John Elliott: Collector and Friend
John B. Elliott was by profession a Wall Street financier, by avocation a historian, and by temperament a devoted seeker of knowledge, often through his pursuit of beautiful and unusual objects.
For those who knew him, John was a robust intellect driven by curiosity and an astute and sensitive collector of many things: books, friends, and the art of diverse cultures.
It seemed quite normal to meet John in the late afternoon walking to his West Village home laden with two shopping bags of books just acquired at the Strand. After his death some 500 boxes of books were shipped to Princeton.
John’s home at 46 Perry Street was a crossroads for his wide diversity of friends. Visitors popped in spontaneously. Among them may be a collector of Polynesian art, a Melville scholar, a poet, or an advocate for Native Americans. It might be a Japanese chef, a Dutch ceramic artist, a Chilean author or a collector of Amazonian art. There were Chinese political activists and Chinese venture capitalists, a New York cop, a Han dynasty scholar, a playwright, a classicist, a Danish heart specialist, a connoisseur of Song calligraphy, a Ming historian. Often it would be a dealer, in Medieval European art, in African art, or in Chinese art, or perhaps a psychiatrist with special interest in the psychology of collecting; a Hungarian fabric designer living in Paris, an American painter living in Canada, or a Chinese gardener of rare orchids and blossoming plums living in Princeton. It was often someone in academics or the arts: a photographer, a museum director, a rare books librarian.
All of us who entered John’s house were invited to share something of who we were, but inevitably, it was John who introduced something special into the conversation that took us beyond ourselves. By putting on a particular piece of music, presenting us with a book to read, or handing us a work of art—so that we could feel its magic even if we had no idea what it was—John provoked us to see, hear, or feel more than before.
John Elliott’s approach to collecting embodied the idea that for a receptive person with a collector’s eye, nearly any art form offers an aesthetic language that, even if totally foreign and unknown to him, can eventually be acquired.
For John the idea of “looking hard” at an original artwork and having a mentor to discuss it with became a model for artistic discovery and informed his attitudes toward collecting. In this way John built very important collections of Chinese painting and calligraphy as well as of art of Africa, Oceania, Southeast Asia and Amazonia.
As John became a knowledgeable collector of many types of art one of the strongest interests he had was in identifying the conjunction of the beautiful and the functional—how objects were used in the life that goes on around them. For him the pleasure of collecting extended well beyond the collection itself. John expressed the hope that the impact of the art in his collections would extend and radiate to areas that he could not yet foresee.
John Elliott was humble as well as curious. According to the director of the Art Museum at Princeton University, John never wished to be identified for his gifts of objects and other means of support, and was referred to in the museum as Mr. Anonymous.
He was ultimately persuaded to identify some of the works he collected as from The Edward Elliott Family Collection, a tribute to his father and the various members of his family who offered their encouragement. John’s generosity as a collector and donor can now be made known. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York as well as the Art Museum at Princeton University are among the benefactors of John’s generosity.
Ultimately the Elliott collection is a reflection of John’s two great strengths: his passion for art and his love of meeting and encouraging others. It was the thoughtful combination of these two traits that enabled him to achieve so much.
So, John was much more than a collector; he was, above all, a good and generous friend to many.
Many of his friends knew that in time, others will come to know of John’s generosity of spirit. They will wonder at his vision and courage to embrace cultures that were not his own and patterns and words he could not understand. They may also come to share his faith that the language of art and of humanity can be universal.
With acknowledgement and thanks to Valerie C. Doran, Wen C. Fong, Maxwell Hearn, Michael Nylan, and Allen Rosenbaum