Jim Williams of Mercer House

There’s only things that interest me, work, and those trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile. The very things they’re forced to sell when the money runs out. And it always runs out. And then all they’re left with is their lovely manners.
From the Script, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Forsyth Fountain, Savannah
Forsyth Fountain, Savannah

Jim Williams is one of those characters brought to life by prose I wish I had the opportunity to know. Williams, an antique dealer, became known to me through the movie, and later book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

In 2004, Hui and I visited Savannah and Mercer House, the former home of Williams. Mercer House is not a house-museum exactly, tours of the first floor are offered, but the second floor remains private.

Antique dealers would seem to make good characters for a book. They live off of the stories left for them, not through prose, but through objects-objects that once belonged to someone else. Those with this special sense of what can be learned from an object, regardless of wealth, don’t often appreciate things being shiny and new.

One scene in the book has two visitors to Mercer House discussing whether Williams came from new money or old. Based on significant fabric wear on a chair, the visitor guessed Williams came from old money. Williams, overhearing, made the correction, explaining he was well aware that old money would leave fabric as it was.

As one who has spent the best parts of twenty years looking at antiques, searching for them and trying to uncover a geographic and sometimes even personal life-cycle for them, Williams was someone I could immediately relate to.

Mercer House, Savannah
Mercer House, Savannah

There guide on the Mercer House tour told us about some Chinese porcelain that had spent most of its existence underwater. Apparently Williams tried to use it for dining, but found that the salt water seeped through to make anything placed on it taste salty. It’s not just salt, I thought, but salt from a deep ship wreck. In the book there’s a scene during an anxiety-filled moment when Williams has the idea to do something fun–eat sandwiches off of the rescued China.

You don’t have porcelain from a deep sea bed to enjoy being a bit eccentric. I have some hotel ware I like to bring out on occasion, and there’s nothing quite like Champagne sipped from old wine glasses.

Beginning in the 1950s, Williams played an active role in the preservation of Savannah’s historic district. He was able to purchase Mercer House in 1969. Williams restored the home and operated his antiques restoration business out of the carriage house in the rear of the mansion.

In some cases, we only know the people of the past because their home survived. Sometimes we learn about the people of the past because of the objects they made. Occasionally we can learn about the people of the past through the objects they collected. Jim Williams is one of those people we know about today in part because of what he did to bring history to life through objects, that an a murder case made for the movies.

About Art After X

With the death of President Kennedy in 1963, America changed. As hard as it is to minimize that sentiment, the effect of Dallas was even greater. The same year saw the merging of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, which had been central to the art scene, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Douglas MacAgy, then the director of DMCA, not only opposed the merger, but also declined to directorship of the combined museum. The regionalist movement which had been strong for decades, was giving way to more of an interest in what was going on nationally, and internationally. Like it or not, Dallas was on the national stage.

When the Kennedy’s arrived in Fort Worth, local collectors had decorated a hotel room with internationally-renowned works. While the president and his wife learned a great deal about the ability of Texans to collect major art, there was little they could glean about the local scene in this era-defining city.

With this in mind, we have begun a project to look not back at the art scene in Dallas, but foreword from 1963. We are interviewing gallery owners, curators and others involved in the art scene then, but this will be a story told mostly through interviews with artists active in the city from that point into the 1980s.

The result will be a book with a video component.

We hope you will join us in our journey. The hashtag for the project is #artafterx and the url artafterx.com will point to the latest updates on this weblog.

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