The Gilbert Collection
A lifetime of learning
Dr. Walter (Wally) Gilbert has been celebrated throughout his life as a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, exhibiting artist, and one of the foremost collectors of antiquities of his generation. In each of his diverse scholarly pursuits, his approach has consistently remained one of academic integrity, with an emphasis on both the materials of the artworks and the stories that inspired them. Together with his wife and life-long partner, Celia, Wally Gilbert has acquired a vast collection of objects from the ancient world, assembled in a representation of a life well-lived. Spanning from the birth of Western art around the cultures of the Mediterranean Basin to Asia and Mesoamerica, the focus of the collection is the art of Greece, Rome and Etruria, along with the cultures that flourished in Egypt and Mesopotamia. They collected many miniature works of art, including seals, vessels, and figures which make up over 100 objects under 7 cm tall in the collection. Some of which are the finest in the world and absolute masterworks, such as a Greek Gold Head of a Griffin that is only 4 centimeters high with astonishing detail. Some of the Greek vases in the collection are also at the top of their class including the Attic Red Figure Stamnos attributed to the Eucharides Painter. A delicately painted representation of an archery contest, about to take place, between Herakles and the sons of King Eurytus. Set in Oechalia, they will battle over Iole, the King’s daughter, whom Herakles has already shot with a “love arrow”.
Wally, now 87, was born in Boston in 1932 to child psychologist Emma Cohen and then-Harvard economist Richard V. Gilbert. Emma and Richard met in their early teens and married on the way to Emma’s first year at Radcliffe College. Thus, the highly intellectual environment where Wally came to thrive was fostered long before he was born. Emma had been raised in an anarchist colony called Stelton, New Jersey, marked not just by a desire to be free of government, but by an emphasis on unique pathways to education independent of mainstream teachings. Before she had her two children, she had pursued a PhD in child psychology, so she took continuing advantage of the opportunity to watch their cognitive abilities develop. Wally’s mother tested their IQ annually, fascinated by watching how rapidly they advanced. Emma initially homeschooled Wally and his sister, teaching them to read voraciously. This profoundly influenced Wally’s interest and ability to learn new material. It wasn’t long before the children revealed a boundless desire to learn. When the Gilbert family relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1939 for Richard’s position in the Roosevelt Administration, the precocious seven-year-old Wally was dismayed to learn that the Washington library refused to let him into the adult section. He felt “helpless and constrained.”
By the age of eight, Wally had met his future wife, Celia Stone. Her father, I. F. Stone, was a celebrated, left-wing intellectual and newspaperman. When the leftist newspapers began to flounder after the war, Celia’s father created “I.F. Stone’s Weekly” which flourished during the Vietnam War. At the height of McCarthyism, the FBI was apparently rifling through the Stone family’s garbage cans, hoping to find something incriminating. But Celia’s father was more than a clear radical force during politically uncertain times. He was also a parent, who encouraged Celia’s love of poetry and fairytales. Decades later, this foundation allowed her to appreciate the objects her husband collected. Her favorite storybook was Bullfinch’s Mythology: The Age of the Fable. “Bullfinch’s mythology was a Victorian compendium of myths,” she explained, “So it was more written for a grown-up than for a child. But my father didn’t recognize such things. If there was something well-known and well-regarded, he would bring it home and we would use that.” When they first met, Celia was struck by Wally’s attention to detail, particularly when it came to his mineral collection. She saw the way he presented his findings and realized he was very unusual—not at all like the other boys.
“ Wally always was a collector,” she later remembered, “ He had everything laid out in little boxes. The mineral specimens rested on top of cotton, and they all had labels. Not in the box, but right adjacent to it.”
Celia was also impressed by the subject matter. While the other children collected marbles, the choice of minerals had deep roots in the earth and its origins. It was a way to find a piece of science and history. “I think there is a basic urge in some people to collect,” Celia said, “And Wally’s always had that. It was a direction in which he always was moving. Because if it was minerals, you could switch onto antiquities.” Once Wally began to acquire objects, Celia recalled her time reading mythology. “I could connect with the embodiments of these tales,” she said, “Because it seemed familiar.”
In Our DNA
Building on childhood pursuits as a reader and mineral collector, Wally Gilbert was encouraged to pursue his interest in science. He moved seamlessly into astronomy, then inorganic chemistry. By 1949, his senior year of high school, Wally skipped classes to teach himself nuclear physics by reading at the Library to Congress. Shortly thereafter, at Harvard for his undergraduate degree, Wally studied both chemistry and theoretical physics. At the University of Cambridge, he took a doctorate in 1957 in the theory of elementary particles and quantum field theory. His ability to cross-pollinate ideas led to some of the world’s most celebrated discoveries. During the summer of 1956 Wally befriended biologist Jim Watson, newly appointed as an assistant professor at Harvard. Over dinner, Jim often complained of boredom, until finally in 1960, he told the Gilberts, “Something very exciting is happening in the laboratory.” Wally was a physicist and an assistant professor at Harvard at the time, but he was immediately on board with Watson’s genetic project—which was the search for messenger RNA, an unstable RNA molecule that carries the information from DNA to the factories in cells (the ribosomes) that make proteins. The existence and behavior of such intermediate was not known at that time. So, he read six papers (the only background on the subject then) and joined the team. Wally explained, “The nice thing about fields at their inception is that you don’t have to read very much. Today, if you want to start off in biology, you probably have a shelf of books to read.” Wally went on to do experiments in molecular biology, although his appointment as a professor at Harvard was in theoretical physics: lecturing and training graduate students. Luckily, he was promoted to tenure in biophysics. His next major work was identifying how a protein, made by a ‘control’ gene, turned off and on a target gene, by isolating that extremely rare protein and showing that it bound to DNA and blocked to target gene. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980 for his later research discovering a rapid way of how to read the order of the chemical groups along the DNA molecule (the ‘bases’- A, T, C, and G). That invention changed the problem from one of great difficulty, working out one group a month in the early 1970s, to one of great ease, working out hundreds, then thousands, of bases in an afternoon. He shared the Nobel award with Fred Sanger, who worked out a similar method simultaneously. DNA sequencing, with many further developments, has gone on to dominate all of modern biology and medicine. Wally was one of the founders of Biogen, in 1978—a new company dedicated to making medically useful human proteins in bacteria. He left Harvard in 1981 to run that company as CEO. He later returned to Harvard in 1985, where he taught until his retirement in 2000. That someone at the forefront of cutting-edge, radical advancement in technology would collect objects from the ancient world is fascinating. Wally differentiated himself from other scientists with his discoveries, undoubtedly, but also in the methodology of how his curiosity led him to new findings.
