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Henry P. McIlhenny Papers

Identifier: HPM

Scope and Contents

The Henry P. McIlhenny Papers offer evidence to the privileged and urbane lifestyle of the man whose tastes and talents earned him a reputation as a distinguished connoisseur of art and antiques, world traveler, host extraordinaire, philanthropist and generous friend. Although McIlhenny is the primary creator, this collection is very much a family affair, encompassing the art collections initiated by his parents, John D. and Frances P. McIlhenny, which passed, along with the family trust fund, on to McIlhenny and his sister Bernice Wintersteen.

Most of the letters that comprise the first series of "Correspondence" pertain to McIlhenny's daily, personal activities, especially his busy social life. Although there is a limited amount of material with most individuals, McIlhenny's long-term friendships with professional colleagues at museums, universities and galleries in the United States and Europe, and particularly associates from McIlhenny's 30-year tenure with the Philadelphia Museum of Art are more fully documented. Other significant correspondents include prominent Philadelphia figures, such as Walter and Lee Anenberg, and friends Gloria and Emlen Etting. Correspondence divides into two subseries of "1927-1975" and "1976-1986."

The "Financial records" series consists of correspondence, bank statements, account books and journals, appraisals, insurance policies, and legal agreements. The "Appraisals and insurance" subseries pertains to the objects acquired by the family. Material regarding the disposition of the collections is located in the "Estate administration" subseries. Most of the documentation of the various bank accounts set up to administer the family trust fund is filed in the "Banking and investments" subseries, and material pertaining to the taxable deductions allowed by McIlhenny's numerous gifts of money, publications and art objects comprises the "Tax files" subseries. Household expenditures, including wages for his staffs in Philadelphia and in Ireland, can be found in the "Bookkeeping" subseries along with his personal records of investment activity.

"Family papers" comprise the smallest series although the material dates from 1866, the year of John D. McIlheny's birth, to 1985, concerning matters at East Laurel Hill Cemetery. The "Correspondence" subseries is the largest and consists primarily of McIlhenny's letters to his mother and to his sister. The most detailed documentation included in the "Genealogy" subseries is three family histories that apparently were privately published. The final subseries, "Other," is comprised of various material formats and subjects. Most of the clippings are obituaries. Invitations, passports and a late nineteenth century travel journal offer a glimpse of the social life enjoyed by McIlhenny's parents.

The "Articles, interviews and lectures" series consists of a significant amount of writings about McIlhenny that were put out by major media outlets here and abroad. Popular publications in which McIlhenny's art collection and homes were featured include Connoisseur, House Beautiful, Town & Country, and Harper's Bazaar. While most clippings are from Philadelphia-based newspapers, items from the New York Times, Boston Globe and a few Irish papers are also included. Transcripts document an interview produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation and one given as part of the Archives of American Art's Oral History Program.

The next three series pertain to subjects for which McIlhenny was best known. The "Art collection" series documents many of the transactions that as a whole earned McIlhenny the distinction of being named one of the all-time Top 10 art collectors in America Including a significant amount of material pertaining to the acquisitions of McIlhenny's parents and papers documenting purchases and loans made by his sister, the series also makes apparent the family's 80-year legacy of art patronage and connoisseurship. Material includes receipts, invoices, correspondence, loan forms, photographs, clippings, and other material documenting works of art the McIlhennys owned, sold, or considered for purchase. The artists cited in the first subseries, "Objects by artist," attest to the different tastes of father and son; namely Old European Masters versus nineteenth-century French and English artists. Both the "Objects by genre" and "Dealers, museums and others" subseries make obvious the breadth of the collections built by the McIlhennys. In addition to painting and sculpture, almost every type of decorative art is represented, from furniture to fireirons, as well as books, ceramics, textiles, jewelry and gems. Most of the documentation in the "Subjects" subseries pertains to loans, visitor requests and gifts although other files deal generally with the purchase, shipping, insuring or disposing of items. "Photographs and publications" offer published and unpublished illustrations of objects in the family's collections.

