Features | Vita
Edwin Binney, 3rd
Brief life of a philanthropic art collector: 1925-1986
Few realize that the sale of Binney & Smith Crayola crayons, those staples of so many childhoods, helped fund one of the largest physical donations of art in the history of Houghton Library’s Harvard Theatre Collection (HTC). The 1986 bequest of 10,000 dance prints from Edwin Binney, 3rd, ’46, Ph.D. ’61, who became the HTC’s honorary curator of ballet, contributed significantly to its becoming one of the largest and most prominent performing-arts collections in the world.
The Binney family fortunes began with an English immigrant, Joseph Walker Binney, founder of a chemical plant that specialized in the red oxide pigment used to paint barns. His son Edwin Binney Sr. and a cousin, C. Harold Smith, co-founded Binney & Smith, creating the first dustless white blackboard chalk in 1902 and producing the first box of Crayola crayons in 1903. That portmanteau name combines craie (French for “chalk”) and ola (for “oily/oleaginous”).
Ed (as the third-generation Edwin Binney called himself) lost his father a month before he turned four, and his paternal grandfather when he was nine. The boy’s mother and grandmother doted on him, ensured he was widely traveled, and exposed him to the world’s best art. He began his first collection—trolley transfer tickets—in Portland, Oregon, when he was five. At Harvard, he concentrated in French, graduating in 1948 after returning from wartime army service. He stayed on for his doctorate, and in 1965 published his dissertation, Les Ballets de Théophile Gautier, illustrated with prints from his burgeoning collection.
After teaching French for six years at Harvard and failing to receive tenure, he launched fully into pursuing his passions for researching and collecting art, organizing exhibits, and publishing catalogs. An adventurous polymath with an appetite for escargots, travel, and family history, he focused on pre-twentieth-century theatrical dance prints, emphasizing the romantic ballet; nineteenth-century French graphic artists, including Eugène Delacroix and Odilon Redon; Persian, Turkish, and Indian miniatures; and, finally, American quilts.
A plethora of epithets exists to describe the obsession with acquiring material objects. Non-collectors often view the activity as a form of madness, employing terms such as bibliomania or stampomania. (In contrast, dealers invariably portray the phenomenon as a healthy addiction.) For the scholarly minded, however, collecting is much more than a pastime. It leads to the proliferation of knowledge and connections: to fellow scholars and curators, and to institutions that also delight in and foster specialized collections. The San Diego Museum of Art—which inherited Binney’s collection of 1,453 Persian, Ottoman, and ancient Indian paintings—even provided him with an office, affectionately termed “Binney’s Basement Baghdad.”
What is less often understood is the origin of such a passion. For some, collecting provides a way to counter a loss, offering comfort in the ability to possess something that can be studied, catalogued, and treasured. But collecting can also help fill gaps in scholarship, and in the 1960s, Binney’s collecting—he called it a “bug”—appears an appendage to his interest in French nineteenth-century cultural studies.
His interest specifically in theatrical dance, though, stemmed from his studies with ballerina and dance teacher Alicia Langford, who became his wife and “without whom,” he wrote, “for me, there never would have been ballet.” He managed her dance studio for years, and noted in his thirty-fifth reunion report that he was “Still teaching (and taking) ballet classes….” Only a few years later, despite suffering from a terminal illness, he organized a final exhibit and produced a catalog for the HTC, Longing for the Ideal: Images of Marie Taglioni in the Romantic Ballet: A Centenary Exhibition. That effort paid tribute to the ballerina he felt “evoked perfectly the emotional and intellectual mood of her times, the age of Romanticism.” He followed it, in the year before he died, by publishing the lushly illustrated Glories of the Romantic Ballet, featuring 109 of his favorite dance prints.
Family ties underlay his final passion as well: a signed and dated quilt crafted by his great-great-grandmother inspired the joint collection he built with his daughter. Together they organized a five-year touring exhibition of their holdings under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and prepared its catalog, Homage to Amanda: Two Hundred Years of American Quilts from the Collection of Edwin Binney, 3rd & Gail Binney-Winslow.
As a scholar, Binney pioneered a cultural-studies approach to dance history, arguing that “the future of study for all of the arts lies in synthesis rather than compartmentalization.” To that end he wrote two monographs that remain standard reference works: A Century of Austro-German Dance Prints 1790-1890 and Sixty Years of Italian Dance Prints, 1815-1875, each contextualizing dance prints through the lens of European politics, art, spectator-response theory, and performance history. He emphasized as well that each print was also conceived as “a tribute to the performer” and “the spectators’ memento.” In every area, his scholarship informed his collecting, and his collections informed his scholarship. In order that his life’s work might benefit humanity, Binney compiled one catalog after another and then, as a collector turned philanthropist, made the major donations that shared his passions with the world.