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Gilbert Hargrove

1870-1940

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Gilbert Gabriel Hargrove was born on January 18, 1870 to Mortimer and Geneva Hargrove. They moved to New York City when Gilbert was an infant. Gilbert's two younger sisters, Wilhelmina and Theodora, were born in 1872 and 1874, respectively.

Gilbert was a good student, but mischievous, soon earning a reputation among his peers as a boy who would dare to do anything for a penny. After several broken bones, his parents started keeping a much tighter leash on their young daredevil.
Often visiting his father at his workplace, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilbert became entranced by objects from faraway places, later noting, "Each object seemed to quiver, begging to tell the stories of their lives." As he grew older, his adventurous nature turned to restlessness, and he longed to explore the world.
At the age of sixteen, Gilbert left home. By early 1888 he had made his way to Kansas City and found a job writing obituaries at the Kansas City Times. He had an amazing eye for detail, and was often commended for accuracy, so it wasn't long before he was promoted to beat reporter.

Working at a newspaper exposed him to stories of events, places, and people that fueled his desire to travel. When the story broke, in December of 1890, that Sitting Bull had been killed during an arrest, Gilbert was able to convince his editor to let him be the one to cover the story.

Early in the cold, difficult journey northwest, Gilbert wrote that "…looking out over this vast, hard, empty land, I covet a warm, soft bed more desperately than any coin or tale." Over the next few months, however, as he began to immerse himself in the culture and speak to witnesses of Sitting Bull's death and the Wounded Knee Massacre, he began to sympathize with the plight of the native peoples. This changed attitude was reflected in the series of columns he sent back to the newspaper about his journey. In March of 1891, he wrote of the Lakota, "As for the people, they are of extraordinary strength, beauty, and wisdom. Savages they most definitely are not. Unlike the European encroachers, they take nothing in this world for granted. Everyday objects are imbued with spirit and character. Their lives are art."

After covering Sitting Bull's death, Gilbert gave up his job with the Kansas City Times and made his home out west, working briefly for the Rocky Mountain News before getting caught up in the gold rush at Cripple Creek. He lived a rugged life panning for gold and then mining silver, until silver prices went bust in 1893.

Eager to seek new adventures, Gilbert wandered the west. Quarter and company was easy to find, as Hargrove befriended Native Americans of various tribes with his knack for languages and admiration of culture. There is little historical information about Gilbert's years out west, except his own exaggerated accounts of staring down danger on a daily basis. Gilbert's West was full of deadly rattlesnakes, attacking bears, life-threatening snowstorms, skirmishes with warring Indians, run-ins with bandits, and far too many other harrowing adventures to be believed. However, he did provide a good account of Native American customs, and spoke at least five different tribal languages.

As he learned more about the conditions under which the American government was forcing native people to live, Hargrove became enamored of Native Americans and their culture, and grew more concerned about their fate. His deepening attachment resulted in collecting objects created by various Native American nations. As when he was a child, and felt connected to the objects in the museum, Hargrove found a bond with the people to whom objects belonged. He began trading whatever he had on hand—candy, jewelry, photos, paper and pens—for Native American creations.

In 1897, at the age of 27, Hargrove found himself in San Francisco, the grizzled wanderer ready to tap back into civilization. As he had done with the Native Americans, he befriended the Chinese community in Chinatown, quickly picking up their language and customs.

James H. Woodall owned an import shop in Chinatown that Gilbert frequented, and had a daughter named Nancy Jane. Her visits to her father's office often coincided with Gilbert's. The two became smitten with each other, and they were soon married.

When Gilbert learned that a trade ship was heading to Shanghai in 1899, he and his new wife saw an opportunity to visit China. He was able to get a job on board, largely due to his ability to converse with the Chinese. The fact that the Boxer Rebellion had recently started only added to his excitement.

They traveled between California and China repeatedly until Nancy Jane became pregnant, after which she remained in Alameda as Gilbert continued traveling. He arranged to be home when Nancy Jane's pregnancy neared term, and on March 13, 1905, she gave birth to twin boys, Benjamin Gilbert and Patrick Gabriel.
Gilbert was out of the country, and Nancy Jane and the year-old twins were fortunately out of town visiting Nancy Jane's mother, when the San Francisco Earthquake hit on April 18, 1906. The boys stayed with their maternal grandmother as Nancy Jane returned to Alameda to retrieve what she could and find new housing for her family. They eventually resettled in Oakland.