The "Residence" series documents where McIlhenny made his home and the measures he took to make each residence suitable to his tastes. Correspondence, invoices and receipts make up the bulk of the material, documenting approximately half a century of fine living, along with photographs, drawings, fabric swatches and ephemera. The "Philadelphia" subseries pertains to several addresses in the metropolitan area, including the family homestead in Germantown, McIlhenny's later home in Center City and his sister's homes in Chestnut Hill and later in Villanova. The second series, "Glenveagh," pertains primarily to McIlhenny's country estate in County Donegal, located in the northwest of Ireland. A small portion of the material pertains to Dunlewy, another estate in the area, which McIlhenny owned apparently as a rental property for approximately ten years. The third subseries, "Gardening and related topics" reflects a passion shared by the McIlhenny family, and documents a variety of landscape and gardening ventures.

The "Affiliation" series documents McIlhenny's lifetime of service and philanthropy to numerous institutions in Philadelphia and in Ireland, especially those related to his passions of art, music, gardening, and interior design. Contributions given by his sister and by his mother are also included. Material includes correspondence, invoices and receipts, ephemera, and meeting minutes, the bulk of which relates to McIlhenny's affiliation with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Orchestra Association, the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera. Separate subseries pertain to each of these organizations. The "Various affiliations" pertain to the other numerous institutions that McIlhenny supported monetarily or through active participation.

The "Other subjects" series touches on other aspects of McIlhenny's life and lifestyle, particularly his flair for entertaining and his passion for globetrotting, each of which is documented, respectively, in the "Social events" and "Travel" subseries. Comprised of correspondence, invoices, numerous lists and notes, and frequently revised itineraries, each subseries underscores McIlhenny's attention to detail and adherence to doing everything in grand style. The third subseries, "Various," consists of an assortment of documentation, identified either by material type or subject. An example of the former is the set of folders identified as "Invoices." Selected during processing, these papers give a sampling of the types of goods and services McIlhenny purchased regularly. The largest set of subject-related folders pertains to McIlhenny's military service in the United States Naval Reserve during and after World War II.


  • 1817-1824, 1902-1988, undated
  • Majority of material found within 1934-1986


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research but certain insurance and personal information, conservation reports, and appraisals are restricted. Excerpts of restricted material may be made available at the discretion of the Archivist.

Conditions Governing Use

The Henry P. McIlhenny Papers are the physical property of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. The Museum holds literary rights only for material created by Museum personnel or given to the Museum with such rights specifically assigned. For all other material, literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining permission from rights holders for publication and for other purposes where stated.

Biographical / Historical

Selected by Connoisseur magazine as one of the country's all-time top 10 art collectors, Philadelphian Henry Plumer McIlhenny (1910-1986) was also celebrated for his charm and hospitality. As Andy Warhol claimed, McIlhenny was "the only person in Philadelphia with glamour," a sentiment echoed by the Philadelphia Art Alliance, which dubbed him the "first gentleman of Philadelphia." McIlhenny's energies went beyond his passion for collecting; and his love for the arts, for entertaining, and for horticulture found numerous manifestations over the years.

The family fortune that afforded McIlhenny's gracious and generous lifestyle began with his paternal grandfather, John, who left Ireland with his widowed mother in 1843. Settling in Columbia, Georgia, via Philadelphia, the elder McIlhenny has been credited with inventing the gas meter. Upon returning to Philadelphia in the late 1870s with his wife and four children, John McIlhenny founded the gas meter-manufacturing firm of Helme and McIlhenny. Succeeded in the business by his son John Dexter (John D.), the family amassed a fortune, and their ingenuity furnished the younger McIlhenny's children with trust funds that sustained them all their lives. In 1898 John D. McIlhenny married Frances Galbraith Plumer. The couple had four children, of which Henry was the youngest. A sister died before he was born, and an older brother died in 1935. McIlhenny had a close relationship with his remaining sibling, Bernice, who was usually referred to as "Bonnie." Both children followed in their parents' commitment to civic involvement and love of the arts. Although McIlhenny's tastes deviated from that of his family, his passion for art was cultivated early on by his parents who were enthusiastic collectors of Oriental rugs, decorative arts, and 17th and 18th century paintings.

