From Rubens to Riley

Article excerpt

The collection of William C. MorriS includes both historic

and contemporary masterpieces

ON A RECENT WINTER MORNING, THE TUNE OF "AULD LANG SYNE" drifts through the office of Houston businessman William C. Morris. The holiday favorite about old acquaintances serves as a warm welcome to Mary Morton, a curator of European art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. This spring the museum is displaying the most recent addition to the Morris collection, and Morton is here to discuss the event with the collector.

Although the Morris collection isn't large, it is astoundingly impressive, with museum-quality paintings and sculpture spanning centuries of art history. The 50-piece collection is housed in a suite of offices and encompasses works by artists ranging from contemporary western masters Howard Terpning and Kenneth Riley to historical masters Peter Paul Rubens [1577-1640] and Winslow Homer [1836-1910].

You might say the western pieces, which Morris purchased in the 1980s, are his old acquaintances. His new friends are the historical works, most of which he purchased after 1990, including an exquisite watercolor by British master Joseph Mallord William Turner [1775-- 1851] that is scheduled for display at Houston's museum in 2002. On this particular day the painting, HEIDELBERG WITH A RAINBOW, sits on an easel in the middle of the collector's main office. The painting is awash in a soft gold light and serves as a spot of sun in the dimly lit room, which is blanketed with a wall of cloth accordion shades to protect the masterpieces that lie within.

When Morris purchased the Turner piece from Sotheby's at a London auction last August, the catalog noted, "The painting is one of only a handful of fully finished works of this scale dating from the 1840s and still available on the market. The Turner watercolor is a rare treat, incredibly beautiful with its vast sky and atmospheric effects." The catalog also described the work's marvelous provenance: It was last on the market in 1908 and was being sold by a descendent of a Scottish shipping magnate. Later, an article about the auction results noted that a prominent figure in the modern-day art world bid on behalf of a client who secured the work for a world-record price for any British watercolor. The anonymous client was, of course, Morris.

The Houston collector's style of doing business is strictly low profile, but he likes to buy high-profile art. So it's no surprise he doesn't want to talk about the price he paid for the Turner watercolor-or any of his artworks, for that matter. But he will talk about how his collecting days began.

As a native Texan he has always had a love of the West, he says. He grew up riding horses in Houston proper at a time when the city was a bit sleepier than the sprawling metropolis it is today. Later, as an adult, he began attending the Western Heritage Sale-an annual event held at Houston's legendary Shamrock Hilton Hotel, where prize-winning St. Gertrudis bulls were auctioned off alongside western art. "People bought fine horses, cattle, and the best western art," Morris says, recalling the prestigious affair attended by such local luminaries as former Texas governor John Connally. "That's where art first got into my blood."

At the 1984 Western Heritage Sale, Morris purchased one of the first pieces in his collection: Riley's THE SOURCE. Today a room in Morris' suite of offices is filled with artistic trappings garnered from that early period in his collecting days. For example, one wall in the "western room" features works by Riley, Terpning, and Frank McCarthy. The paintings by these Cowboy Artists of America members are hung salon-style and blended with earlier historical western bronzes and paintings by Frederic Remington [1861-1901] as well as an unusual depiction of a rearing horse by Albert Bierstadt [1830-1902], who is far better known for his landscape paintings.

Morris keeps auction catalogs and various art books that offer detailed information about works in his collection stacked neatly on tables, often close to the pieces themselves. …