A Trip Around the World with Irene Leache and Annie Wood
–Mark Lewis, Museum Conservator
Irene Leache and Anna “Annie” Cogswell Wood were trailblazers of the nineteenth century. The friends came to Norfolk at a Presbyterian minister’s request and aimed to fill a cultural vacuum left by the Civil War. Together, they established Leache-Wood Seminary, an all-girls school for the most prominent families in Norfolk. They also hosted The Fireside Club where men and women discussed literature, philosophy, religion, and art. Leache’s passion for the arts and Wood’s drive to turn Norfolk into a cultural arts center eventually led to the creation of the city’s first museum, the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences. Later, the institution was renamed the Chrysler Museum of Art to recognize Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.’s transformative gift of art to the city.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Chrysler’s gift this year, we also have the privilege of looking back on the lives of Leache and Wood. With the help of the Irene Leache Memorial Foundation, we have restored a nineteenth-century photo album that holds more than 100 professionally produced albumen prints collected and assembled by Leache and Wood during their travels in the late 1890s. The rare artifact contains remarkable images of people from around the globe and a wide variety of cultures. These women were intrepid travelers seeking far-flung and remote places throughout Europe, Russia, and the Middle East—from Lapland to Cairo. Remarkably, they ventured unescorted throughout their travels and collected images of Whirling Dervishes in Turkey, camel riders in front of the pyramids, and worshipers in Jerusalem.
Assembled with personally annotated descriptions on each page, this souvenir album documents their adventurous travels over a decade. Although the images are in fairly good condition for their age, they were mounted into a photo album whose pages were made of acidic wood pulp paper. The degradation of these pages made it impossible to save the album in its current format. Acids in the paper were also attacking the photographic images themselves. The adhesive, which was used to mount the images onto each page, became brittle with age and caused damage to the photographs.
We entrusted the highly skilled photograph conservators, Nancy Heugh and Tom Edmondson, to help us preserve these valuable images that depict a world that no longer exists. Between them, they have over sixty years of experience treating all manner of photographs. They carefully detached each photographic image from the acidic paper and then washed the fragile albumen prints to remove the adhesive, stains, and acid residues. We retained the original photo album pages complete with their handwritten captions, which were previously captured in high resolution by Ed Pollard, the Chrysler Museum’s photographer (shown above).
After washing them, these thin, delicate, albumen prints were then reinforced with Japanese tissue paper. After they were conserved, they were mounted onto archival paper. We have collected these new pages together to maintain the integrity of this album in a way that will allow us to preserve this valuable collection of photographs and introduce our visitors to a world and people long ago vanished but saved for posterity by the efforts of two remarkable women.
Wood and Leache’s friendship spanned more than three decades. Following Leache’s death, Wood honored her friend’s memory and lifelong devotion to the arts with the Irene Leache Library. Established in 1901, the group presented lectures and concerts; offered musical instruction; and emphasized fine arts, literature, and the study of mystic science. They also nurtured a growing art collection for a future museum in Norfolk. When Wood left Norfolk and returned to Florence, she sent artworks back to Norfolk and called upon seminary alumnae to work toward creating a museum. Their efforts inspired generations of women in the region. In addition, the group conducted the annual Irene Leache Memorial Literary Contest for eighty years, the biennial Irene Leache Memorial Art Exhibit for thirty-four years, and the Irene Leache Memorial Lecture Series for sixty-two years.
Today, Leache and Wood’s influence continues to impact the community. Since 2001, the Irene Leache Memorial has awarded grants totaling more than $130,000 to thirty-eight visual, performing, and literary arts organizations across Southeastern Virginia. In 2014, the Irene Leache Memorial Foundation donated its entire collection of European Old Master paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and decorative arts to the Chrysler Museum of Art. Another substantial bequest accompanied the gift—an endowed curatorship. The Foundation created the Irene Leache Curator of European Art. The named curatorship memorializes and perpetuates the symbiotic 80-year history between the Irene Leache Memorial and the Museum, giving both a more active and ongoing influence in the future of the arts in Hampton Roads.
Read more about the Irene Leache Memorial Foundation’s 2014 gift to the Museum here.