McIlhenny proved himself an able young scholar and prospered at Milton Academy, a preparatory school near Boston. According to his own recollection, he also began collecting at a young age, purchasing a few bronze statuettes at the age of 15 while on vacation in Egypt. In 1929 McIlhenny enrolled at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in Fine Arts in 1933. At the university, McIlhenny studied with the scholar and collector Paul Sachs, whom McIlhenny credits with refining his eye for art and galvanizing his acquisitive nature. As a sophomore in college, and often teamed up with his mother, McIlhenny began collecting in earnest when the two purchased, at the son's request, "Still Life with a Hare," (circa 1730) by Jean-Siméon Chardin. Despite this purchase of an 18th century French painting, Sach's enthusiasm for 19th century French paintings took hold of McIlhenny, and he would come to focus his major collecting activity in this area. During the Depression years, McIlhenny purchased masterpieces in rapid succession. Between 1931 and 1933, he acquired important works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Corot, Renoir, Degas and Delacroix. McIlhenny often recalled Sach's advice that it is better not to buy "higgledy piggledy all over the map," but rather to collect in one field. He followed his mentor's advice, collecting astutely and deliberately. He retained most of his major purchases throughout his life, except when he needed, in his words, "to have plenty of cash for my old age," and to fund renovations of his properties. In 1970 he sold a Seurat, in 1973 a Renoir, and in 1983 a Cézanne, which alone sold for $3.6 million.

While McIlhenny's mother encouraged her son's early acquisitions of fine art, it was his father who set the family precedent of service and philanthropy to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. From 1918 until his death in 1925, John D. McIlhenny served as the museum's President while it operated from its original location at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. He bequeathed the family art collection to the museum. Just after his father's death, McIlhenny's mother began serving on the Associate Committee of Women and served as a museum Trustee until her death in 1943. McIlhenny and his sister Bernice would follow suit, serving in a number of capacities throughout their adult lives. Henry McIlhenny's association with the museum began in 1933 after a year of graduate studies, when he joined the staff as Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts under the directorship of Fiske Kimball. McIlhenny's father hired Kimball just before his death, and as McIlhenny would remark jokingly, it was the appointment of this "Germanic boor" that killed his father. McIlhenny was promoted to Associate Curator of Decorative Arts in 1937 and two years later was named Curator of the department. His ambition, however, exceeded the confines of his job titles. In 1936 and 1937 he organized two major paintings exhibitions, of Degas and Daumier, respectively, both of which won international recognition. His 1939 exhibition of prints and drawings by William Blake was considered one of the most important shows in the U.S. that year. During his tenure as curator, McIlhenny also organized exhibitions featuring Philadelphia wares and craftsmen, specifically, the furniture makers Henry Connelly and Ephraim Haines (1953), Philadelphia silver (1956) and Tucker china (1957). McIlhenny also orchestrated several noteworthy acquisitions to the Museum's collections, including French porcelain and silver, the Constantine tapestries, and the Titus C. Geesey Collection of Pennsylvania German art. From 1964 to1968, while his sister was serving as the museum's President, McIlhenny resigned as Curator to join the Board of Trustees. He served as Vice President from 1968 to 1976, at which time he was named Chairman of the Board. He remained Chairman until his death in 1986.

It took a world war to interrupt McIlhenny's service to the museum. As the draft was proving inevitable, McIlhenny applied for and received his commission as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade, in the Aviation Volunteer Special Class of the United States Naval Reserve in April of 1942. By the time he was released from active duty in January 1946, McIlhenny had served 29 months, including almost one and a half years aboard the USS Bunker Hill, which engaged in action in the Pacific and earned the warship crew a Presidential Unit Citation. McIlhenny received his honorable discharge in 1954 with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

McIlhenny received a leave of absence from the service and the museum to spend 1947 and 1948 in Rome as the Resident Art Historian at the American Academy. He endeavored to make a list of Renaissance sculpture in Rome akin to Bernard Berenson's list of paintings. The project proved too daunting for one man, and during a visit to Berenson's home the two humorously agreed that one must do nothing during one's first year in Italy.

