Saturday, September 25, 2010


This morning as we sat breakfasting in Bloomberg's Deli the Celt searched for this on his iPhone. The Google Maps coordinates are as follows and the green arrow points to the house that sits at the end of Impasse Fiorentina.

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

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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A tear down

It is hard to imagine that the house decorated in the mid-1970s by David Hicks for the Schlumbergers, Le Clos Fiorentina, ten years later was in danger of being demolished, yet this was so - according to Hubert de Givenchy. After learning it had been stripped of its fireplaces, suffered badly from damp and was to be replaced with an Italian-style palazzo, he eventually bought the house and made it what you see here.

I frequently say how photographs of interiors speak for themselves and here it is no less true. What I mean is, beyond the contents of the rooms, they speak to me and I hope, therefore, to you. They speak to me of a sureness of touch, composure, lack of pomp and, to use Coco Chanel's phrase, the elegance of refusal - a quality rarely seen in today's decorating.

It is difficult when faced with perfection, as I feel I am here, to find words that are not redundant. The previous paragraph sums up what I feel about these rooms but I can say that the materials used - tinted and waxed cement, limestone, terracotta tile, woven rush, Cogolin raffia matting, Provençal prints, white cotton and linen, polished wood, bone, plaster, bronze, Baccarat crystal, glass, silver, pottery from Apt, books, paintings, regional furniture - add up to more than the sum of the parts. There is a serenity here, almost an attentive and listening quality, that speaks of friendship, hospitality, consideration, comfort, summer, sea and southern light.

I think it is interesting to compare Mr Givenchy's decoration to David Hicks' of the same spaces - beautiful, highly colored, equally welcoming in its own way but a different order of personality... and I don't mean that negatively.

Compare too, Billy Baldwin's and Van Day Truex's decor with this of Mr Givenchy, and you will see a number of similarities - in the use of natural materials, the emphasis on good construction, a use of regional styles and the vernacular of a country, uncluttered lines, rationality, a lack of faddism - and above all, suitability.

I have just realized I mention Van Day Truex a lot but have never posted about him. I shall remedy that pretty soon.

The "Bunny" room, named for its sole guest, Mrs Mellon.

Mr Givenchy's close friend, Walter Lees' bedroom. Mr Lees died earlier this year at the age of one hundred.  If you go here you will see the same monogram used on pillows in Mr Lees' Paris sitting room. Mr Lees, previously unknown to me, was a very interesting character and worth knowing more of.

Photographs by Agence Top, Paris / P. Chevallier from The Givenchy Style, Text by Françoise Mohrt, Foreword by Hubert de Givenchy, The Vendome Press, New York 1998 - a simply marvelous book which I am most fortunate to have been loaned by a very kind friend.

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Don't ask, don't tell

On selling La Fiorentina to the Harding Lawrences, Roderick Cameron removed to the smaller and nineteenth-century Le Clos Fiorentina which, in turn, was sold to Sao Schlumberger who called on David Hicks to decorate it.

Hicks' decoration of a house he knew well, having stayed there a number of times during Cameron's ownership, judging by the grainy photographs, is as fresh and up-to-date as it was when first published thirty-two years ago. It's a cliche to say that photographs speak for themselves, but nonetheless they do and because of it I feel there's little more to be said about an interior by David Hicks that hasn't already been said elsewhere.

Gardens designed by Roderick Cameron, built in a succession of smaller gardens on a terraced hillside and so beautiful it was they that drew the new owner to buy the house they surrounded. David Hicks, intent on preserving the gardens during the year-long remodel of the house and the building of a swimming pool, had a bridge built over which trucks could drive without damaging the planting. So delighted with them was Hicks that he referred to them again, though by this time the gardens were no longer owned by the Schlumbergers, in his book, My Kind of Garden.

I have spent some time writing about Roderick Cameron - someone who until recently had not, other than when I remembered his house at Menerbes, impinged too much on my consciousness. Only as part of my delving into 1970s and 1980s decoration has he become apparent, but I must say – and perhaps I am finding significance where there is none – but it really seems to me that Roderick Cameron holds an influential if not crucial place in twentieth-century decorating. At first, to me, a shadowy figure, but one who through his friends' comments, his client's trust in him, and what his employees have had to say brings the man into clearer focus.

Roderick Cameron did not generate a style, but worked within a mode that we have come to recognize as a way of making a house welcoming, comfortable, reasonable and, above all, suitable. Cameron never became a famous decorator in the way his friends did - Baldwin, Truex, Hicks - all names still well-known well after their deaths - and finding what he created has been a bit of a journey and worth every minute.

There are many decorators and designers who, on reaching a certain maturity and fame, have titles as such as Dean bestowed on them. And what a frightening title it must be to receive - almost like having one foot in the grave. Oh, I know, accolades such as this are pretty meaningless in the great scheme of things, but if such a title were to be given posthumously it could, in my opinion, be bestowed on Roderick Cameron.

