The evidence left by Putnam memorabilia is that the sisters truly cared for painting. No dilettante would have labored so over books, kept such track of sales announced in ARTNews and in catalogs sent by galleries and art auction houses as did Anne and Amy. More than once Amy was forced to draw on her personal bank account (in addition to her trust account) to meet $40,000 payments for purchases as trop cher as a Rembrandt landscape. Julia Andrews hypothesized that “to buy Russian icons instead of Russian sables, to forgo travel in favor of Titians and Tintorettos, to choose a Goya rather than a gay winter on the Riviera — the decision to secure paintings for our city rather than a thousand and one personal pleasures must have been based on some criterion of value, firmly followed.”
For the rich, giving away art is practical. The Putnam sisters were practical New England women. Donating Goyas lightened the oppressive Putnam tax burden, hugely increased by Willie’s five million and the subject of many letters to Frederick Parker at Guaranty Trust.
To learn how Reginald Poland came to San Diego to become director of the Fine Arts Gallery, and how Anne and Amy entered his life, a reader must backtrack through files to 1925 when the Fine Arts Gallery was built in Balboa Park. Amelia C. Bridges, born a Timken, and her husband, Appleton S. Bridges, gave $400,000 toward construction of an art gallery — to be operated by the Fine Arts Society — and Amelia Bridges offered, for her lifetime, to pay the gallery director’s salary.
The process by which Poland was hired is well documented in the files. A Society member had been connected with the Detroit Institute of Art. When time came to find a director, San Diego turned to Detroit. The first choice refused the job and suggested Poland. Responding to this, a November 2, 1925, night letter was sent to Detroit, asking about Poland: Is he “Catholic or Jew [...] has he peculiar characteristics… Give me Poland’s age antecedents your opinion of his ability qualifications personality and nationality.” The November 3 response notified San Diego that Poland came recommended. “HIGHLY AS GOOD EXECUTIVE VERY CAPABLE AND EXTREMELY HARD WORKER/POLAND WAS GRADUATED FROM BROWN UNIVERSITY/TOOK MASTERS AT YALE/ALSO WAS AT HARVARD ONE YEAR/FATHER PROFESSOR BROWN UNIVERSITY/ENGLISH ORIGIN/MOTHER SCOTCH IRISH/POLAND 32 YEARS OLD HIGHEST CHARACTER AND REPUTATION/MARRIED NO CHILDREN.” Poland got the job.
A 1930 photograph of Fine Arts Gallery director Poland can be seen in Iris H.W. Engstrand’s San Diego, California’s Cornerstone. Poland, 37, is posed with local artists at Leslie Lee’s studio and home, “Hollow of the Hills,” near Alpine. In the casually dressed group only Poland wears a suit. A drawing of Poland could have illustrated Scott Fitzgerald’s Collier’s stories. His is a chiseled, handsome face, firm at the jaw, and “artistic” — dreamy, brooding — and around the eyes, melancholy. It was the “right” face for the job.
From the first telegrams it is apparent Poland’s job won’t be easy. The files show he did well. A 1950 San Diego Union article reported the city’s art collection was worth $50,000 when Poland took over, and 25 years later it was worth $7 million. Poland forged friendships with local artists and helped them by purchasing their work and providing them with Gallery lectureships. Crafts were among his interests, and he served on the National Ceramics Jury. He and his wife had significant numbers of supporters and personal friends, including Edmund T. Price, president of Solar Aircraft Company, by the late ’40s also Fine Arts Society president.
When the Putnam sisters came into Willie’s money and then began to spend that money on art, Poland must have felt rewarded. A 1475 Bermejo; a Goya; an El Greco; a Van Dyck; the Murillo Mary Magdalene — Old Masters stacked up in the gallery.
Amelia Bridges died in 1940 and the sisters assumed her role in supporting the gallery, including the payment of the director’s $6000 salary. Julia Andrews characterized Poland in her Wednesday Club paper as “Miss Anne’s favorite,” and it was Anne, in 1940 still active, who wrote the letter to the Society’s board, offering the salary contribution.
Dapper Poland, his hair turned silver in his 15 years in San Diego, dropped by the mansion often in the early ’40s. He was particularly welcomed by Anne (of whom Julia Andrews said, “She was the eldest of the three sisters but the closest to her youth. There was nothing austere or ascetic about her, or her room, which breathed an almost gay romanticism”). They had in common a love of the Gallic. Poland had been a curator of French paintings at Detroit, and knew the language. Anne, at Poland’s behest, stepped out of anonymity and allowed him to place her name on the Society’s letterhead as an honorary vice president.
No time was more auspicious for the purchase of European paintings. The Spanish Civil War and the beginning of World War II in Europe liquefied the art market. Old Masters of quality became available at reasonable prices. Anne and Amy began to buy. Their early gifts concentrated on Spanish, Netherlandish, and Italian canvases, the Spanish as a nod to their adopted hometown’s Spanish colonial past. In The Los Angeles Times Book of California Museums, L.A. Times art editor William Wilson devotes a chapter to the Timken Art Gallery. He writes about those heady years that opened the Putnam spending spree. “The Putnams made such impossible acquisitions as Goya’s Marqués de Sofraga and Sanchez Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber.”
In the early ’40s the sisters were reading, in depth and in several languages, about artists whose paintings they considered for purchase. Never trusting to their own judgment in buying paintings, they consulted curators and dealers, scholars, and historians. They invited Frankfurter; Spanish art historian Chandler R. Post of Harvard; and W.R. Valentiner, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to come to San Diego to give their opinion on purchases. They entertained the gentlemen in the library, where from above the books, Amy’s glittering icons, in the heat from the fireplace, gave back the heady aroma of incense their wood had absorbed centuries earlier in Old Russia.