Monday, October 20, 2014

Running on Low

I apologize for being tardy in replying to your comments on the last post. Strangely enough after my week away in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC I am running on low. I should be back by the end of the week. 

Running Satyr Boy Holding an Owl
Claude Michel known as Clodion

Of all the splendors of the Philadelphia Museum of Art it was the minor grace of Clodion's Running Satyr Boy Holding an Owl that caught me.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Times Past and Times Present

Does anyone remember a world without hostess gifts? Am I the only one who objects to taking along a bottle of wine every time I step out of the door for dinner at a friend's house? Is any one of us nowadays unused to a nibble with a cocktail? I remember when the, to me abominable, habit of taking along a bottle of wine began, and I was as sure then as I am now that it was a result of salesmanship aimed at the genteel classes – people anxiously persuaded that the path to Salvation meanders through the countries of Graciousness, Fine Chinah and Regifting. Apropos cocktail nibbles I came across the following whilst reading Michael Innes's A Connoisseur's Case. Times change, indeed. 

“But, Uncle Julius, wasn’t it only rather earlier that people were transported for poaching?’
‘Was it? The more’s the pity.’ Colonel Raven put down the decanter, picked up a plate of small cocktail biscuits which had been set on the tray beside it, carried these over to the hearth, and there emptied them into the low fire burning in it. ‘My people are all dunderheads,’ he said. ‘Impossible to get them out of these damned vulgar habits. Got hold of them in London hotels, I suppose. What did you say, my dear?” [The italics are mine.]

Porter's chair, allegedly from the Bank of England Museum

From another of Innes's tales, again with the same hero, John Appleby, a quotation about changing times but only obliquely so – about a perfectly functional piece of furniture that, for some, has travelled up the social ladder and changed sex, whilst, for others, it should have remained where and what it was.

"And Appleby grabbed Judith by the wrist and hauled her within one of those curious contrivances, midway between a sentry-box and a family sarcophagus, which the eighteenth-century considerately provided for the porters in its draughty halls." [Again, my italics.]

BG Restaurant, Berdorf Goodman
Photograph Bergdorf Goodman

I first saw the modern, more fashionable version that is used, for example, in the Kelly Wearstler-designed BG Restaurant at Bergdorf Goodman, forty years ago in Harrods and still I loathe its ill-proportioned conceit. The Horrids version, if I remember rightly, came from Italy and was to be found in its Decorative Furniture department. I've seen it in "antique" leather, in linen, in velvet, buttoned and not, and in wicker. But what I haven't seen, though it must have existed, is one with a liftable seat above a chamber pot – the cause of much tittering and blushing in the shires cul-de-sacs of this land if a chamber pot were even to be recognized for what it is.

I make no comment on Ms Wearstler's version except to say I have never sat in one on any of the occasions I have eaten at BG. The following quotation from One King's Lane may give some hint as to why.

"The Fabulous Porter Chair"
Photograph from One King's Lane

"These dramatic high-backed chairs are most recognized as the seats of power for ladies who lunch at the Wearstler-designed restaurant BG in New York’s Bergdorf Goodman department store. Irresistibly feminine, the canopied chairs are a Marie Antoinette dream come true."

Speaking of ladies who lunch, the last time we were in BG, we sat next to two young women speaking English and French interchangeably, in that easy way that only people with absolute fluency in both languages can – one, it transpired, the Executive Vice President of Laurent-Perrier U.S., the other the Direction de la Communication et des Relations Publiques in France. We had extended cross-table chats and much Laurent-Perrier champagne; so much so, we were only capable of an afternoon nap rather than our planned quick canter around the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney (which, it occurs to me now, might well have benefited from the Laurent-P we'd imbibed). A few weeks later, from one of those ladies at lunch, arrived this lovely and very useful champagne bucket, together with a set of flutes. A delightful and very generous gift that has been the object of none too-subtle hints by would-be regiftees!