The Making of Collectors
By the late 1980s, the Gilberts found that their scientific pursuits led to creative ones. Wally’s seasoned career in science was coupled with a love of photography, watercolor, and painting. Celia made breakthroughs in her own artistic practice, working with monotypes, while Wally grew increasingly passionate about archaeology as well: From 1985 to 1995, he read all the Greco-Roman classics in translation, including Homer, Caesar, and Herodotus’s Histories. He greatly enjoyed the high drama of the Sumerian legends, and even learned the first 50 lines of The Iliad in the original Greek. The deeper he went into his scholastic odyssey, the art objects of the periods he was discovering soon found their way to him as well. Celia’s father had also encouraged a strong foundation in poetry, and memorized English, Latin and Greek verse. He often told her, “To be a poet is the greatest thing in the world,” and she took the phrase to heart, publishing a number of books of poetry and one of short stories. “My interest in mythology has certainly been nourished by the things Wally bought,” she reflected. “I don’t think I’d appreciate it as much if I hadn’t grown up with it.” Her most recent book, Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down (2016), opens with a semi-autobiographical story about a woman whose husband began buying ancient art pieces.
“ My husband and I collect antiquities…” she wrote. “ They entered our lives, refugees from the midden heap of history, to be sheltered and cherished and when we die to be handed on to others.”
The collecting of antiquities began through a suggestion from a business partner, “why don’t we go to New York with our wives for a week of theater and visit the antiquities auction?” The fascination was instantaneous. Wally explained:
“The new and the old are very different impulses. The new involves the creative impulse and the search for novelty. But the old involves knowledge and feeling about history. Most scientists live entirely in the current moment, as opposed to having an interest in how the fields emerged. But I find old chemistry has that same historical feeling.” “ Someone valued these objects in the ancient world. They were made with an aesthetic impulse to create beauty in their daily lives.”
Wally’s entrepreneurial and probing drive opened up the world of antiquities dealers to him. He soon immersed himself in that bustle of a thriving antiquities market, using a shrewd eye to collect top-quality works with energy and discrimination. “Wally always had an eye for what was first-class,” Celia explained, “For what was…you could say, what was worthy. What was exciting about a piece. It could have been a collection it came from, or the age, or the beauty of the work, but he has a connoisseur’s eye for what is beautiful.” “When you handle the objects, your relationship becomes different,” he said. “The museum-goer sees objects as frozen in a case, but the collector actually feels the object as a truly human product.” He knew the material composition, the artistic technique, and the legends that inspired the hundreds of works he amassed and kept at his home in Cambridge. He felt a sense of tactility, and deep affinity, by living among the objects. But around 2004, Wally began to switch his focus to creating his own art.
Art of the Future
“One of the great dangers in life is thinking we must do what we’ve been trained to do,” Wally said. His flexibility as a seeker of knowledge has rendered him entirely adaptable. He transitioned from a scientific field from research to business and then moved through classical literature to go on to create one of the great American collections of ancient Mediterranean art. In his seventies, Wally was reborn yet again, this time as a seeker of beauty through his own hands. His senses of tactility and discovery were amplified in the creative process of an artist. “I find that there’s an overlap between art-making and creating new knowledge,” he clarified. “Making your own art is about the impulse to create, which also drives us in science.” With this in mind, Wally followed his wife into artmaking. He started as a photographer, zeroing in on the minutia of the mechanics that defined his word. A golden doorknob, a nick on a sidewalk—nothing was too small to catch his attention. Then he began working more geometrically, with pieces such as the “Squares and Triangles” digitally inspired in patterns and scintillations. The vivid palette was reflective of a lifetime of exposure to scientific advancement, rather than the golden and subdued hues of the more lifelike and zoomorphic antiquities he had amassed. The optical delight, however, and the determination to find a rhythm in the color and pattern, came from the sample passion as his collecting. Over the last 15 years, Wally’s artwork has been exhibited internationally, with numerous solo shows and installations from New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, and California to the United Kingdom, Poland, Germany, and South Korea. His boundless passion for newfound knowledge is matched only by a reverence for the ancient world. As a scientist, an artist, and a collector, the bridge between all categories is a desire to cultivate and expound on the beautiful unknown. Ancient or contemporary, his single-minded genius in delighting and decoding has revealed many secrets of the universe. This collection serves to do the same.