Leonard Andrews Unveils 240 of Andrew Wyeth's Best-Kept Secrets: the Helga Paintings
08/25/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
For three days Leonard Andrews has been weathering a frenzied invasion of reporters and photographers at his 18th-century farmhouse west of Philadelphia. Most have descended from New York, but others are streaking in from Washington, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. To get there they bump down back-country roads, past stone barns and clapboard houses into vintage Andrew Wyeth country, a mere 20 minutes from the artist's home in Chadds Ford; other landings are taking place there and at the Wyeths' summerhouse on Southern Island, Maine. Andrews, the owner of a company that publishes litigation journals giving lawyers information on such topics as asbestos and hazardous waste, settles into a wicker chair on his porch, a glass of white wine in one hand and a portable telephone in the other. "Come on over," he directs yet another lost reporter who is calling from a nearby tavern.
The media onslaught leaves Andrews, 61, chortling over what he delicately refers to as the "lack of alertness" of the press. Days before, Art & Antiques magazine announced with great fanfare that Andrews had bought 240 previously unknown works by the reclusive Wyeth, who normally sells two or three temperas a year. For 15 years, from 1970 to 1985, the artist in utter secrecy had executed sketches, drybrushes, watercolors and temperas of a flaxen-haired, blue-eyed neighbor identified only as "Helga." Wyeth had kept the works hidden at a neighbor's farm and had not even told his wife, Betsy, about them. "This is classic Wyeth behavior," says a good friend. "He loves secrets." When the news finally got out, Betsy, the artist's shrewd business manager, had heightened the feverish speculation about her husband and Helga by commenting that the works were about "love." With that, the hunt for clues was on.
Ironically, the existence of the paintings was a secret the courtly but folksy Andrews had tried hard to share. "I bought the collection last April," Andrews says in a Texas drawl. "Several days later I sent out a 450-word press release to every newspaper and magazine in the country. The only one that picked up the story was our local paper, the Delaware County Daily Times."
Now, unfazed by the belated attention, Andrews is exuberant as he shows visitors transparencies of the collection he bought for "multi-millions" and has stored in a vault at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford. He leafs excitedly through a series of preparatory sketches for a beautiful watercolor called Overflow. In it Helga is nude, asleep on her side. Outside the window a stream ruptures its bank. "I can hardly handle it, it's so exciting," Andrews exclaims of the progression. "Wait till the public sees these. They show Andy's whole thinking process. You can see every turn and change of mind."
That is just what the public, on a different level, is after and is not getting. Wyeth, 69, smiling but firm, says that the works should speak for themselves. His model, unearthed as Helga Testorf, 50ish, wife, mother and cleaning person, has been secreted in her Chadds Ford home. Meanwhile, the collection has been booked into the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. in May 1987. Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum and now editor of Connoisseur magazine, believes the exposure will cement Wyeth's place in art history. "To my knowledge nobody has portrayed the same woman for such a long time with such intense observations and emotional involvement," he says. "It's a poke in the eye with a very large, sharp stick for the kindergarten critics who have dismissed him."
Andrews, an unassuming and virtually unknown collector, seems an unlikely figure to have pulled off the biggest art coup in decades. "I can't say I'm a really close friend of Andy's and Betsy's or that I ever will be," he says. "I'm a collector and he's an artist and I take his stuff."
Born in Nacogdoches, Texas, the only son of an insurance executive and his artist wife, Andrews moved north in 1959 to work as a credit card company executive in New York. When the city's newspapers went on strike in 1963 he started the short-lived New York Standard. "We made good money too," he says. In a strange twist, it was a soured romance that led him to Wyeth's most poetic visions of love. Married for the second time, Andrews returned from a business trip one day in 1981 to find that his wife had left him, cleaning out the entire farmhouse in the process. "She took all the furniture, the light bulbs, even the whiskey. The only thing she left me was my cat." Incredibly it was a virtual replay. "I've been cleaned out twice," he says. "My first wife left the same way. Same house too. Only she left me a bed."
Suddenly a furnitureless bachelor, Andrews was introduced to a local interior decorator named Kathleen Jamieson, who knew the Wyeths. "I walked into Leonard's empty house and said, 'I have clients who need help, but you really need help,' " Jamieson remembers. "I told him, 'Find a girlfriend, go to Europe for a few months and I'll start putting the house together.' " She started buying antiques and, after he got back, suggested he buy a Wyeth. "I was delighted," recalls Andrews. "I knew his work and had read about him. I had even bought my mother a book about him."
Over the next several years Andrews bought five Wyeths (the temperas sell for $500,000 to $1.2 million). Then last summer he and Jamieson went up to Maine to see a painting called Turtleneck. "Leonard bought it in 10 minutes," Jamieson says. "That's when Andy, Betsy and I realized that we had a serious collector on our hands. I told the Wyeths that if any collections of his work came up, to please keep us in mind. Andy just laughed."
Andrews was let in on the joke when Jamieson got a call from Betsy last March. "She didn't say much," reports Jamieson. "Only that there was a large group and it was of one model." The decorator believes that Betsy was unprepared for the scope and size of what she had finally seen in 1985. "She was very upset," says Jamieson. "She wanted the collection kept together, but she wanted it sold."
Andrews and Jamieson drove to Chadds Ford the morning of March 15. "All the paintings were in a large room in the mill, one of the houses on his property," says Andrews. "I walked in by myself. They were hung on the walls, leaning against other walls, sitting in piles in no particular order. I was awestruck. I spent two hours in there." Jamieson went in afterward. "I was getting a splitting headache. Leonard wasn't talking, I wasn't talking. All I kept thinking was, 'I can't imagine what the price is.' " But Andrews, in his quiet way, had decided on the spot to buy the entire collection. "I congratulated Andy," he says. "I told him in my opinion it was a national treasure and should be preserved as such. He didn't say much, but then I don't think he ever does. We signed the papers on April 1. I think Andy and Betsy liked the fact that I wanted to keep the collection together." Adds Jamieson, "The Wyeths are into unknown people. They like to encourage them."
Andrews was awarded copyrights to the works—Wyeth had never before done that—but denies that he plans to mass market Helgas. "I'm not going to put them on T-shirts and matchbooks," he says. "I want to protect the collection's integrity. I'm divorced, I don't have children and I don't owe anybody anything. I've started a foundation and I want to open art up to the American public."
At first, after his failed press release, Andrews was stymied about how to reach the public. "I went up to New York and showed them to Paul Gottlieb at Harry Abrams publishers," he says. "He flipped out and said I should show them to Carter Brown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Well, I'd never met Carter Brown in my life, and I really didn't know anybody in the art world. So Paul called Carter and said, 'I've got a guy here who has 240 Wyeths of one model.' They didn't believe him, so I took the transparencies and some of the originals down there. They looked at them for nearly two hours and asked to show them."
It is late afternoon, and the last reporters and photographers have departed, still wondering about Helga. Andrews retreats to his dining room table and once again pores over image after image. "Look at that face!" he exclaims, studying a drawing marked "the first sketch." "She has an extraordinary face, such strength and character. That face would really excite an artist." Suddenly Andrews looks up, surprised at a question, and then he gives a startling answer. "You know," he says, "I never even thought to ask Andy who Helga is. The pictures speak for themselves." But he adds, "Gosh, I'd hope she would be very proud."