Following his return home, McIlhenny in 1950 sold Parkgate, the family home in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and purchased a townhouse in the center of the city, at 1914 Rittenhouse Square. His Philadelphia domain would eventually expand to include the two adjoining residences, renovated to contain a grand ballroom and courtyard fit for lavish entertaining. His renown as a generous and congenial host would establish McIlhenny's Philadelphia home as a center of social activity, drawing a diversity of high profile guests, including actors, artists and royalty. McIlhenny's hospitality extended to visitors of his art collection. His paintings, which he selected in part because they were "more sympathetic in private houses," were intimately incorporated into his living space and complimented by Charles X furniture. McIlhenny's flare for interior decorating was lauded nearly as much as his art collection.

During the summers, McIlhenny made his home at a country estate nestled in the county of Donegal in northern Ireland. McIlhenny purchased Glenveagh in 1938 from the widow of Harvard art and architecture historian A. Kingsley Porter. Not yet 30 years old, McIlhenny took ownership of a 19th-century, 23-bedroom castle with some of its contents and other buildings situated on more than 25,000 acres of land in an area not far from the birthplace of his grandfather, John McIlhenny. Some 40 years later, between 1974 and 1975, McIlhenny came to an agreement with the Commissioners of Public Works to sell most of his land to the Republic of Ireland for the creation of a national park. In 1979, McIlhenny made a gift of the castle and 15 surrounding acres, but retained the right to live there until 1982. Deviating from his usual area of collecting, McIlhenny filled the castle with 18th century Irish furniture and silver, and predominantly Victorian paintings by artists such as Landseer and Ansdell. In addition, McIlhenny took particular care in planning the gardens at Glenveagh, which horticultural journals lauded.

In both Ireland and in Philadelphia, McIlhenny generously gave his time and money in support of the arts. In addition to his work with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, McIlhenny served on the boards of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, Academy of Music, and the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks. Nearly two hundred other local organizations benefited from McIlhenny's support as well.

During McIlhenny's lifetime, three major exhibitions were devoted to his celebrated art collection: at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1962; at the Allentown Art Museum in 1977; and in 1979 at the High Museum in Atlanta. In 1949 the Philadelphia Museum of Art featured his collection, including works by living Americans, in one of its transient galleries. In 1974, McIlhenny gave an interview conducted as part of the Archives of American Art's Oral History Program. A decade later, he was one of those featured in the British Broadcasting Corporation's television production, "The Great Collectors."

Henry McIlhenny died at the age of 75 as a result of complications from heart surgery on May 11, 1986. It was Mother's Day, and just two and a half weeks after the death of his sister. McIlhenny bequeathed his art collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which held a special exhibition of his gifts at the end of 1987. Prior to their exhibition, the museum lent 50 of McIlhenny's objects to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for a show McIlhenny had enthusiastically agreed to in the fall of 1985. One of New York's major auction houses, Christie's, held a two-day sale of the remainder of McIlhenny's estate. Prior to the sale, which fetched $3.7 million, 200 guests gathered at Christie's for a benefit dinner to honor McIlhenny and to remember the man and his "unerring sense of quality."

Works Consulted

  1. Duke University (Durham, North Carolina). 15 May 2005. The dictionary of art historians, s.v. "McIlhenny, Henry P[lumer]."
  2. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. Includes exhibition catalogs of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (1962) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1987-1988), and the 1987 auction catalog of Christie's. Henry P. McIlhenny Papers. Art collection series. Photographs and publications subseries
  3. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. Includes magazine and newspaper clippings and transcripts of the 1974 and 1984 interviews. Henry P. McIlhenny Papers. Articles, interviews and lectures series
  4. 12, 14 May 1986. Philadelphia inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania : 1969).


