Geoffrey Tyler: the collection in his own words
I came to know Corneliu Petrescu purely by chance, having bought one of his paintings from a gallery selling works of graphic artists. Early in his career he was a member of the branch of the Artists’ Union specialising in graphic work and he still had connections with this particular gallery. I arranged to meet him and we in fact did so in Washington D.C. in 1974. Subsequently I had the fortune to become a close friend of Corneliu and his wife, Mariana.
For about a decade I was in Romania frequently and the Petrescus were in Washington in 1976 and 1978, during which visits we spent considerable time together in a number of cities and on visits to the west of America and to Florida. Since 1975, we have remained in close touch by frequent letters.
These contacts would have been nothing for this friendship were it not that Corneliu shared with me both his love of art in general and his own works in particular. I have works from throughout his career, in all his styles, from his relatively rare large canvases, to the smallest of drawings. In his studio, I have viewed many hundreds of his works. Corneliu is generous and unselfish with his own art and he has been equally generous sharing his artist friends in Romania with me. We spent hundreds of hours together over the years in museums wherever we have been together – be they in New York or isolated Romanian monasteries. For all these things, for all this friendship, I shall always be grateful, but most of all for the friendship he and his wife have shared with my wife and me.
I hope that the analysis has not been unduly limited by those works in my own collection. Obviously, I could see these before me as I wrote. However, my memories of works seen elsewhere are good and Corneliu himself has tried to ensure that my collection is a fully rounded one. I am sure that a reader with his own Petrescus will feel that these could well, if not better, have served as examples, but I do not think the overall picture would change.
Early in 1966, I moved from the Commonwealth Department of the Treasury in Canberra, to become a member of the staff of the International Monetary Fund. I worked for the remainder of my career in the Fund in the European Department. My work was basically macro-economic analysis of the economies of the countries that were my responsibility, made after discussions in the countries with top economic officials and politicians, reporting on the discussions to the management of the Fund, negotiating loans and the conditions for them if the countries wished to borrow money from the Fund, and generally to be the liaison between the countries and the Fund management and Board of Directors.
Generally speaking, when visiting a country, talks would be principally with officials and a limited number of private sector economic entities. One lived in hotels, worked privately in one’s room and met with officials in government offices, mostly of either the Central Bank or the Ministry of Finance. Apart from official functions, one spent one’s time with the other members of the Fund team. Of the various countries in which I worked, all were by lucky chance friendly and hospitable, and occasionally one would be asked to the private house of officials. However, by and large one’s life was quite circumscribed and it would be rare to have many contacts with the countries’ residents other than in the official sphere.
One of the countries that I became responsible for was the former Yugoslavia, then ruled by President Tito. It was a communist country but outside the Iron Curtain separating all communist countries from the West. Here the division between Fund missions and the non-official population was rather stronger. Individual officers could become to some extent personal friends but this was not so common. However, residents of Yugoslavia could travel and work abroad freely, and to work in Yugoslavia was not too different from working in, say, Italy, Greece, or Israel.
Naturally, one gradually came to know much about the capital city of each country, especially if one was willing to spend time walking around, visiting stores, museums and the like. Many Fund mission staff liked to eat in the hotel at which they stayed, which was high quality by international standards and where one would hardly know if one was in Athens or Paris. For myself, I preferred much of the time to frequent local restaurants used by the local people and serving local rather than international food.
Personally, always having some interest in acquiring art, I visited commercial art galleries to see what the country’s artists were like and occasionally found paintings to my taste. Also, in some countries particular things were of high quality at good prices. Turkey was the first country that I visited with any frequency and oriental rugs were in wide range and by American standards very cheap as long as one could bargain in the local fashion. From Turkey I started to collect, for household use, beautiful carpets.
As mentioned above, the authorities in the countries with which I was mainly concerned, were very hospitable. On weekends they would take the mission to parts of the country outside the capital. Partly it was to be hospitable, but it was also partly because they were proud of their land and wanted the Fund staff to get to know it. From the staff’s point of view, it gave a better feel for and understanding of the country, its economy and the way people lived. However, these were trips lead by officials, who made all the arrangements, and they inevitably lacked some of the immediacy of privately arranged trips. But I would be remiss if I did not say that especially over a period of time they offered the chance to gain a wide knowledge of the countries, their histories and their peoples, to an extent that is difficult for the ordinary tourist making a visit to the country.
My relations with the Petrescus - My first contact with Romanian art in general and with Corneliu Petrescu in particular, was completely indirect. I saw a painting I liked in a Bucharest gallery, Fondul Plastic, in the summer of 1973. It was on the first regular mission by the IMF after the country became a member and I was with a colleague, Alison Mitchell, a personal friend of me and my wife, walking along the main street in Bucharest near the Intercontinental Hotel. I saw an art gallery, the State-owned Fondul Plastic run by the official Artists’ Union and in the window a painting that I liked. Inside, we each bought a painting by Petrescu, the only two in stock. It was not usual for Petrescu to have paintings on consignment at the gallery, since he sold most of his work either in exhibitions or privately from his studio.