This morning we leave for New York – friends from my university days are visiting this country for the first time. and we are joining them for a few days of museums, opera, cocktails (with nibbles), lunches (at BG, Jean-Georges, etc) and the postponed visit to the Jeff Koons retrospective (described by my brother-in-law, as the high-fructose corn syrup of modern art). Thereafter we're driving to Philadelphia and thence to Washington DC and I hope to be blogging whilst I'm away. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Interiors of Chester Jones, a recommendation

"It is neither realistic nor desirable to see homes in terms of antique or modern, classical or rationalist. For one thing, in this age of eclecticism there are so any styles. Is it right, with regard to the design of interiors, to believe that only one style is valid, given the proliferation of architectural and fine-art theories? The only judgement that is valid is to avoid the strict historicism in which every effort goes into the recreation of a single moment in time past. It is disheartening, for example, to see people awkwardly occupying Louis XVI-style rooms, accessorized to the last period detail, in a New York apartment of completely inappropriate proportions, but it happens. Likewise, the taste for English eighteenth-century-style rooms, often with very good furniture – in new houses is still prevalent. It is just as disappointing to see apartments fitted out with mid-twentieth-century furniture, fittings and artifacts designed by Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand, along with light fittings and accessories by the best designers of the day. Driven by nostalgia, this is little more than the same problem but with focus on the twentieth century. The impulse to assemble the contents of rooms within a narrow historical tradition continues. However, such an emphasis on a limited range of ideas, as brilliant as they might be, sits uncomfortably with today's interest in personal, idiosyncratic expression.

"This is not to suggest that eighteenth-century fauteuils, English Georgian furniture or even the great modernist pieces should not be used; they obviously should, and should be enjoyed. It is rather that the various pieces are better used as a counterpoint in an interior, or to perform a function, rather than to conform to the static programme of some period tableau."

Until Friday afternoon when I walked into Barnes and Noble I had not known of this book's publication. Of all that was on offer, this book was the only one of interest to me. I have written about Chester Jones before (see side bar Labels) and he belongs in my own pantheon of erudite designers. 

The first paragraph of this post, a quotation from the book, introduces the man and his work very well, I think. The book, simply entitled, The Interiors of Chester Jones, gives beautiful examples of his interiors, furniture designs, design philosophy and his method of working. Hitherto, his interiors were only seen in the pages of The World of Interiors and I am very thankful to have an expanded and thorough collection of Mr Jones's work to hand. I cannot recommend it more highly. 

Chester Jones's own sketch for a table inspired by Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International 1919 (below from Wikipedia Commons. See photograph above by Andreas von Einsiedel from an article written by Chester Jones, The World of Interiors, December 1995)

Photograph by Fritz von der Schulenberg, from The World of Interiors, October 2005.

 Hand-drawn floorplan and elevation from The Interiors of Chester Jones 
The type of illustration that illumines the process of interior design 
and gives life to the design of a book and to the reading of it

Nota Bene: I received nothing for this recommendation except the enjoyment of making it.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Baton Bob and Synonyms in Decoration

During a pre-theatre (Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore) dinner recently, I watched eight identically-dressed young women walk by our table – long blonde hair, flimsy dresses and clumpy shoes – a look not improved by the effects of the late-summer storm they'd just arrived in. Obviously, I thought – as I munched on black rice, butternut squash, golden raisins, and cilantro with brazil nut pesto – no-one had noticed or maybe cared that the tipping point had been reached – the point beyond which fashion becomes uniform, and individuality apparent only in the unsuitability of the raiment for the figure, rather than in any other way.

I'm not so much of a believer in barroom psychology, but I did wonder that evening if group dynamics require such conformity of dress and, indeed, if group norms apply in interior design. It could be said that there is conformity in design judging by what is visible on Tumblr, Pinterest and blogs; but lacking any scientific data, I'll have to rely solely on my jaundiced eye.

Baton Bob, the figure in the two photographs above and a much-loved character (by me at least) in Atlanta, is often to be found strutting his stuff on Peachtree Road. His whistle is the first indication he is somewhere around, and I wish I could tell you how happy I was at seeing a bride shining in the shade by the side of the new mixed-use development, where only the day before the Celt and I had been stranded in a mosquito-infested, unfinished space without any means of exit (try explaining to 911 that the space where you are trapped is part of a complex called Buckhead, Atlanta that itself is located in Buckhead, Atlanta. Talk about a comedy of errors!) Without taking this sighting of Baton Bob too seriously, for me he represents the Individual, the Jester, if not the Fool of the Tarot, in a sea of conformity.

