Of his generation John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) was the most powerful banker, industrialist and art collector in America. Born in Connecticut, he was the third generation of a banking dynasty that he would go on to dwarf with his financial acumen and bullish instinct. His father Junius Spencer Morgan was a partner in a London-based merchant bank. Another ancestor, James Pierpont, founded Yale University. Morgan’s education was rich and varied. He went to Swiss school Bellerive then on to the University of Gottingem and could speak fluent Spanish, French and German.
Morgan’s first banking job was in London at Peabody, Morgan & Co but in 1858 he returned to New York and joined Duncan, Sherman & Company. In 1871 Morgan formed a partnership with Anthony Drexel (another Henry Poole & Co man) and two years after Drexel’s death in 1893 the firm was renamed J. P. Morgan & Co.
At the height of his powers in the 1890s, Morgan was said to control one sixth of America’s railway lines. In 1895 he and a consortium of bankers rescued America’s Gold Standard loaning the federal government more than $60 million. In addition to the bank that bore his name, Morgan invested in and subsequently bought the Carnegie Steel Company, Edison General Electric and the United States Steel Corporation. He also acquired the New York Times newspaper and founded the Metropolitan Club in New York when the Union Club blackballed his friend John King. Deeply offended, he instructed the architects ‘build me a club fit for gentlemen. Forget the expense’.
J. P. Morgan’s power was considered by some to be too great and was wielded with ruthless efficiency. Physically, Morgan was an intimidating man and his presence was described ‘as if a gale had blown through the house’. He suffered from the chronic skin disease rosacea that gave him a hideously bulbous purple nose and a disinclination to be photographed. A man with an almost superhuman constitution, Morgan smoked dozens of Havanas earning his favourite cigars the nickname ‘Hercules’s Clubs’.
Morgan’s first wife Amelia Sturges, who he married in 1861, died four months after the wedding. In 1865 he married Frances Louisa Tracey who bore him four children including the heir J. P. ‘Jack’ Morgan Junior. They held court in a mansion on Madison Avenue that was the first private residence to be lit by electricity. It was sufficiently palatial to be able to host balls and receptions for 1000 guests. Morgan also owned a vast summerhouse called East Island in Glen Cove. His houses were showcases for Morgan’s enormous collections of antique books, paintings, clocks and gemstones. The newly discovered gemstone Morganite was named after him in 1911. His private library on 36th Street was opened to the public.
The financier’s other interests included a world-famous collection of photographs of Native American Indians and a fleet of yachts. It was he who coined the phrase ‘if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it’. As a fatalistic aside, Morgan had tickets to sail on RMS Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912 but decided instead to remain on the French Riviera at Aix-Les-Bains. J. P. Morgan died in 1913 at the Grand Hotel in Rome. His son Jack inherited his estate. On the day of Morgan’s funeral, the flags on Wall Street were flown at half mast and the Stock Market closed for two hours in honour of one of America’s greatest financiers.
After Morgan’s death, his son Jack gave over 7000 objects from his father’s art collection to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for whom J. P. Morgan Sr was a trustee and president. In the last two decades of his life, Morgan had spent the modern equivalent of $900 million on artworks. As he said, ‘no price is too high for an object of unquestioned beauty and known authenticity’. Morgan had already given his fabled gemstone collection, sourced with Tiffany & Co gemologist George Kunz, to New York’s Museum of Natural History. Stars of the collection including the 564-carat Star of India cabochon sapphire and 12-carat Eagle Diamond were sensationally stolen by Jack ‘Murph the Surf’ Murphy in 1964.
In 1854 Morgan’s father Junius was the first member of the family to patronise Henry Poole & Co. Twenty-year-old J. P. Morgan would follow his father in 1857 and his son the Anglophile J. P. Morgan Jr became a prolific lifelong customer. The Henry Poole & Co archive keeps Jack Morgan’s black silk velvet Court Dress ordered in 1937 to be worn at the coronation of King George VI. Morgan’s Court Dress was regularly returned to Savile Row to be pressed and repaired. When Jack Morgan died in 1943, the suit happened to be at Henry Poole & Co and because the owner did not leave instruction for its return, the garments remained in the company’s archive collection.