62.5 linear feet

Language of Materials



The Henry P. McIlhenny Papers document the privileged and urbane lifestyle of the man whose tastes and talents earned him a reputation as a distinguished connoisseur of art and antiques, world traveler, host extraordinaire, philanthropist and generous friend. Although Henry McIlhenny (1910-1986) is the primary creator, this collection is very much a family affair, encompassing the art collections initiated by his parents, John D. and Frances P. McIlhenny, which passed, along with the family trust fund, on to McIlhenny and his sister Bernice ("Bonnnie") Wintersteen. Much of the material deals with McIlhenny's activities from the mid-1930s to his final years, with particularly extensive documentation of his art collection and of his homes. Also well documented are his many years of service to and support of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Academy of Music, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The records of McIlhenny's finances are extensive as well. Invoices and receipts are included throughout the collection and document extraordinary to everyday purchases--from a Cézanne watercolor to a bottle of Old Spice pre-shave lotion, offering a snapshot study of class economics and consumerism. While correspondence and invoices make up the bulk of material, the collection also includes many photographs, clippings, monthly statements and reports, and to a lesser extent, account books, appraisals, catalogs, ephemera, legal documents, drawings and fabric swatches.


Over a period of more than 55 years, three personal secretaries maintained Henry P. McIlhenny's files, resulting in different filing systems and retention practices. While the earliest secretarial assistant kept individual files for each correspondent and retained only certain invoices, her successors filed correspondence in general alphabetical order and kept what appears to be almost all invoices and/or receipts, also in general alphabetical order. In preparing the catalog for its 1987-1988 exhibition of the McIlhenny collection bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, curatorial staff made significant use of relevant portions of the papers, which probably led to further rearrangement.

The designated series reflect categories that were imposed earlier and in varying degrees to the papers, arranging material by document types and topics. "Correspondence," "Financial records," "Family records," and "Articles, interview and lectures" make up the four material-type series. The three topical series that follow reflect the areas of McIlhenny's lifestyle for which he was best known, namely his "Art collection," his "Residences," and his "Affiliations" with the many organizations and institutions that benefited from his generosity and expertise. The final series, "Other subjects" encompasses smaller groupings of topical material, namely "Social events" and "Travel." The "Various" subseries houses other subjects and document types.

Because of the large amount of invoices, retention guidelines were established to insure that research value would not be jeopardized while maintaining practical and efficient processing standards. While some invoices pertain to the late 1930s, most date from 1960 to 1986, and the amount of information contained therein varies.

The significance of McIlhenny's fine and decorative art collection requires the retention of all relative invoices, regardless of amount of information. In keeping with the organization of earlier purchases (most of which were made by his parents), later invoices for all books and for jewelry have been added to the "Art collection" series. The other category of invoices retained entirely pertains to horticulture and therefore includes all gardening and landscaping expenses, as well as florist orders.

In assessing the remaining invoices, the first criterion was that there be some degree of detail, such as an itemized bill. The account books processed in the "Bookkeeping" subseries of the "Financial record" series offers the same information that can be gleaned from invoices showing only total dollar amounts. Itemized invoices retained were those documenting the more routine aspects of a privileged lifestyle, such as clothing, groceries, and health and beauty aids. Because only itemized invoices have been retained, the material must be studied as a sampling of such expenditures. All these invoices are part of the "Various" subseries in the "Other subject" series. Itemized invoices pertaining to interior decoration and renovations in Philadelphia and at Glenveagh have been processed in the respective subseries of the "Residence" series. In keeping with the original arrangement of earlier dated material in the "Philadelphia" subseries, later invoices pertaining to maintenance and repair, security and utilities were also retained.

Custodial History

Gift of George and James Wintersteen, 2004.


Approximately 1/2 linear foot of material was transferred by Ms. Katharine H. Norris (personal secretary to McIlhenny from 1980 to 1986) in June and July 2004. It included primarily clippings, her desk calendar, and photographs and notes pertaining to the management of the Rittenhouse Square residence.

Posthumously published writings regarding McIlhenny's art that were acquired by the museum's European Painting department were added at the time of processing in 2006. Publications include magazines, newspapers, and exhibition and auction catalogs.

Processing Information

These materials were arranged and described by Bertha Adams, Adrianna Del Collo, Katherine Stefko, Scott Radway, Liz Snowden, Susan Anderson and Courtney Smerz in 2006. Funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Guide to the Henry P. McIlhenny Papers
Finding aid prepared by Bertha Adams, Adrianna Del Collo, Katherine Stefko, Scott Radway, Liz Snowden, Susan Anderson and Courtney Smerz
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Repository Details

Part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives Repository

Philadelphia Museum of Art
PO Box 7646
Philadelphia PA 19101-7646 United States