So, where am I going with this? I'd like to say I intend to post pictures of interiors that represent a certain individuality, but as I write I wonder, despite the wonders of Tumblr and Pinterest, if there might be a paucity of imagery suitable to my task. The English, mysteriously to me, are considered to be eccentric, if only in their decorating. What I have seen of spaces considered to be individual or eccentric is that frequently they resemble the attics of down-at-heel aristocratic hoarders or, worse, the rural digs of the Bloomsberries – in short, an accumulation of kit and effect that makes one itch to clear the lot out.

I've also been musing about an occasional series called Synonyms in Decoration – about interiors that are out of the ordinary, don't shriek of trend and are perhaps representative of an idea not immediately definable. In other words, rooms that are individual fantasies in a conforming world.

It seems such a good idea yet I might fall flat on my face. In the way that it's easy to come up with a good title for a book but writing a book is a "hoooolnuther thang" as they say around here. So, with my own little ignis fatuus, as it were, by my side I'll begin with the title Synonyms of Fantasy in Decoration and go from there. 

In these photographs the synonym for fantasy is the illusory depiction of an ancient Arab bazaar, drawn in a Renaissance manner with life-size human figures that seem both to attend and ignore the viewer – the whole, mural, decoration and architecture, suggestive of early twentieth-century American travels in Italy and Venice.  Now, fifty-three years after it was published, this house, from a richer period of decoration than we know today, to my eye has depth, subtlety and refinement that is rare.

Group dynamics, then, would suggest that fifty years ago this house was not untypical but I wonder why it never became legendary (not a description of a house I normally like but it is in someway synonymous with fantasy). I wonder if the tide for mural decoration had already turned. It was only ten years later that the whole rage for faux finishes broke out and real picture-making on walls became stranded in an historical alley. But, that is a post for a hooooolnuther day. 

The owner of the house and the decorator was William Chidester.
The architect was Walter Wilkman AIA

The muralist, and the painter of the picture above, was Douglas Riseborough about whom I find very little online that is satisfactory.

Photographs by Danforth-Tidmarsh, published in Architectural Digest, March-April 1971

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Again, on the brink

A few weeks ago I stood at a window on the brink of the ancient bed of the River Tay marveling at the quality of the long twilight that so late that summer's evening began to fade and, with the day, the river itself, far away in its present-day course, washed away in the oncoming night.

And so it is, the Celt and I, in our own union of Scotland and England wonder and worry as we stand at yet another brink – the possible dissolution of a Union  three hundred years old. Heartbreaking, if it happens.

A photograph I took in the Victoria and Albert Museum of a Putto holding the Crown and Coat of Arms of Scotland circa 1686. Marble, perhaps from a Roman Catholic Chapel in Whitehall Palace, and probably carved by Arnold Quellin, 1653-86 and Grinling Gibbons 1648-1721.

Update: Scotland remains in the Union.

Monday, September 15, 2014

In anticipation of a book

The photographs below are from a post I wrote about Geoffrey Bennison nearly five years ago. In the Topics list in the side bar I find I wrote about Mr Bennison ten times, making him one of my favorites. Were there any doubt that he should be one of the most esteemed decorators of the twentieth-century, the publication of this book early next year should leave no doubt at all. 

The author is Gillian Newberry and Sir John Richardson has written a Foreword. Of all the books in the publishing lists for the coming months this is the only one with any interest for me. Gillian Newberry who had worked as Bennison's assistant founded Bennison Fabrics together with her husband in 1985 after Geoffrey Bennison's death. 

Published forty years ago these rooms remain to my eye remarkably undated. Greenery in baskets, even a plant in the summer fireplace date the photographs to the 1970s. That era's equivalent of today's clump of white phalaenopsis, ferns, ficus, etc, always looked a little self-conscious, as well they might given their role as swank purchases from the newly-established fancy garden centres. They didn't last long of course, those tropical parvenues, for the decidedly chilly air of social decline soon saw them off, their places cleared for the amaranthine qualities of silk plants and flowers. Even silk as a designation in this context has declined, I fear, for now we must say permanent. As a nomenclature permanent can cover a multitude of sins – from what once may even have been silk at its genesis, to what might well be its very worrisome end, resin. 

And that brings me in a very roundabout way to the subject of my next post but one – something that has been worrying at me for a while. This link to one of my favorite websites will give you a clue. 

