impressed by the Kent drawing they made it their signature page.

All the art in a bedroom that was occupied for a month by President Franklin D. Roosevelt has a story. Two prints by English naturalist Mark Catesby are on one wall. Catesby, a member of the Royal Society of London, was sent to America in 1722 to do a comprehensive study of southeastern flora and fauna. He returned to London in 1726 and took 17 years to finish his natural history masterpiece. Belle Baruch purchased the two prints for Bellefield, and they were moved to Hobcaw House so more visitors could enjoy them, according to Brockington, while her house is being restored.

The room contains two unusual pieces of art. There is a copy of a drawing of an FDR inauguration commissioned by Claire Boothe Luce, Bernard Baruch’s special friend. The 6-foot, 4-inch Baruch stands out in the crowd. There’s also a cartoon titled “Gather Your Musketeers” of Baruch and friends dressed as swordsmen. Baruch was asked by President Harry Truman to head a commission to research and promote nuclear controls. The room also contains a portrait of Bernard Baruch’s father, Dr. Simon Baruch, who came to Camden at age 15, got his medical degree and joined the Confederate Army. “All I have, I owe to South Carolina,” he said in explaining his decision to enter the war as a surgeon for the South. Finally, there is a copy of Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s unfinished portrait of Roosevelt by the bed where he slept in 1944 recuperating from bronchitis and pneumonia. Shoumatoff was working on the portrait in Warm Springs, Ga., when FDR suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died April 12, 1945. She made a career, Brockington said, selling prints, and her heirs sold the original to the state of Georgia for the Warm Springs welcome center.

One noteworthy piece of the Barony’s art not at Hobcaw House is a four-paneled batik by Mary Edna Fraser depicting the property from the air. It is on display at the Discovery Center.

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