It all began with “The Admiral.” Sarah and Allen Burke were browsing at an antiques show when they were drawn to a portrait of a handsome naval officer wearing a brass-buttoned uniform.
They’d just moved to an 18th-century house in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and were looking for something to complement their new home. “We hung it over the fireplace, and it just made the room. We were on our way,” says Allen, a retired QVC executive.
Painted in 1770, “The Admiral” now hangs in the foyer of their Chester County home alongside many other gilt-framed portraits. That first purchase over 30 years ago sparked an interest that has resulted in a fascinating collection of more than 50 portraits that hang throughout the couple’s 19th-century house.
Walking into their living room feels as if one has arrived at a distinguished gathering from another century—a musician holding a sheet of music, a lawyer with a law book, a country gentleman depicted in a bucolic setting. The paintings were commissioned to record a person’s appearance or to mark an occasion.
In the era before photography, sitting for a portrait meant you were either someone of importance or reasonably wealthy. “People who had no money did not have portraits made,” Sarah says. “It was the only way of keeping a likeness of someone at the time.”
While their identities may not be known, the clothing and accessories give clues to who they were. Finding information takes persistence, given that American portraiture flourished from the 1700s to the mid- 1800s. “That’s part of the fun,” says Allen. “There are always a few clues, plus endless amounts of research.”
It wasn’t until the couple moved to Chester County 20 years ago that their collection really took off. Here, they found a vibrant collecting scene with multiple antiques shows and auctions. “In the Midwest, we didn’t find a lot of portraits. You had more of a farming, agricultural class in the Midwest in the early years,” Sarah says.
Portraits not only capture a face, they also give insight into the history and culture of an era. An eye-catching portrait of a Massachusetts lawyer wearing a striped vest is one of Sarah’s favorites. Painted in 1800, the portrait was done in a folk-art style that became popular in New England in the years after America won independence. The lawyer’s heavy, expressive brows and wily smile imply that this is the man you want defending your interests. “You’re not going to pull anything over on him,” says Sarah.
The Burkes’ guiding principle in collecting is simple: “We buy what we like and what will fit in,” Sarah says. “When we first started, we knew absolutely nothing about collecting.”
Over the years, the couple has gained an eye for what to look for through attending shows and talking to dealers. They have twice cochaired the Chester County Antiques Show. But even the most seasoned collector can be caught off guard. “We bought this wonderful portrait of a soldier in a red jacket and decided to have him cleaned,” recounts Allen.
The couple got a call informing them another painting had been found underneath—a 20th-century repainting over the original.
Unlike the soldier, the man underneath had a long, dour face and a dull gray wig. However, the portrait dated from the 1750s. “We were told this was a better-quality painting, but we would probably not have purchased him,” says Sarah.
A much happier find was a beautifully painted portrait of an Irish baronet that dates to the late 1700s. What makes this portrait very special is the artist: Gilbert Stuart, the acclaimed portraitist who painted some of the most iconic images of George Washington and other leaders of the Revolutionary era. Most of his portraits are in museums and provide an important complement to our written history. The naturalness and vitality of the Irish nobleman’s face and the expressive brush strokes of his white ruffled jabot were hallmarks of Stuart’s style. “He was considered a master, even in his own time,” Sarah says.
Certain portraits evoke special memories for the Burkes. While attending an antiques show in London, they met a dealer who told them he had several more portraits available at his shop outside of the city. The couple took a train out to a little country town and located the dealer in an old book bindery.
While being served refreshments from a silver tea service, they were shown portraits of a young man in a velvet coat and a woman wearing a satin dress and jewelry—most likely a wedding portrait. The Burkes were taken by the youthful faces of the bridal couple painted in 1815. “These are known as pendant portraits and were meant to be hung facing one another,” says Sarah.
While their home is decorated with period furniture and the portraits they’ve collected, the Burkes don’t fuss about things. They brought up their son in similar surroundings and now welcome visits from their grandchildren.
“We use our antiques. You get a nick on things, and it can be fixed,” says Sarah, who has worked for 18 years at Winterthur guiding and developing programs for young children.
When the Burkes started collecting, many people gave them advice. One experienced collector told them that, if it costs about the same to buy an antique table as a fine-quality new one, then buy the antique. “It’s like a new car,” Sarah says of mass-produced furniture, “it starts losing its value the minute you take it home.”
Still, the couple doesn’t recommend buying antiques as an investment. “You have to love it and you have to have a place for it,” Sarah says. “Collect what you love.”
Given that philosophy, one might ask if their collection is complete. “We’re running out of wall space—it’s pretty obvious,” says Allen, pointing to portraits hung one over the other. “But, when the right one comes along …”
For collectors like the Burkes, it’s the quest that makes life interesting.