Most of the men of Roderick Cameron's circle were gay - some not but, as we would say nowadays, straight but not narrow. These were the men who, living in a society hostile to their nature, built their own networks, their own clubs, and whilst existing in a DADT relationship with their clients, nonetheless created some of the most memorable interiors ever to grace a photographer's lens - men who took place with the lady decorators, those powerful women who founded the business and had reigned for nearly half a century.

Photographs by Pascal Hinous to accompany text by Susan Heller Anderson for Architectural Digest, January/February 1978.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Whoever died and wished they had less sex?

I wish I could say the title was mine, but I cannot. I merely extracted a phrase, perhaps one of the most thought-provoking ever to appear on my blog, from an email expressing distaste at Roderick Cameron's treatment in certain sections of the press. If I were writing a biography of Mr Cameron I probably would use the word Discreet in the title for discretion, discernment and consideration are quite clearly conspicuous qualities of both the man and his aesthetic. Later I shall quote more from that correspondence, which as I say expresses distaste at the treatment of a man the writer clearly liked and, perhaps more importantly, respected.

These photographs of Roderick Cameron's last work - he died shortly before it was finished - an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side for Anne Cox Chambers, the erstwhile Ambassador to Belgium during the 1970s, and a neighbor of Roderick Cameron when he lived at Menerbes, speak for themselves and to the taste and connoisseurship of the man.

All, except for one screen, was chosen by Cameron and though my list is of necessity short, from it you can gauge the quality and variety of what he thought suitable for his client: a painting of Drummond Castle, apparently chosen by Cameron to set the tone for the room; a nineteenth-century French bronze greyhound to stand on the simple coffee table; a Tibetan crystal mask; Queen Anne stools with contemporary needlepoint, Chinoiserie paintings which apparently are Flemish interpretations of engravings made by a Jesuit priest in China; an eighteenth-century bergère; a Regency lacquer bench; a nineteenth-century English glass and lacquer cabinet; a painted Italian commode; an eighteenth-century Chinese silk rug too small for the room but laid over Cogolin raffia matting to give it scale; an Italian cartouche; an eighteenth-century Korean faience deer and an eighteenth-century English giltwood armchair.

"I am quite taken aback by what Taki said about Mr Cameron - not least because he was so very discreet. I was told by a niece before we took the job in France that he was homosexual, but had I not been told, although I might have wondered, I don't think I would have been absolutely sure. (Obviously, if you live in a house in close proximity with someone, you will eventually have some idea of what they are like, but I repeat: Mr Cameron was utterly discreet in his private affairs.) He was certainly not a pansy, and he was always the soul of rectitude when I knew him. Indeed, he had quite a bit to say about guests who did not observe the proprieties - he was most put out by unmarried guests sharing beds without having the foresight to rumple the sheets in both rooms, because as far as he was concerned, this was a breach of manners that would cause the staff embarrassment, as they would surely notice an unslept in bed when they came to do the rooms. (From the point of view of working in the house, I knew when we were expecting "normal" people - that is, the sort of people I was used to - because they were among the few who would share a bedroom. Even married people of Mr Cameron's circle would have a bedroom each, even if they were adjoining.)

"As for his mother being a "terrible snob", just who does this Taki think he is? I don't know anything of Taki's background, but I do know a little of Mr Cameron's mother, who after the death of Mr Cameron's father, married General Cavendish, to whom she was married for about fourteen years, then Lord Furness, and finally the Earl of Kenmare. She certainly lived amongst the aristocracy, and I can't think that she would have any need to "pretend to come from something she didn't come from." I have not thought of Mr Cameron and his circle for some time, but I did a little looking up - there is a picture of her here and here.

"So, a "terrible snob?" I think not. She may well have been naughty and had lots of lovers - I certainly don't know, and obviously it was not something that Mr Cameron would have talked of with his young "help," but if she did, so what? Who ever died and wished they'd had less sex?"

Photography by Karen Radkai for House and Garden's Best in Decoration, Editors of House and Garden, Conde Nast 1987.

Monday, September 6, 2010

No service, a plough and doin' awesome

Driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains, as we did last Friday, without cell phone coverage, is a worrisome experience, especially for two citified men used to being available for texts and calls - few spoken conversations nowadays and increasingly more texts - twenty-four hours a day. It's not that anyone calls late at night, generally speaking, though when the phone does ring in the early hours it has the same force as did a telegram for a previous generation.

