Sunday, September 13, 2009

Conversation piece

Our small library is a refuge in an apartment that is in transition: what is left of the dining room and living room furniture is encased in plastic in the middle of the paper-clad floors; the electrician needs to return to make adjustments; I want the carpenter back to add an architrave and paneling to a hall door we'd jibbed when we arrived (the grisaille I envisaged on that wall has never been applied); curtains are in the workroom; the painters, excellent though they be, are as slow as watching the proverbial dry; the bedroom, yet to be worked on by a list of tradespeople, contains a bed, two lamps, one on an upturned laundry basket, and an ironing board; furniture ordered for it and the living room are in the delivery warehouse and at the restorers. As I say, the library small as it is is a refuge in an otherwise bleak landscape.

A fine thing about using this room as we intended, a sitting room, albeit without half the living and dining room furniture stuffed in it, is that I am able to read what I fancy with ease - the books we've bought over the years and the ones I was able to acquire recently surround us. This weekend I've dipped into John Singer Sargent, Julia Morgan: Architect of Beauty, Villa Gardens of the Mediterranean, Modern Luxury: Richard Mishaan, and whilst the Celt was out at the Pet Shop Boys concert (three rows from the stage) I was captivated by Elsie de Wolfe, a fine companion to Hell Boy II, finally going to bed and reading The Egyptian Revival.

Out of my browsing this weekend, came the Villa Sylvia - built in 1902 by Harold Peto at Cap Ferrat for Ralph Wormeley Curtis, a member of a rich Boston family that had settled in Venice at the Villa Barbaro. Curtis and his wife Lisa were at the center of a cosmopolitan circle of American ex-patriates that included Vernon Lee, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry James, Edith Wharton and John Singer Sargent. Sargent painted the Curtis family at the Villa Barbaro.

"This rare conversation piece, depicts the Curtis family in the grand salon of their apartment in the seventeenth-century Palazzo Barbero in Venice. They were prominent members of the Anglo-American community residing in the city. The seventy-three-year-old Daniel Curtis, shown on the right, was a wealthy Bostonian and a distant cousin of the Sargent family. Sitting beside him is his wife Ariana Wormeley, the daughter of an English admiral, who was known affectionately by the artist as the "Dogeressa." Their son Ralph, lounging on the left with his American wife, Lisa de Wolfe Colt, of the firearms family, had studied with Sargent at Carolus-Duran's studio, and was a painter of some ability."

Apparently, Mrs Daniel Curtis declined the picture as she felt it had made her look too old. Henry James in reaction wrote to her to say how much he adored the picture saying "I've seen few things that I ever craved more to possess!"

Lisa de Wolfe Colt

Ralph Wormeley Curtis on the beach at Scheveningen.

In some ways this post illustrates my skepticism about the internet being able to supply what I, and many others, need for research and pleasure. I was able to make connections because of the range of books about art, architecture and interior design on our shelves but I would not yet be able to read many if any of the books listed above in complete illustrated form over the net. I'm beginning to wonder if that even matters.

Sources: John Singer Sargent by Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond and photos from the web and Villa Gardens of the Mediterranean by Kathryn Bradley-Hole.


  1. Perhaps this will be one of the greatest laments of our age: the death of libraries and books. I'm thinking we may need to make a reader's ID wristband so popular these days for joining people to fight different adversities. It would, for no other reason, at least alert us to each other: The lovers of books, who like to take an idea and run it though a bibliography or our own shelves of books looking for the links.

  2. Home is right-I would certainly bind myself for the right book. You are spot on too, and I find it quite comforting to know you & others are doing the same thing I love to do & did yesterday- thus the great beauty of the Beautiful Blogs it binds us(in a good way) No- never will we see the likes of a book devoted to the intimate details of a Madame

  3. Home before dark and little augury - I fear we increasingly in the minority, we who read and actually like books. I feel like a pagan at the final fall of the Roman Empire. Luckily the future is not easy to predict so I may be totally wrong.

  4. As great as the Internet is, it's still lame for most things we treasure. As put by another: The Internet is much much smaller than it appears on our screens. But I'm very happy that folks like Blue can bring my slow-reading attention to things I would otherwise never encounter.

  5. First of all, I love the dichotomy of the Pet Shop Boys and Elsie de Wolfe. Second, I can't tell you how many times I have delved down a stack of books in search of one thing, and spent the next hour reading another....

  6. About the "Conversation Piece" .....a house I know well because "Villa Sylvia" was named after my Mother, Sylvia Curtis Steinert, who was born on May 5, 1999 in Paris. I therefore remember well my Mother, Sylvia, recalling how she and my maternal grandparents, Ralph and Lisa Curtis, named that house after her at the turn of the last century. And because the "Villa Sylvia" was built on such a huge tract of land, it overlooked - from its location in St Jean Cap Ferrat - the entire bay of Villefranche....and the U.S. flagships which were moored in that Bay in 1917. This enabled Navy U.S. Officers and sailors to come ashore on that part of the property which was at water's edge, to come up and be the guests of my mother and grandparents at that famous house, and to be entertained there. There were so many hectares, Bernardo and the other gardners had their hands full in an attempt to keep the grounds and the flowers in full bloom at all times. The mimosa from the Villa Sylvia continued to proliferate even during WWII because I still remember how some of those sweet smelling flowers were brought to us in Paris, even during WWII, and the Nazi occupation of France, which my mother, my brother and I lived through. Glorious past and worthy of Remembrances of Things Past. And of course, a word of thanks to the Author of The Blue Remembered Hills who was able to find and revive those memorable paintings and photos of my mother, maternal grandparents and great-grandparents who left Boston in order to settle in Europe in the mid-1800's. Anyone interested in why they left can read "The Proper Bostonians" and find out! No wonder I was born in Europe too more than 80 years ago, the same year as Hitler came to power...Oh my God...Help me! Theo

    1. Dear Theo, I'm profoundly grateful to you. A comment such as yours makes blogging worth the while. Thank you.

      I used your comment as the basis of a post today, 6/18/14. I hope you don't mind.