In mid-1974, I was again in Bucharest, and for the first time I was Head of Mission. On that basis the Romanian Embassy in Washington had asked me if there was anything they could do for me while I was in Bucharest, and I casually mentioned that I would like to meet the artist Petrescu. However, on arrival, I was told he was in fact in the US, where he was to have an exhibition in the Romanian Library in New York. His wife told the authorities that she could not show me his studio or any of his works. However, I was able to buy another Petrescu at Fondul Plastic.
Back in Washington, Mrs Mitchell was enterprising and was able to get in touch with Petrescu through the Romanian Embassy and he agreed to meet us at the Embassy in Washington on July 4. We met and returned with him to my house. My wife, Maria, and I were invited that evening to an outdoor barbeque in Arlington and with some difficulty I persuaded our host to allow us to bring Petrescu and Mrs Mitchell. The evening, including a fireworks display at the nearby Arlington Country Club, was a great success and Petrescu was extremely popular with the guests. The date, Independence Day in the US, made it easy to remember my first encounter with Petrescu. By the end of the day, both my wife and I felt that he was a very fine new friend.
In the years immediately before I first met Petrescu, I had been heavily involved in missions to Turkey, Israel, Greece and Yugoslavia, between five and ten trips each year, mostly concerned with lending money to these countries and supervising its use. It was not until mid-1975, when I led a mission to Romania that I had the opportunity to know Petrescu better and to meet his wife, Mariana. During the three weeks of the mission I spent most of my free time with them, bought a number of his paintings, helped them buy items that could be bought in Romania only by those with foreign exchange, which could not be normally held by residents. By the end of that three-week visit, we had become close friends.
Over the years 1976 to 1982, I was in Romania on IMF missions some 30 times, for periods of mostly one to three weeks and during that time my friendship with the Petrescus was cemented. Moreover, in 1976 I was able to arrange that both Petrescus be given visas to allow them to travel together outside the Soviet bloc; previously, when Petrescu travelled to exhibitions in the West, Mariana had to stay in Romania. In 1976, my wife and I invited them to come as our guests to the US and they were here for three months. I took the two of them on a long trip to the southwest of the US, flying to Denver and then travelling by car through New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California to Los Angeles (where Petrescu had Romanian medical colleagues) and then to San Francisco. It was on this trip that Petrescu began to draw, and later paint, American landscapes, which he did until his death. I also arranged a second, larger exhibition of his work at the IMF. My wife and I accompanied them on trips to New York and New England, where we met his cousin, a doctor working in New Haven. In 1978, the Petrescus visited my wife and me again, when he had exhibitions in Philadelphia and New York. On that occasion I took them again to the southwest and also to Florida, visiting the major sights there, including the Keys and the Everglades. On two occasions I met them, once in Holland and once in Paris. Together we visited many major museums in the US and Europe. I was able to keep Petrescu provided with art supplies, for example gold leaf, that were unavailable in Romania. It was during this period that he introduced us to many of Romania’s major artists and helped me obtain their paintings. For all of us, it was a period of developing personal and artistic relations. I was accepted into the families of Corneliu and Mariana and gradually we became more like brothers and sister than just as close friends.
At the end of 1982, my work moved me to Turkey and I had no chance to see the Petrescus until 1987. However I remained in close touch with them by frequent letters and they sent me quite a number of small paintings with their letters. These together with similar paintings sent with letters when I was travelling to Romania were the beginnings of the large collection of ‘Small Petrescus’ which form an important part of the Tyler Collection.
My five-year period concentrating on Turkey and its problems came to a successful conclusion in mid-1987. By chance, because of illness of a friend who had taken over my Romanian work from me, I again went to Bucharest twice in the second half of the year and was able to see both my friends there and obtain more paintings.
At the end of 1987, my wife and I decided to take early retirement from the IMF, she at end of 1987 and I early in 1988. After we retired the Petrescus stayed once more in our house in 1991 for a relatively short visit. Then in 1993, Petrescu had to have open heart surgery to replace his aorta valve. His cousin, the doctor in New Haven, with close connections with the Yale Medical Centre, was able to arrange for his treatment there. My wife and I visited the Petrescus in New Haven during his convalescence. I did not see him again.
During the rest of his life he remained, apart from short European vacations, in Romania. I conducted an extensive and continuous correspondence with him and bought a number of his regular paintings, which were mailed to Washington. In addition, I sent on a regular basis cash birthday and Christmas presents to the Petrescus to augment their pensions and Corneliu’s sales profits. For their part, in their letters they regularly sent me small paintings illustrating the kind of work Petrescu was doing over the years. Through letters and paintings and occasional telephone calls, we thus remained in very close touch until his death in 2009, after which time correspondence, without paintings, continued with Mariana.
Geoffrey and Maria Tyler, and Mariana and Corneliu Petrescu.
At the Tyler's home in Washington DC, mid-1970s.