Friday, September 24, 2010
A lovely absence of color
A couple of days ago, as I was writing about Le Clos Fiorentina, I received an email from the same person who had sent me the photo of Roderick Cameron's Paris living room, telling me that I would find photos of La Fiorentina in Cameron's time in an old issue of Architectural Digest. I found them, and I'm thrilled. Finally I know what the inside of the house was like before Billy Baldwin's redecoration - a redecoration that, apparently, Mr Cameron did not like. For a while that house eluded me, and yet I discover both a terrific essay and wonderful photos in my own library - thanks to the kindness of strangers.
"Lady Kenmare and Rory with a combination of American and Australian money had bought a property on the Riviera which was a wreck due to damages done to it during the war. This remarkable building was known as La Fiorentina, and it certainly did have, for one thing, the most beautiful views and sights on all the Riviera. It was clinging on to the tip of Cap Ferrat, and surrounded by perfectly fantastic gardens, terrace upon terrace, most of which had remained in pretty good condition in spite of the war.
"The restoration began and it was lucky for everybody because Rory was a young man of enormous taste, great enthusiasm, and plenty of money. Together with his mother, they bought a great deal of furniture for the house and turned it into the most beautiful house on the entire Riviera. The restoration was by no means an exact copy of what it had been before the war and before the bombing; instead, Rory brought the whole thing into the present time with a remarkable clarity, a great feeling for textured materials of the day, a lovely absence of color in that most of it was rather bony or very pale, and the introduction of contemporary French furniture, most notably tables by Jean-Michel Frank, who was the last great cabinetmaker in Paris.
"Lady Kenmare even painted murals, and she painted a wonderful one for the dining room which looked like a tapestry of leaves and foliage. Everyone was full of enthusiasm for La Fiorentina and I, for one, adored going there."
I well can imagine Billy Baldwin, the author of the quotation above, did indeed adore going to La Fiorentina.
"A lovely absence of color" a description so redolent of a particular time in my life - the years in Amsterdam - when in the shelter magazines of the day, to talk about no-color was as modish as creating whimsy became in the following decade.
It's a interesting concept, no-color, and occasionally I read of decorators who, having reached color saturation during the day, flee to their own color-free interiors where, perhaps, a pop is allowed, be it a throw, pillows or flowers. I'm not criticizing, for my own interior is much the same, though for different reasons. I cannot explain why ... well, actually I could but there really isn't time for that tale ... but the Celt and I for many years have lived in shadowy, silver-inflected, lilac-tinted, grey, cream and ivory rooms - no-colors, as it would have been expressed thirty years ago - that make me feel relief on arriving home. I always love to come home – and when here I frequently don't see the the need to leave for days on end. Even the bursts of color, such as the Hermes-orange chest of drawers in the grey-and-celadon bedroom and the multi-colored kimono-slice pillows elsewhere, have sidled up to me and now are old friends I wouldn't live without.
Roderick Cameron's palette, as Baldwin states, is not entirely drained of color, though he does describe it as very pale – the color of the back of an olive leaf which, for those of you who look at the backs of things, will know to be a pale and subtle, silver-green and a color used by Cameron in both La Fiorentina and his house at Menerbes. At La Fiorentina that green was used for the walls of the salon, with white marble for the floor, and a lemon yellow for the sofa and chairs. A delightful combination, I find, and as agreeable at twilight as at noon.
Of course it is all to do with light and its effect on color - in the first post I wrote about Roderick Cameron I quoted him: "with the clarity of light down here one is apt to play down colours. The drawing room is the silvery-green of the back of an olive leaf and the stairwell which curves like the volutes of a shell - indeed what inspired its formation - is painted the luminous beige found on the inside of a nautilus. Faded mustard-yellow, moss green and the soft blues of Ming porcelain seem to be the dominant colours."
As to whimsy - undoubtedly, during the 1990s, the murals painted by Lady Kenmare and Martin Battersby would have been described as whimsical, despite belonging to a distinguished tradition that goes back at least to the Renaissance. I wonder if mural painting, despite a number of contemporary distinguished practitioners (the late Robert Jackson comes to mind, as does Graham Rust ) has died out for I never see it nowadays except amateurishly done in a child's bedroom. I wonder, too, if mural painting still exists but is invisible because it is no longer understood or valued?
Photographs, unattributed as far as I can tell, accompany an essay written by Steven L. Aronson for Architectural Digest, October 2001.
Photo of Martin Battersby's murals in La Fiorentina's hall by Ken Partridge, from The Decorative Twenties, Martin Battersby, revised and edited by Philippe Garner, Whitney Library of Design, 1988.
Quotation from Billy Baldwin: An Autobiography, Billy Baldwin with Michael Gardine, Little, Brown and Company, 1985.