Friday, September 17, 2010

Digging in the dirt and the kindness of strangers

Sometimes there's a twist, an inadvertent mordancy perhaps, to proximity - so it was when I found the photographs of Roderick Cameron's design for Anne Cox Chambers were preceded by photographs of Mario Buatta's design for that chronicler of the great and the good, Taki Theodoracopulos. One of my correspondents, one of Cameron's erstwhile employees, if you remember, railed against Theodoracopulos' ungenerous, if not downright mean, designation of Cameron in an article after Cameron's death.

Buatta's design is of its time, the 1980s, when the English Country House Style reigned supreme and decorators draped every gimcrack folly in miles of passementerie-trimmed chintz - the dusty reaches of aristocratic attics were recreated in rooms so far off the ground one didn't know if it was Gabriel himself or some other mogul helicoptering by - a time when every arriviste clambered to buy an instant pedigree in the form of real-estate decorated in a version of that rather limpid Englishness personified by the antics of the deified twosome, Lancaster and Fowler. But, that is a rant for another day.

The other day I found an essay called Return to Egypt written by Roderick Cameron, and the sad thing is it looks as if it was published two months after his death. It is a lovely reminiscence and I could do you and him no better service than to let him speak for himself. There isn't room to quote all he wrote - there are perhaps more extracts for other days, when the opportunity arises. However, he begins by saying that "an invitation of join a private cruise on the Nile brought back a flood of childhood memories" - not one of the most memorable opening lines in Literature; not on a par, for example, with "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me" but it suffices.

"I was eight in 1921 and my stepfather, a colonel in the British army, was stationed with his regiment, the Ninth Lancers, outside Cairo at Abbassiyeh. The memories are jumbled but vivid. We lived in a rambling barrack house set down in a large garden that was divided into squares of banked earth, which in turn were irrigated by a system of canals, and I would play with paper boats in the brown Nile water as it came tumbling through the sluices.

"I remember sitting with my straw-hatted governess scratching for blue mummy beads around the mastaba tombs near the Giza pyramids. In those days this was still possible. I also remember an American woman who had a whole encampment of luxurious furnished tents in the desert beyond the Mena House Hotel. Flaming torches lighted the tents at night, and it is easy to imagine the impression this made!

"Howard Carter, who discovered King Tutankhamen's tomb, happened to know my mother, and one day, when he was staying at the Winter Palace at Luxor, he offered to take me down to the newly discovered site. Mr. Carter was impressed, I think, by my seriousness and by my obvious fascination with his stories. The inner chamber had not yet been broken open, and I remember vividly the footprint of a sandal in the dust, left there, so Mr. Carter told me by a high priest who had stepped forward to print a seal on a plaster wall behind which lay the royal sarcophagus. I remember some dried flowers strewn on the floor and two guardian statues covered in palls of linen that had half rotted, exposing large areas of shining gold."

"The years pass. In 1947 my mother chartered the Memmon, which belonged to Thomas Cook and which later was used in Death on the Nile. The decks were spread with carpets and set with glass-topped tables and numerous wicker chairs made comfortable with mattresses and nests of cushions. The woodwork was white and the brass shone, including the bedsteads. Pens with clean nibs, engraved paper and sealing wax were to be found on all the desks. In fact, the dahabeah evoked an Edwardian country house transplanted by chance to the Nile, where it churned its way very slowly through the brown water.

"Now the Mennon becomes the Shaden and the time is the present. Things are not the same, and the first thing I learn is that I should never, under any circumstances, visit Egypt during the season that runs from October to the Middle of May. To avoid the nightmare of queueing crowds, my traveling companions and I concentrate on Islamic Cairo: the magnificent Ibn-Tulun Mosque, mostly open to sky and built during the ninth century entirely of brick, the walls, pillars and arches coated with elaborate stucco. Nothing has marred its vast walled-in square, and the place is hauntingly beautiful. The same is true of the Blue Mosque, more intimate and built in the fourteenth-century, sheathed by the Turks three centuries later with a wall of breathtaking blue-green Isnik tiles. It used to be the favorite haunt of the nineteenth-century watercolorists. Now, alas, two oil drums disfigure its court and white pigeons no longer lodge in is dying almond tree." 

There it is, that beautiful image of lost time "... white pigeons no longer lodge in its dying almond tree"  -worthy of Ozymandias or Gandalf, your choice. Yet the mosque, still illuminated by its its blue-green tile, continues to offer what it has given for six-hundred years, prayer, peace, quiet, contemplation, and perhaps, in that image of two oil drums, resignation before immutable decline.

