FRAME|WORK: Mantelpiece for Thurlow Lodge by the Herter Brothers

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature an extraordinary piece of American decorative art, the Mantelpiece for Thurlow Lodge, currently installed in Gallery 23 at the de Young.

Gustave Herter (American, 1830–1898) and Christian Herter (American, 1839–1883). Mantlepiece for Thurlow Lodge, Menlo Park, California, ca. 1872–1873. Wood, marble, antlers, and clock. Gift of James George and Penny Coulter. 2001.33a-i

This hand-carved mantelpiece is from Thurlow Lodge, the no-longer-extant Menlo Park mansion of former California governor and United States senator Milton Slocum Latham (1827–1882) and his second wife, Mary McMullin. Mr. and Mrs. Latham commissioned the interior design for their home from the New York City firm of Herter Brothers, whose San Francisco outlet catered to prominent patrons such as Mark Hopkins, James Flood, Darius Ogden Mills, and John D. Spreckels.

Latham's tenure as governor was in keeping with the office's troubled history in California: he only held the title of governor for five days (January 9–14, 1860), the shortest governorship on record! He swiftly left the office when he was elected by the state legislature to replace senator David C. Broderick after the latter's untimely death in a duel. In his inaugural address, Latham promised to tackle the issue of the state's increasing debt by limiting legislative expenditures, supporting state-sponsored building projects (including the completion of the new state capitol building), and avoiding tax increases. Needless to say, he was unable to carry out any of these "campaign promises."

After his political career concluded, Latham settled down as the San Francisco chief of the London and San Francisco Bank, Ltd. The Lathams’ choice of the prestigious Herter Brothers firm to decorate their home reflected the desire of well-to-do Californians to import sophisticated art objects from cosmopolitan cultural centers like New York or Paris, where this mantelpiece was carved. Historically associated with European royalty and aristocracy, the hunting theme was popular with Gilded Age businessmen, who were often described as the modern equivalents of medieval barons.

The principal motif of the mantelpiece, which was the focal point of Thurlow Lodge's dining room, is a pair of male and female dogs carved fully in the round that flank the fireplace. These dogs have been much beloved residents here at the de Young, and this year they were even memorialized in flowers during Bouquets to Art! Dogs were a favorite theme of the Lathams, and in 1916 Mrs. Latham donated to the de Young another artwork in which dogs featured prominently. Charles Christian Nahl's Sacramento Indian portrays a well-dressed man attended by two dogs. It is impossible to know whether these are the same dogs from the mantelpiece, but they were certainly near and dear to the Lathams' heart; if you look closely, you can see the name Latham delicately painted on each dog's collar!


Charles Christian Nahl (American, 1818–1878). Sacramento Indian, 1867. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Milton S. Latham. 41988.
On view in Gallery 20.

Unfortunately, only service dogs are allowed in the museum, but these hand-crafted canines will surely befriend you on your next visit to the de Young!