Wednesday, November 24, 2010

To everyone, a Happy Thanksgiving

Decoration from The England of Eric Ravilious, Freda Constable with Sue Simon, Lund Humphries, 2003

Monday, November 22, 2010

A connection, and a little bit of hero worship

When, last week, I wrote about Henry McIlhenny, I didn't include this view of his green drawing room in Rittenhouse Square. I'm not sure what exactly my reasons were for not using it, but I remember that the Ingres portrait of the Comtesse de Tournon stirred a vague memory of reading something, somewhere, that connected to my theme of past weeks. A drawing rather than a painting - of an Englishman, I thought, and somewhere in one of my books.

I found it, this graphite portrait of Alexander Baillie, not of an Englishman but a Scot, in the same book, a catalogue of an exhibition about Ingres, as the portrait of Comtesse de Tournon.

Alexander Baillie, eldest child of a rich merchant with interests in Jamaica, met the man, the Norwegian Jørgen von Capellen Knudtzon, also the son of a rich merchant, with whom he was to spend the rest of his life, short of six months, when his boat rescued a group of people who had been shipwrecked. I remember the surprise and pleasure I felt ten years ago when I read the short essay accompanying the pencil portrait, for however liberated, and I use that word judiciously, gay life had become at the end of the twentieth-century, it was unusual to find such an open, uncomplicated acknowledgement of the love between two men.

There are other connections to be be made, of course, for both Baillie and Knudtzon had portrait busts carved by Bertel Thorvaldsen - Knudtzon and the sculptor were close friends - and with David Hockney who in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters posited that artists such as Ingres used an optical device called a camera lucida as an aid when drawing. Hockney's theory, published ten years ago, remains interesting and because in some quarters it was thought he accused artists of cheating, it is much refuted. It's not something I care too much about, this bewailing of attacks on untouchables - for isn't it frequently so that the polemic of one generation becomes the orthodoxy of another? Years ago, it was said to me that I'd never met a sacred cow I didn't want to barbecue. At the time, I didn't know whether to feel proud or worried about being negatively critical so, typically, I did both. What I care about is that discourse remains humane - kindness and compassion being qualities missing from much discourse, political or otherwise, in the present day - as humane as the mention of the importance of these two men to each other.

And that was it, the connection - nothing more important than a synapse or two sparking at each other.

Alexander Baillie was also painted, as a child with his family, by Thomas Gainsborough.

Portrait of Alexander Baillie from Portraits by Ingres, Image of an Epoch, edited by Gary Tinterow and Philip Conisbee, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry N Abrams, 1999.

Images of portrait busts from here.

Thomas Gainsborough painting courtesy The Tate Gallery

Monday, November 15, 2010

Lord Mullion's Secret or One Thing Led to Another

I cannot remember exactly what in James Lees-Milne's wartime diaries sent me to the library searching for Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, which I found but have yet to discover why I wanted to read the book in the first place and, without going back through the years 1944 and 1945 in Lees-Milne's diaries, I'm not likely to. However, walking between the stacks, call-number scribbled on a sticky trying to find the Waugh book, I did make a discovery or, rather, a rediscovery - a name I'd not thought of in years, Michael Innes.

What caught my eye was the title, Lord Mullion's Secret, silver on the black spine of a small shabby book. The author's name was covered by the library catalogue label but, always willing to be sidetracked, I opened the book and began to read one of the best books I've read in a long, long time.

When I was a graduate student, one of my professors advised us that the best way to tell if a book is worth reading – and I think she was probably referring to serious art criticism or post-modern philosophy, rather than detective stories – is to read the first chapter and the last. If neither grab one, as it were, then don't waste time with what's in between. But, rarely falling to the temptation of reading the denouement before opening sentences, the book went home with me, and so gripping is it I took it to read in the hotel in Asheville after we'd seen The Mikado, the Celt's all-time favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and tunes from which are likely to be sung in the shower, while baking, pottering about, or any other time deemed appropriate for a bit of happy song and dance (Tit Willow is a particular favorite).

"The Mullions were still quite comfortably off, although they no longer managed to pay their way in the entirely unobtrusive fashion they would have wished. Twice a week, and through the greater part of the year, they were obliged to turn Mullion Castle into a Stately Home. The disturbance was heralded shortly after breakfast, when Lord Mullion ascended to the leads and himself hoisted his personal standard above the battlements. He didn't greatly care for thus announcing to the world that he was 'in residence', since it seemed to him that whether he was at Mullion or not was a private matter with which the world had nothing to do. This particular small ostentation, indeed, was perfectly orthodox among his peers, a clear majority of whom probably maintained the habit. But Lord Mullion was a retiring man, who had to be kept up to the mark in the matter by his wife. "

Probably somewhere at that point I knew this book had to go home with me, so I grabbed Evelyn Waugh and moved on - as indeed I must here.