I've been very fortunate since I began writing about Roderick Cameron to hear from a number of correspondents who have given me direction, made suggestions, written accounts of their experience of the man, and sent me photographs - one such is a photograph of Roderick Cameron's Paris living room sent to me this week and which I will use for a future post.  

* Quotation from Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, Hutchinson 1980.

Photos of Mario Buatta's design from House and Garden's Best in Decoration, by The Editors of House and Garden, Conde Nast,  1987


  1. Blue --

    How many times did Mario sell that yellow room with blue ribbons -- fifty? And the wallpaper in the living room is most unfortunate.

    But for me, the real killer -- the deal-breaker -- is the bedroom, which very much looks like a room in which a married woman would prefer to sleep alone.

    (Is that enough?)

    Cheers, etc.

    P.S. I'm afraid you wouldn't approve of my curtains.

  2. Good morning, Ancient.

    Yellow is the one color I associate with the 1980s and it was the rage, as also were ribbons concealing picture wires. Mario Buatta has made a good living based on that yellow room of his. I have an old AD, possibly the first time Mr Buatta's rooms was published, where in the table of contents it states that he's likely to become the new Billy Baldwin.

    I agree about the walls, be they paper or chintz, and I find the overall effect suffocating - clutter, clutter, and more clutter. Apropos clutter, wasn't it a client of John Fowler who counted thirteen pairs of objects in her drawing room?

    I still do not like those Portuguese hand-stitched floral carpets - to my eye, just twee. I quite like a good floral pattern but those carpets are awfully genteel and I'm sure John Betjeman could written a verse or ten about them.

    What you say about the bedroom is very interesting given the fad at time for "feminine" bedrooms where husbands would feel more masculine by being invited. I would feel more interloper than guest.

    As to your curtains - how could I ever disapprove? Surely the point is that you like them.

    A good conversation before breakfast - priceless! Thank you.

  3. Y'all were so nice to say hello last night. Running into folks you know is one of the great pleasures. I'm still working on the pictures.

    I wanted to tell y'all something that Geoff Manaugh said on Wednesday that reminded me of the B-R-H blog. He loves blogs and blogging, believes they have changed things. He emphasized how bloggers dig up forgotten, unread, unappreciated, out of print gems and put them out there for rediscovery (and search-ability). He was talking about the Blue Remembered Hills though he'd never read it.

    When we read, "I've been very fortunate since I began writing about Roderick Cameron to hear from a number of correspondents who have given me direction, made suggestions, written accounts of their experience of the man, and sent me photographs ..." we know exactly what Geoff meant, priceless indeed.

    P.S. You made me look up "passementerie" which I'd thought was something hard to get off your shoes if you stepped in it.

  4. Father forgive me for I have sinned. If something stands still, I put fabric on it. If it moves, I put a tassel on it. Passementerie is more beautiful to me that god herself. I do, however, like the image of Gabriel IN the helicopter. If you ever come to Kansas, you can walk in my garden to clear your crazed out too much too much visual overload of my house. I will serve your favorite adult beverage in great quantity as my penance.
    Your faithful reader, HBD.

  5. Terry, it was very good to see you. Passementerie is just what we call trim - good in the right place but not in ours.

  6. home before dark, good morning. I'm not a lover of passementerie - a failing you've noticed, but I can appreciate it in the right place. I'm sure I would appreciate and like your place but might fake a fainting spell just to get a Manhattan brought to me in your garden. The Celt of course would be wearing a kilt with sporran, sgian dubh and a jacket with frogs - military passementerie, if ever I saw it.

    Gabriel is probably at Weight Watchers right now given all the flying he's not doing.

  7. You left me in Cairo on this one...paper boats floating in the brown Nile, the pyramids, Tutankhamen's unopened inner chamber, wicker and carpets and finally "Pens with clean nibs"...sigh...Thank you!

  8. Certainly nothing inadvertent in the -ancy of paragraph two, Mon Vieux; and justly not. This is a profoundly generous posting, a quality which very few commit to blogs but which many will recognise as the natural effect of a passion consuming them elsewhere. But isn't that what "generous," is: to be able to stay up, late, to make one's craft and one's commitment intelliglble to passers-by. I think you make the point that we're never wrong to do this, to give ourselves against the grain. At least, then, the dismissed or disparaged or the merely ripped-off, draw a second breath from modesty and honesty. And why should this be, but for the truth of generosity: a caring for others' nourishment, and a sense of where it comes from. You make wine.

  9. smilla4blogs, thank you. Roderick Cameron was ten years old when he went into the newly opened tomb. Incredible!

  10. Carter Nicholas, thank you very much. Very thought provoking and I appreciate your comments.