When collector and philosopher butted heads Bertrand Russell's job with the Barnes Foundation seemed to be a life-saver. It ended in a court fight. History

Posted: October 28, 2001

Late in 1940, British philosopher - and well-known curmudgeon - Bertrand Russell signed a contract to deliver lectures at the Barnes Foundation in Merion. His employer was Dr. Albert C. Barnes, an equally well-established curmudgeon.

"I was warned before accepting his offer that he always tired of people before long . . . and had a passion for quarreling," Russell wrote in The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1914-1944 (1951).

At the time, Russell felt relief because the work seemed to be a way out of his financial difficulties. But within two years, the men were embroiled in a legal fight that reduced Russell to poverty.

Most historians agree that Russell was one of the great minds of the 20th century.

Born in 1872, Russell was already famous by 1900 for his work in mathematics and philosophy. But by the beginning of World War I, his political convictions and social behavior were attracting at least as much attention.

His pacifist beliefs during the war cost him his position at Cambridge's Trinity College. He had two failed marriages, with accompanying affairs that hurt his social standing. And his ideas regarding the institution of marriage - he was an advocate of free love - made it difficult to find work as a teacher or lecturer.

In 1938, with war threatening in Europe, Russell left England for the United States with his third wife, Patricia, who was about 30 years younger, and their infant son, Conrad, born out of wedlock. At 66, he was looking for refuge and work. He found neither.

After several years of trying to land a university position, he found America's academic doors closed to him. He was out of money, with no prospect of a steady income.

At this point, the Barnes offer appeared.

Albert Barnes was a physician who made a fortune by developing a drug, Argyrol, a cure for sore throats. He left the practice of medicine and became a collector of French impressionist art. With this collection, he founded an art school, the Barnes Foundation.

According to an article by local historian Barbara Fry in the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly (vol. 38, no. 3), the agreement between Russell and Barnes was for a period of five years at $8,000 per year.

Russell and his family rented Little Datchet Farm in West Pikeland Township, with a Malvern mailing address. From this location, Russell was able to take the train or be driven by his wife (he did not drive) to the Barnes Foundation.

Russell described Barnes as "a strange character."

"He demanded constant flattery . . . [and] he liked to patronize colored (sic) people and treat them as equals because he was quite sure that they were not," writes Russell in his autobiography.

Phoebe Gilkyson, a columnist for the Phoenixville Daily Republican, remembers Russell as, "a white-haired humorous and kindly gnome with a wrinkled face."

On Dec. 24, 1942, Russell received a letter from Barnes terminating their agreement without compensation.

Russell sued for breach of contract. But the trial did not take place for almost a year.

In the meantime, the winter of 1943 was a difficult one for the three Russells. They had to sublet the main farmhouse and move into a caretakers' cottage. For several weeks, food and warmth were limited. Russell appealed to friends in the academic community for help, and he received a number of paid lectures. And he asked New York book publisher Simon & Schuster for an advance on his book, The History of Western Philosophy, to which they agreed.

In November 1943, Russell was awarded $20,000 by U.S. District Court in Philadelphia in the Barnes lawsuit, but it was some time before he received the money. In the meantime, he accepted an invitation to stay at more comfortable accommodations at the Bell and Clapper, the home of Kenneth Rhoads in Chester County, according to reports in the library of the Chester County Historical Society.

In May 1944, the Russells sailed home to England.

The following year, The History of Western Philosophy was published, and Russell was reinstated at Cambridge. In 1950, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He divorced, and married for the fourth time.

For the rest of his life, Bertrand Russell was involved in social activism, lecturing, teaching and writing. He died in 1970, just three months short of his 98th birthday.

Joseph Kennedy's e-mail address is kennedj@phillynews.com.

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