Williford House ~ Fairfield, Texas
(NOTE: Little did I know when I did this painting – or when I wrote the article below – that this old house had become such a landmark for so many people. Read the article, then be sure to scroll down and read the comments. Sadly, I received several notes in August, 2011 that this venerable old place had finally fallen victim to the bulldozer.)
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On one of our recent trips between Dallas and Houston, we stopped in the town of Fairfield to grab something to eat. This old house sat somewhat hidden behind the Dairy Queen next door. Captivated, I grabbed my camera, walked over, and took a few shots.
My initial information indicated the house was built by Carl Neil Williford in 1912. An email received in November 2010 states that the house was built by Carl’s father E. E. Williford (1860-1956) and his wife Binnie Eubanks Williford (1871-1925). Sitting near the intersection of Interstate 45 and Highway 84, it has apparently sat vacant for the last twenty years or so, partially hidden behind the Dairy Queen. A relative of the present owner says she attended a slumber party there in the 1960’s and there were tales of ghosts even then. It has been gutted, very obviously vandalized, burned, and is posted with No Trespassing signs today.
I wanted to leave it some semblance of dignity, so I was kind to this old house in my painting. I couldn’t bring myself to paint it the way it actually looked. Parts of the original house are missing, the grand columns are gone, windows are partially boarded up, roofs are sagging dangerously in places… it’s a real mess. I chose this view because it appears to be the front of the house, and the shadows under the porch caught my eye. And besides… it allowed me to shine a little sunlight on the old place.
I did a little research, and found that a lot of people have spotted the house, taken photos, and wondered about it online. In my limited research, I didn’t find much about Carl Williford. The records do show that he and his wife Jean bore a son, Graham Devoe Williford in 1926, and a daughter, Harriet. Graham Williford was raised in Fairfield, and is actually the interesting party here. According to literature from the Jean and Graham Devoe Williford Charitable Trust, he “cultivated his passion for education among his family of rural East Texas farmers, merchants and teachers. Often gravitating more to the 19th century than his own time, he began a lifelong fascination with the culture, literature, language and arts of the Victorian age as a young man.
By the time of Williford’s death in May 2006, the collection he had spent several decades compiling – one that would help reintroduce an all-but-forgotten era to art collectors and scholars worldwide – had grown to include more than 1,000 American paintings and decorative art pieces. The collection bears the imprint of the man who accumulated it: a genteel, aristocratic bon vivant who believed he had been born “100 years out of his time,” and surrounded himself accordingly with the refinement and grandeur of 19th-century artistry.
“Graham was very much a country gentleman. He definitely considered himself gentry, and dressed and spoke as a gentleman,” recalled his cousin, John Williford, a trustee of the Williford Foundation. “He had extremely expensive traditional clothes, and always – always – wore a hat when he went outside. If you traveled with him or went to lunch with him, anything like that, he always wore a coat and tie. He was old school and he wasn’t going to change. He liked it that way.”
The Jean and Graham Devoe Williford Charitable Trust, named after him and his mother, was founded in Graham’s will after his death in 2006. It was Graham’s desire that his artwork be displayed as much as possible for the enjoyment of the general public and thus the Foundation has adopted this as its mission. It strives to make Graham’s art and decorative art available to any museum that might be interested in an exhibit, no matter how small or how large.
In 2006, the Dallas Museum of Art presented There and Back Again: Selections from the Graham D. Williford Collection of American Art, which celebrated the significant American paintings and silver of this longtime Museum supporter, and explored a rich relationship between the American and European art worlds after the U.S. Civil War. The exhibition was drawn from the private collection of this Fairfield, Texas native, who began collecting art in the 1950s.
There and Back Again showcased rare and little-known examples of late 19th-century American painting and silver, studying the search for a national artistic identity through “American” styles and subjects back home. It included more than three dozen important American works created by artists who were studying, working and exhibiting in Europe and America within that critical era.
I don’t know if Graham Williford lived in this house. Apparently, Carl Neil’s daughter Harriet Williford Whatley and her family lived in the house for several years and attempted to purchase it from the other heirs but was never able to reach an agreement. But it was once, undoubtedly, a grand place. I find myself trying to visualize the house full of his amazing art collection, and it’s a nice thought.
Interesting stuff for an artist. You just never know what you’re going to stumble onto…