The Collections of John Quinn

John Quinn was born to baker and grocer, James W. Quinn, and Mary Quinlaw Quinn, a second generation Irish-American family, in Ohio in 1870. He rose to become a successful corporate lawyer New York.

Quinn became an active supporter of the Irish nationalist cause and associated with some of its main figures, but he also worked for British Intelligence services before, during and after the First World War.

It has been suggested that he acted as case officer to occultist Aleister Crowley in his role of British spy in America during WWI. Crowley was ostensibly pro-German and in favour of Irish independence with the intention of infiltrating groups dangerous to the war effort for the British. Crowley's espionage work remains unproven.

Regardless, Quinn is best remembered as a literary patron and collector of art and literature. He favoured the new forms of European art and was keen to bring them to America.

In 1913 he convinced the United States Congress to overturn the 1909 Tariff Law. The law restricted the collecting of modern European art by insisting on collecting 15% import duty on art less than twenty years old, a serious burden for living artists. Quinn regarded this as one of his greatest achievements.

1913 was the year of an Exhibition now nicknamed The Armory Show after its location which is regarded as a major turning point in American art as large numbers of New Yorker were introduced to a wide range of modern European artists and styles, to general astonishment.

Armory Show International Exhibition of Modern Art

The International Exhibition of Modern Art, as it was properly named, centred on Symbolism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. Quinn opened the exhibition on behalf of the Association for American Painters and Sculptors. His speech concluded:

"The members of the Association felt that it was time the American people had an opportunity to see and judge for themselves concerning the work of the Europeans who are creating a new art.

"Now that the exhibition is a fact, we can say with pride that it is the most complete art exhibit that has been held in the world during the last quarter century."

Quinn had an art collection of his own (including a large number of Nathaniel Hone paintings - though these are not in a modern style). But his strongest collection was of manuscripts, due to his close relationship with some of the greatest literary figures of the age.

Quinn met W B Yeats in 1902 and was a great supporter of his, as well as a collector of his works, whilst his brother, the artist J B Yeats considered him to be a genius. Ezra Pound also formed a close association with Quinn, and wrote a total of 230 letters to him - though the relationship was not always congenial.

Indeed, one of the first known letters has Pound complaining about Quinn 'wasting' money on collecting manuscripts from the 'dated' William Morris. But Quinn was certainly involved in more modern works like Pound's.

For example copy of a book by Pound, Lustra ... with Earlier Poems, intended for private circulation was sold in 2004 at Christie's and this contains notes for the reader from Quinn explaining the differences between the different versions.

Quinn was also amongst the first to recognise Joseph Conrad's gifts, and collected his manuscripts whilst Conrad was struggling, way ahead of his popular success. Conrad's career might have been very short without this support.

Likewise, he was a friend of both James Joyce and T S Eliot and later their legal representative.

It is perhaps his association with Joyce which produced Quinn's most exciting and valuable of his collection for manuscript collectors: a very early draft of a section of Ulysses.

Circe draft of Ulysses by James Joyce

The 'Circe' chapter of Ulysses, with a great mass of handwritten cancellations and corrections from Joyce showing how the text changed as he wrote it, was put up for sale at Christie's by a relative of Quinn in December 2000.

The text, which had rested in a blue Moroccan-leather slipcase for close to 80 years, smashed its estimate of $1m, selling for $1.5m to bidder Edward Maggs, who placed it in the National Library of Ireland. Maggs considered it 'a bargain'.

Many of Quinn's other documents, including his great correspondence with writers such as Pound have found their resting place in a collection of their own: the John Quinn Archive of the New York Public library.


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