I'm not sure it's that great an advance of civilization this constant availability, but so used have I become to texting the Celt whilst at work - he's always first with asking what kind of day I'm having, and I'll text when I'm on the way home and, on occasion, as I did two weeks ago, call from the garage to ask he have a Manhattan ready for me when I got upstairs after such a frustrating day and a sixty-five mile drive  home - that I wonder if it is possible to live without a cell phone. We have not had a landline for about six years and both of us use our cell phones as our house phone. Even the concept of a house phone seems so archaic now, as it well it might, if you think how far the telephone has come since at the beginning of the twentieth century when it left its singular existence in the closet, sat for decades positively palpitating with self-importance on tables throughout the land- even, in the seventies having a little table designed for it by a hot-shot New York designer - and how only recently began its rapid diminution of size in inverse proportion to its growing status as a icon of cool. So social has the phone become that it frequently buddies up with flatware by the side of many a restaurant dinner plate.

We visited a friend whose bark-clad, book-rich house, one the most beautiful and personal I've ever been in, clings to the steep slope of a deeply wooded mountainside. He took us to houses he'd decorated, and from each The View - that great panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains rimming the green gorge at Blowing Rock, one of America's greatest, and worthy of a few quiet moments and the attention of a nineteenth-century Luminist painter, spread out before us - as expansive as were the rooms in which we stood.

At night, without the pollution of city lighting, the skies above the Blue Ridge are full of stars - a moving sight to a man used to seeing nothing but the moon and Venus through the orange glow of Atlanta. The Plough, or Big Dipper as I know it now, seemed to be scooping the edge of the ridge we drove past on the way to a restaurant our friend had decorated - a towering, vaulted and beautifully lit volume walled and roofed with reclaimed barn siding, where one is met by a superb horse, a driftwood steed suitable for Marcus Aurelius - and the Pole Star visible as the Celt pointed out, if one traces a line directly above from the star at the right-hand of the bowl of the Dipper. Magical! As magical and moving as seeing the Milky Way overlaid with star after star through a break in the leaves of the tree shading the front of our friend's house. I want to tell you, the iPhone does not, cannot capture, the awesomeness of it all. Such a cliche that word awesome, as in I'm doin' awesome, thank you for asking, but what else suffices when faced with the visible universe - no longer the Aristotelian heavens but the great vault of heaven nonetheless?

I had intended to write again about Roderick Cameron but that I think might be a post post for another day.

First photo courtesy the Celt and the second, the panorama of Bass Lake, taken using my iPhone. The Celt put it together for me.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A weeping woman and the breaking of a rule

A common mistake I make when I'm writing a post, possibly because I type so fast, is the breaking of the so-called rule I before E, except after C - especially the word recieve. I learned to type using all my fingers in the days when Pitman's shorthand was in common use - shorthand being another skill I have but which today is totally and, to me, surprisingly redundant. 

Odd, ain't it, how what one learns as a child remains despite constant use of exceptions to the rule.  This by the way came out of the conversation the Celt and I had this morning when I mentioned how frequently I transposed i and e and he remarked that I before E, except after C is not a rule and rattled off a long list of words that are exceptions. He and I over the years have had many a conversation about language - conversations during which one of us would head for the OED, Fowler and Roget, and spend more delicious minutes immersed in the springs and meanders of the English language. Absolutely thrilling to both of us!

Nowadays one simply fires up the laptop, googles and reads what Wikipedia has to say - something that will no doubt happen today during our drive north towards the mountains of North Carolina, though the iPhone will be the tool of choice. 

I cannot take any credit for what is written below - my only contribution being the picture of Picasso's Weeping Woman which I thought mildly appropriate. I will say, though, that Roderick Cameron has emerged in my mind as a gentleman, nothing more, nothing less.

"Of course I am happy to tell you anything I can about my time chez Mr Cameron. The story of the Picasso plates is as follows:

"Rory had in his kitchen all sorts of things that perhaps some people might have kept in a cabinet rather than actually using, but I thought he was right to keep and use them. He had some very beautiful eighteenth-century coffee cups that were like little translucent shells - I once inadvertently knocked one of them on the floor and was practically in tears about it, but Mr Cameron just said I had broken fewer things than any of his other housekeepers, which was some consolation, but not a lot.

"He had a set of six Picasso plates - well, they were really shallow bowls, and he used them to serve puddings in. During the winter, when he was away, he had work done on the house, and the kitchen cupboards all had louvre doors, and for some reason, I'm not quite sure why, everything went mildewed, so I didn't know what to do about it (remember, I was a young person straight out of university) so I put them in the dishwasher!!!! Shall we just say this did not improve matters: the plates had a glazed bird in the centre, with a pale orange background that was almost a wash, and after the dishwasher treatment, they came out with the background all sort of faded. I can't find a picture of anything quite the same, this is the most similar - but Mr Cameron's just had a single bird in the centre, on an orange background.

"I did not feel nearly as bad at the time as I do in retrospect! Ah, for the ease of mind of youth. He did, however, have some beautiful china, and also some Provençal faience that he used for everyday. He was very particular about how the table was set - he had a whole cupboard of what we used to call "tricky eye" china - i.e. china bowls full of lemons and asparagus, or what have you, that he used as table centres."