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.


  1. I can take "lovely absence of color" if I can escape to Billy Baldwin's salon with the blue, or to the orange chest. Is faded and pale necessarily neutral?

  2. Aren't these wonderful? Thrilling to see them

    And notice in the last, that the pool does not have the trite and predicatably ambitious rounded ends that show in later photographs, but instead is a strong, simple rectangle...and that the infinity edge actually has an infinity to look to.

    How much better design history would look down on the last two or three decades if the lily hadn't gotten gilded so often...

  3. Oh, and as for murals--yes! In addition to children's rooms, there are baaaad murals all over walls up here, trying to imitate the wonderful folk art murals of the early 19th c.---badly.

    Remember the wonderful Venetian murals in Earl Blackwell's penthouse ballroom? The essence of a certain kind of glamorous chic, swept away as shabby by later owners in favor of a predictable Buatta interior? People are so afraid...

  4. Dilettante, good morning. I posted about the Blackwell murals in the early days and was so disappointed to read in that article about the Buatta interior that they had disappeared. I have the two magazines, the Blackwell from the 60s and the Buatta from this year together on the dining table. You're right about people being afraid.

    I sometimes think if I see another 19th century itinerant painter knock-off I'd do some damage. Tediously and tastefully sentimental rubbish and the 1980s were infested with it!

    In the AD article whence the photographs come Roderick Cameron's sister is quoted as saying her brother invented the infinity-edge pool in designing that one at La Fiorentina.

    As to the gilded lily syndrome - what you get is a gilded lily and some people think it mighty fine! Give me a pink with a lovely scent and hold the gilt.

  5. Hi Terry. Interesting question as to whether pale and faded is necessarily neutral and I think the answer is that it is not but is perceived to be so.

  6. After I posted my comments last night, I got curious about the Blackwell murals, and found Emily Eerdman's post about them, where the comments led to this link to an article in AD--it turns out that we cannot blame Mr. Buatta for the removal (although we can blame him for the God awful pediment overdoors. Another designer removed the murals:

    Also, Blue, are you familiar with the Martin Battersby murals at Champs Soleil in Newport?

  7. Blue --

    Do you suppose one of your tech-savy readers could put up a Google Earth link to the house? I've looked, and there are a couple possible candidates, but I can't really tell what's what.

    P.S. Cameron, oui! Baldwin/Hicks, non!

  8. Good morning Blue. Loved your answer to Terry's question. I'd call the color sage.

  9. The Ancient, here you are.

    43.686572, 7.348373
    +43° 41' 11.66", +7° 20' 54.14"

    Show on Google Maps

  10. home before dark, thank you. You might well be right but I wish I had both leaves to compare. Sage is a delightful color.

  11. Is it really thought that Billy Baldwin's redecoration of La Fiorentina
    was somehow unsuited to the house and its location? I don't see it
    that way at all. The Battersby murals were retained, as any close study
    of the Harding Lawrence era will attest to; nor were Lady Kenmare's pastoral scenes obliterated. As for the big drawing room, Baldwin's
    approach was nothing if not understated and it looks as though he
    re-used the gilt looking glass over the chimney piece. But these
    are mere quibbles, Blue. These Rory Cameron posts have been delightful.

  12. Dilettante, thank you. I do not know of the Champs Soleil murals. I shall search but if you could give me a head's up I would be grateful.

    I reread the same AD article today and Mr Buatta and it states quite clearly that he is not responsible for the removal of the murals. I agree about the overdoors.

  13. Mr Worthington, thank you. I always appreciate your comments.

    I got the notion that Roderick Cameron did not like Billy Baldwin's decoration from Steven L. Aronson's AD who quotes Anne Cox Chambers and Cameron's sister in the article cited above.

    Anne Cox Chambers: " He took me through it room by room and addressed himself only to elements of the redecoration. He was fanatical about scale, and he was muttering, 'Look at those lamps - they should be twice as big. And the consoles the lamps are on. The sofas! Everything! The only explanation possible, he felt, was that Billy Baldwin himself was a diminutive man. But by the time we got outside, Rory was already in the future, full of plans for perfecting his place in Provence."

    Cameron's sister is quoted saying that Cameron "found the colors too bright and too brash. Strident was the word he used."

    Personally, I have a great affection for Billy Baldwin's great salon and when I read that Cameron did not like the redecoration it took me aback.

  14. Blue, you missed my point: sage as in your wise, wise response!

  15. homebeforedark, thank you, thank you. You made me laugh in embarrassment! Maybe not so wise, after all.

  16. Blue, my bad---I meant Bois Dore, not Champs Soleil---so many french houses in Newport, so few brain cells. Here is a link to an old real estate video, sadly low resolution, in which the Battersby faux trophy murals in the dining room can be seen:

  17. thank you for posting these-and to the most engaging of aesthetes gathered for the comments that follow-all I can add is now I feel as if I am one of you. fantastique!

  18. Dilettante, I looked at the video and it's such a pity the Battersby trophies are so indistinct. A beautiful house though! I'm grateful to you.

    little augury, you're welcome - in more ways than one.

  19. I too identify with your desire to use a bland canvas as a background for interiors, that can be altered by colour from cushions and the like. It also shows off artifacts, (of which there should not be too many in my book), more effectively. And pictures don't drown as they sometimes do in the Country House look.

    Do you suppose the lack of good muralists is as a result of good wallpaper companies such as Cole & Cole and SurfaceView? Their offerings take care of a lot of what a muralist would have done, except of course the personalisation of a work, such as the staircase at Ragley Hall by Graham Rust for the Marquess of Hertford, depicting family and pets...and taking 14 years to complete! Perhaps we have lost patience with the time it takes for the creation of a work of art.

  20. Absolutely gorgeous. Aren't some of the wall murals so reminiscent of ancient Pompeii?

  21. Beautiful!
    And, I love that you have a "secret source"! So interior design James Bond!!