Photography by Derry Moore from Architectural Digest November/December 1976

The book will be published by Rizzoli on March 24th 2015 – a long time to wait, I know, but I'm like a kid waiting for Christmas morning.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Good advice for shelving books from 1929, a return to a theme, a painter and a coda

Lunch with my old prof is a weekly pleasure and frequently by the time we leave the restaurant she's said "come in when you take me back, I've got things to show you." A small woman of strong education and deep culture who graduated from the University of Illinois the year I was born, whose house, as all repositories of long lives must be, is a reflection of her mind – its walls and shelves filled with books and pictures, its cupboards and drawers filled with accretions of half-forgotten, once-interesting things ready to be brought out when she thinks someone might have use or need. And so it was last Friday – not that I knew it at the time – when she loaned me two brochures about Robert Allerton Park at the University of Illinois – she handed me a hitherto unknown paragraph in my Connections series about gay men, decorators, their clients and friends, men long dead and whose work is now, in the scramble for attention amid ever-irrelevant history, almost completely forgotten. 

I had intended to write again about books because I'd found a downloadable copy of Harriet and Vetta Goldstein's excellent Art in Everyday Life where the two sisters (my old prof's mentors – she was their last graduate assistant before their retirement) gave good advice which I quote at the end of this post about how to arrange books on shelves. And so it was when I saw Robert Allerton's library in one of the booklets I thought it perfect, and perfect for my purposes – my all-too delayed return to my theme. (The fact that his sofas resemble mine exactly has nothing to do with it).

Allerton's main library above, one of three in the house, converted from the music room, was designed by John Gregg, the man with whom, after the stock market crash of 1929, Allerton was to spend the rest of his life. In fact, in 1959, after a change in Illinois law, Allerton adopted Gregg as his son. According to Wikipedia they were one of the most prominent same-sex couples of their time.

The "butternut" library, paneled in lumber cut on the farm, 
was considered by Robert Allerton as the "family" library

The stable, no longer needed after the gift of an automobile,
was converted into the "barn" library with a garage underneath

It might be that I am the only person left in this country who did not know about Robert Allerton and John Gregg but in case there is anyone else as ignorant as I of a moment of gay history I shall continue with a paragraph or two more. Assuming, that is, in a time when, arguably, homosexuality did not exist simply because no-one talked about it, two men living together as companions, with one eventually adopting the other, could lead one to believe there might just be something more than sharing expenses to their relationship.

Glyn Warren Philpot

 "The Man in Black"
Robert Allerton by Glyn Philpot

I am struggling with facts that might be already well-known to many but it comes as a surprise to me that Glyn Philpot first visited Robert Allerton in 1913 when he painted a portrait of Allerton for which the latter then declined to pay. The portrait, "The Man in Black" now hangs in the Tate Gallery. This portrait was one of Glyn Philpot's works that earned him the designation of RA at the young age of thirty. 

Clearly I need to find and read a biography of Philpot before I take this idea of connection much further - despite the fact that this artist recently has been on my mind. Philpot painted the murals that once accompanied this fireplace that I found, forlorn, in a Victoria and Albert Museum corridor this past July – though considering the fate of the murals I'm glad it was bought by the museum. But, that's a whole other post. 

So, back to where I began – with books and advice. It really is very good advice and if you think of the date, 1929, it is rooted in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

"So simple a thing as the arrangement of books will add to or detract from the beauty of a room. The very plainest books can make a beautiful effect in a room if they are grouped according to size and color. To do this so that the result may practical as well as beautiful, divide the books according to their subject-matter, and then within these groups arrange the colors and the light and dark books so that they will present the appearance of well balance groups rather than a light book here and there, an occasional dark one, and bright ones scattered all about. Keeping the lighter books near the top and around the center line, for well placed emphasis will help to complete an interesting color pattern.

"Books and magazines which are easily accessible will do more than anything else to make the living room seem home-like. Books are always more inviting if they are placed on open shelves instead of being shut off behind glass doors. They should be placed so they are convenient for use, and if there are interesting books and magazines on small tables in the room, in addition to the generous shelves, it will add immeasurably to the enjoyment of the room."

After all the discussion of vignetting, I thought you might like this. It's the tail end of a catalogue that dropped in the mailbox this week.

"The Man in Black" from the Tate Gallery
The Philpot self-portrait from Wikipedia
Philpot Murals from "London Interiors" John Cornforth, Aurum Press, 2000
Libraries photographs from brochure about Robert Allerton Park, published by the Univerity of Illinois. 1951