On a winter morning in 1650, as the sun rose and cleared the mist over Boston harbor, a boatload of immigrants suddenly saw what they feared they might never see, America itself. And like all the first time arrivals before and since, they vowed to make not just a new life for themselves and their families, but a fortune, as well. Samuel Clark was one of them.
Most of course, never made a fortune, but among those who did, two centuries later, were Samuel Clark’s descendants, Edward Clark, born in New York City in 1822, his children and grandchildren – a family that has produced more than a dozen multi-millionaires whose extraordinary accomplishments in business, the arts, sports, and finally philanthropy, place them in the select company of Americans who have made our country, indeed the whole world, a better place.
The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation is one of Edward Clark’s legacies.
Clark Family History
At Edward’s death in 1882, his fortune was worth some $50 million. While he left most everything to his only surviving son, Alfred, his real estate holdings in Manhattan and Cooperstown passed to his four grandsons. Thus Sterling and his brothers were born into a family of wealth and privilege, a portion of which was conveyed to them when they were relatively young. Their parents, Alfred and Elizabeth, were devoted to fine art and architecture and created elegant residences in Cooperstown and New York City. Although Alfred managed the Singer Company through surrogates, the company thrived and the fortune continued to grow. Alfred and his wife were widely known for their philanthropic and artistic interests which shaped the lives of their sons in later years.
The boys spent their summers in Cooperstown, on Lake Otsego, where their parents, grandparents and extended family lived an affluent country life surrounded by horses and fox hounds employed in the pursuit of fox hunting, playing polo and horseracing. While enjoying these bucolic activities, the Clarks built elegant homes on the lake and filled them with the finest of French, Italian and English art.
Robert Sterling Clark
Following the expedition in China, Sterling moved on to Paris where he wrote and published Through Shên-Kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in China. It was during this period that his mother, Elizabeth Scriven Clark, died and the paintings and works of art gracing her various residences were divided among her sons by Sterling’s younger brother, Stephen, who was, by this time, actively engaged in overseeing the family’s interest in the Singer Company. It is alleged that Sterling felt shortchanged in the distribution of his parents’ art and that arguments ensued, which contributed to the development of a decades-long silence between the two. In the years following his mother’s death and his expedition in China, Sterling purchased a spectacular house on the Rue Cimarosa in Paris, the renovation and furnishing of which became an all-encompassing pastime. He also began to take an active interest in the collecting habits of his deceased parents, developing his own sense of connoisseurship, a sensibility that he employed as he expanded his collection of paintings for his elegant home. It was during this time that he met Francine Clary, a beguiling actress who made her debut at the Comédie Francais where she performed 43 roles over a six year period. While his brothers knew of their relationship, Sterling’s marriage to Francine in 1919 was a shock to his conservative family and appears to have increased the distance between him and his brothers, whom he later sued over issues of inheritance.
Clark, 1921-22, oil on canvas
Robert Sterling Clark had a second great passion which was his love of horses. During his lifetime he bred many racehorses including Never Say Die who won the famed Epsom Derby. During their lives, the Sterling Clarks owned no fewer than three elegant breeding farms which Sterling spared no expense to create. The most elaborate and famous was the splendid “Sundridge” which he built in the beautiful horse country of Upperville, Virginia. Renowned for its large circular stable, this elegant 46 acre estate was located next to that of financier, Paul Mellon, who eventually purchased the property.
It was also during the post-war years that Sterling’s horses began to have great success racing in England. In 1950, he sent one of his winners, the mare Singing Grass, to be bred to the British stallion, Nasrullah - one of the greatest sires of the 20th Century. The product of this pairing was a colt called Never Say Die who, in 1954, went on to win the Epsom Derby and then, four months later, the St. Leger Stakes. It was the first time in history that an American breeder had succeeded in winning both of these acclaimed races. Following his success in the St. Leger, Never Say Die was given by Sterling Clark to England. The gift was happily accepted and the colt was retired to the British National Stud. In that year, Sterling proved to be the top money- winning owner of horses racing on British tracks, his winnings exceeding even those of the Queen.
Robert Sterling Clark died in 1955 at the age of 78. At the time, he was deeply engaged in overseeing the completion of the museum he built in Williamstown which had become the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Upon his death he endowed the Institute and a charitable foundation, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, which had been incorporated in 1952 for general charitable purposes.
Margaret C. Ayers, March, 2009
The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation thanks the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute for all photographs included in this essay.