Ever Yours, Henry James, 2017

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Ever Yours, Henry James was commissioned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the Anne H. Fitzpatrick Façade, which is part of the 2012 Renzo Piano addition to the original Gardner “palazzo.”

My piece is a graphic sampler composed of fragments from Henry James’s letters to Isabella Stewart Gardner, and was intended to be in conversation with the fall 2017 exhibition Henry James and American Painting.

Nineteenth-century etiquette proscribed many rules for letter writing, yet even within this somewhat narrow form James was able to achieve a remarkable variety of tone. I was particularly drawn to the many ways he found of closing his letters to Gardner—from the more formal “With many good wishes / Very truly yours” to the touchingly affectionate “always constantly.” By focusing on these rhetorical flourishes of reassurance I hope to indicate something of the depth and genuine feeling in their long friendship.

Ever Yours emphasizes the connection between Gardner’s legacy collection and the Museum’s contemporary programming. For me, putting her personal correspondence on the exterior of the Renzo Piano addition mirrors the very subjective way she integrated works of art into her own highly aestheticized domestic setting, and alludes to the influence of her personal relationships in building a collection that she intended to become public.

The piece also hints at changes over time to the epistolary form itself. James’s letter closings repeatedly assure continued devotion despite great temporal and geographical distances, while twenty-first-century technologies promise ever-constant immediacy. And though letter correspondence was never a completely hermetic mode of communication, today’s email, texting and social media have further eroded the boundaries between private and public, for better and worse.

Even the physical act of giving graphic form to language has changed. Most writing tasks these days privilege a QWERTY keyboard over the handheld stylus, and cursive script disappeared long ago from grade-school curricula. For many visitors to the Gardner, James’s antique scrawl may be as inscrutable as Egyptian hieroglyphics.