Texas treasures from the Bryan Museum now in Austin

Galveston-based historical collection lends key artifacts for the Texas State History Museum’s new Collectors’ Gallery.


Highlights

Houston businessman J.P. Bryan collected more than 70,000 objects; some are on display in Austin.

The Bryan Museum, opened in 2015, focuses on Texas and Western artifacts and art.

You won’t find the Bryan Museum in Bryan, Texas.

Or in the abutting city of College Station, for that matter.

In fact, this large private Texana museum is located 150 miles to the southeast of the Aggie metropolis on the island of Galveston. Housed in the old Galveston Orphans Home, the Bryan Collection — which consists of more than 70,000 Western-themed artifacts, documents and artwork — is named after J.P. Bryan, founder and chairman of Torch Energy Advisors, and his wife, Mary Jon Bryan.

The museum opened in 2015. Although the Houston businessman spent a lifetime assembling this splendid collection, he took only four hours in 2013 to decide that this Renaissance Revival building, then something of a shambles, would be its permanent home.

Through June 25, Austinites can peek at J.P. Bryan’s Western obsessions upstairs at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, where a corridor has been converted into a Collectors’ Gallery. There, interim director Margaret Koch explains, temporary exhibitions will focus on the scattered stockpiles that provide the Austin spot with its display treasures.

For multiple reasons, Bullock does not compete with the hundreds of other historical museums in the state as a collector; everything it exhibits is on loan.

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In town for the day, Nathan Jones, curator of the Bryan Museum, showed us around this modest but handsome introductory show, which, he says, reflects the Bryan Collection’s strengths in Native American and Spanish objects, hard-to-find maps, antique firearms and other weapons, saddles and spurs, and Texas rarities as well as fine art, religious art and folk art.

What catches the eye first?

It is hard to pass by the rows of pointy spurs that date from the 1600s to the 1900s. They were chosen from more than 900 examples originating in places such as Spain, Argentina, the United States and France and include spurs for men, women and children. J.P. Bryan acquired many of them from the Joe Russell Spur Collection. A San Angelo rancher, Russell spent 50 years collecting thousands of spurs dating back hundreds of years.

If you have spurs, you need at least one saddle. Charles H. Harmon made the Mother Hubbard-style example on display. An East Texas farmer, Hubbard turned his saddle-repair skills into a full-time job at a Chambers County family shop in 1896. He and his descendants quickly became favorites of Southeast Texas cattlemen. The Mother Hubbard style, introduced in the 1860s, was originally lighter and smaller than this specimen.

Nearby is a charismatic 18th-century Spanish Colonial trunk, made from sabino wood taken from the Montezuma bald cypress, a tree indigenous to Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley. Hard and durable, the wood was frequently used to make furniture.

A Lakota hide vest with extensive beading — in remarkably good condition — includes American flags on the front and back. Given the context of the bloody Indian wars of the Plains and Mountain West, it is a little startling to see the image used for decoration, but by the 1880s the flag was apparently considered a “protective talisman, mark of honor for warriors.”

Also a revenue source. This vest was likely made for the tourist trade.

Also in pristine condition is a pair of Indian women’s beaded hide leggings with silver buttons and geometric stitching. Its lazy/lane stitching uses a technique of closely sewn rows set in “lanes,” which undoubtedly took a lot of time, skill and patience to complete.

No assemblage of Texana would be complete without weapons. Right away we spy a Bowie knife with its original leather sheath from the 1840s. Made popular by adventurer James Bowie, this style of knife was designed for hunting, but it became popular for self-defense. This particular example, decorated with a spread-winged eagle for an American market, was made in Sheffield, England, by cutlery experts Unwin and Rodgers.

During its short life, the Republic of Texas commissioned uniforms and weapons for its army. A dragoon sword on display is one of 280 Ames Model dragoon sabers purchased by the Republic and inscribed with the words “Texas Dragoons.” An infantry officer’s shako helmet shown nearby includes a sunburst insignia with a lone star at its center.

Nearby is a Side Colt Army revolver in a walnut case, dated to around 1872.

“Over 200,000 were produced between 1860 and 1873, the majority of them for the United States Army,” the museum text explains. “The engraving on the cylinder of ships engaged in the 1843 Battle of Campeche between the Mexican Navy and the Republic of Texas Navy is a scene frequently found on Colt revolvers. Texas sailors at the Battle of Campeche had carried earlier Colts and their endorsement led Colt to honor that battle on later models.”

On paper and canvas

Three-dimensional objects used by Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, Anglo-Americans and African-Americans — as well as assorted immigrants — make up only a part of the Bryan Collection. Much else is preserved on paper and canvas, including a rare form granting a prospective colonist permission to settle in Austin’s Colony during the 1820s.

Printed in New Orleans, this document would have been crucial to anyone seeking to enter the colony between the Colorado and Brazos rivers. Only four copies are known to exist. The broadside lists the criteria for being considered for colonial status, including good moral character and a willingness to pledge allegiance to New Spain. (Which means this document predates Mexican independence in 1821.)

You will want to spend some time with the highly detailed 1867 “Traveller’s Map of the State of Texas,” published by the American Photo-Lithograph Company in New York. Assembled by cartographer Charles Pressler, it drew on all the state’s known land surveys of the time. Pressler, a draftsman with the Texas General Land Office from 1850 to 1899, had published well-regarded Texas maps in 1858 and 1862 before making this masterpiece.

Another way to visualize the past is through paintings, and Bryan’s trove features a 1877 view of Galveston Bay by Thomas Allen; a depiction of trout pools in Taos Canyon, painted around 1920 by Joseph Henry Sharp; and a 1918 scene with longhorns by famed Western artist Frank Reaugh. (The nearby Ransom Center staged a major exhibition of Reaugh’s landscapes in 2015.)

RELATED: Ransom Center honors Texas artist Frank Reaugh with major exhibit

Art from New Spain’s colonial period is also represented. An 18th-century oil on copper “Descent From the Cross” by Nicolas Enriguez shows Mary, Christ’s mother, surrounded by his followers.

Yet if the visitor remembers only one artifact, it will likely be a startling recruiting poster from January 1915 that reads “Ride With Pancho Villa.” Not a few Texans can count ancestors who either witnessed one of Villa’s raids into the United States or fought alongside General John J. Pershing against Villa during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).

But clearly, recruiting ran both ways. This poster seeks to entice skilled professionals such as dynamiters, machine gunners and railroaders. They are promised payment in gold, likely confiscated from Mexican banks.

Always good to challenge one’s assumptions about Texas history.



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