Gilbert's passion for the culture resulted in his allegiance to the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion. That an American would do such a thing was considered scandalous, and Germany and England thought of him as an enemy. However, the Chinese government noted his aid, and he became an unofficial American diplomat during the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which ended imperial rule in China.
Following the revolution, with his well-established relationship with the Chinese, he began collecting Chinese art and cultural artifacts as a means to protect China's history from the new republic. As an English-speaking authority on China's culture, he was an ambassador to early collectors and archeologists, such as Johan Gunnar Andersson. In fact, Gilbert was on Andersson's excavation site when Peking Man's teeth were first found.

Gilbert Hargrove in Mongolia

Gilbert Hargrove camping in Mongolia during Johan Gunnar Andersson's famous archeological expedition.

During this time, Gilbert authored several popular books about his travels, but as they were geared toward young readers, they were magnificently embellished with perils, romance, and exotic escapades. The books were actually written by newspaper reporter Ed Spivey, who never ventured far from his assigned base in Shanghai. Spivey was a close friend of Gilbert's and spent many nights listening to him drunkenly boast of his accomplishments. Only the book Treasures of the Orient, although a fictional story fraught with melodrama, imparts much of Gilbert's actual knowledge of Chinese antiquities and culture.

The stories of his many adventures in China were later adapted into movie serials and Gilbert is regarded as the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. He was even known to carry a whip.

One of the adventures that made Gilbert known throughout the world was when he announced in 1919 he would make the first flight over the Himalayas, taking off from Tibet and landing again in India. The stunt garnered headlines around the world and he departed China with much ballyhoo, but never arrived in India. He was presumed dead, until he was discovered a year later working in a remote village. Unable to withstand the high altitude, Gilbert was forced to land on the plateau and nearly starved until he was rescued by nomadic traders. While he was missing, Albert Cushing Reed made the first trans-Atlantic flight. A flight wouldn't be made over the Himalayas until 1933.

Upon his return to Shanghai, Gilbert initiated trade with his contacts back in San Francisco, and Nancy Jane acted as liaison with increasing frequency. She quickly became very knowledgeable regarding the conservation of artifacts, and established important contacts in the art world.

Trade began in earnest when he learned from his son, Benjamin, that the soon-to-be-built Nelson Gallery in Kansas City intended to build the first major gallery in America devoted solely to Chinese art. Gilbert was in the perfect position to help the Nelson in this endeavor, and aided liaison Laurence Sickman in the hunt for precious works of art.

Gilbert traveled to Kansas City for the opening of the Nelson Gallery in 1933. Now 63 years old, Gilbert was not well enough to return to China, but continued as an art dealer in San Francisco.

Gilbert and Nancy Jane soon relocated to Kansas City to oversee the collection that they helped bring to the Nelson. Gilbert was tragically killed in a streetcar accident in the fall of 1940. After her husband's death, Nancy Jane was often found wandering the gallery her husband helped create. Her body was found, slumped on the Gallery's south steps, in 1948. Her obituary claimed that "heartbreak finally claimed its victim."

 

Gilbert Hargrove

Photo of Gilbert Hargrove in Shanghai taken sometime between 1908 and 1912

Parents

Mortimer Hargrove (1840-1898)
Janitor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Geneva Johnston (1851-1914)
Worked as a seamstress in New York City.

Siblings

Ola Mae Hargrove (1864)
Died at birth.

Gideon Hargrove (1866-1868)
Died at the age of two from smallpox.

Wilhelmina Hargrove (1872-1890)
Eloped with a iron worker at the age of 15 and moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where she died in the Johnstown flood.

Theodora Hargrove (1874-1932)
Worked as a milliner for Caroline Reboux and joined the women's sufferage movement.

Spouse

Nancy Jane Woodall (1876-1948)
Managed Gilbert's import business in San Francisco and taught her sons the art trade.

Children

Patrick Hargrove (1905-1947)
Art forger who made headlines in the 1930s after his twin brother revealed he was a fraud. He died from alcoholism.

Benjamin Hargrove (1905-1983)
Professional art authenticator who pioneered efforts at art preservation and restoration in post-war America.

This website is a companion to the "The Hargrove Family History" exhibit by Tara Varney and Bryan Colley at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which runs from December 2012 to March 2013. You can find out more about the artists at www.jupiterkansas.com.