It was Wright Ludington's green cedar plank walled living room that caught my eye over twenty-five years ago. I marked the pages then, not realizing how I would again come to search for them – and not necessarily for aesthetic reasons, though these are undoubtedly beautiful rooms.

Though none are visible in these photographs, Wright Ludington collected work by some of my favorite artists - names which are now perhaps more evocative than true favorites, for Graham Sutherland was one of my favorite painters and one who is not well-known nowadays. A friend of both Mr Ludington and Roderick Cameron, and designer of the Christ in Glory tapestry in Coventry Cathedral, that was so impressive to me as a young teenager raised without any religious loyalties. Paul Nash, another English artist, who died the year after I was born, friend of Barbara Hepworth, herself a friend of Bernard Leach whom I once knew - six degrees of separation right there or, I suppose, just one thing leading to another.

Another, perhaps, is an inventory of art and artifacts inhabiting this most personal of Kunstkammers. The most pleasurable to me, not the painting by Edouard Vuillard, Interior with Baby, nor the Modigliani portrait, Rousseau's Castle by Moonlight, nor even the pair of Rouault paintings flanking the fireplace, but that small collection of objects, I suspect one of many such, made magical by distance and time - a four-thousand-year-old head of a Sumerian king and of a priest, two-thousand-year-old Tanagra figures and an Roman ivory fragment, a torso, Roman glass vials. It is the classical fragments, the busts, the heads, the torsos, the capitals, and the statues: bits, shards and splinters of civilization loved for themselves and what they represented.

The statue of Hermes, the Messenger of the Gods, in the covered loggia, above and here, formerly stood in the Sculpture Gallery at Lansdowne House - part of what John Cornforth described as "the most important collection in a London house." The statue reputedly was found near Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli whence it entered the Lansdowne collection.

The room above, I think, is the bedroom Billy Baldwin slept in on his first visit to Wright Ludington's Montecito house. 

"He opened the door not to a guest room, but to an art gallery. We entered at one corner and looked down what seemed like an endlessly long room - at least sixty feet. The white walls were filled with a fantastic collection of paintings of every period and nation. I stopped at every picture. Suddenly, it occurred to me that there weren't any windows - yet the room was filled with light. I looked up to see an ingenious skylight that extended the room's entire length. No one has ever wakened to such glorious sunlight.

"At each end of the room was a four-poster bed with blue-and-white curtains. Each bed had its own table, chest of drawers, books and a good light for reading. The beds were so remote from each other, and the curtains pulled so cozily around them, that even if you had to share the room, it would be like having the place to yourself."

Photographs by Charles White to accompany text by Robert Henning, from House and Garden, March 1983.
Photograph by John F Waggaman, of Billy Baldwin's bedroom from The Collector in America, compiled by the Editors of Art in America, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.
Introduction to Lord Mullion taken from Lord Mullion's Secret, A Red Badge Novel of Suspense, by John Innes, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1981. 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hicks, Hermes and a book review

More than thirty years after this photograph taken in Wright Ludington's salon, David Hicks was interviewed (a post for another day) by Charles Gandee for House and Garden - a source for some of the content of my recent posts - probably the best interior design magazine that ever was, its demise after the glory years under the editorship of Louis Oliver Gropp, much regretted. In the 1980s the magazine was renamed and reformatted as HG, the first of its, in my experience, two changes in pursuit of the chimera of hip. The last and most frenetic of the three formats was followed after the final closure by the limp and, by me, unlamented Domino.

Today's post did not begin as a review of the state of interior design publishing, but whilst I'm on the subject I might as well say how disappointed I am by the quality of the design of the long-awaited biography of Billy Baldwin. I'm not going to complain about the fact that I learned little that is new for that perhaps says as much about me as the author, or about the fact that I've seen a great deal of the photographs in other books about and by Billy Baldwin. I do not question the author's scholarship or his writing style, for it is a learned, well-written and easily-read book, but what I will say that is that when it was announced it was to be published I asked myself what else there was to say about Mr Baldwin and now I have the answer.

My concern is this: at this point in twenty-first century book production it should not so be so that photographs, however old the original, can look so sad on the printed page. The major problem, I think, is with the old print films - four-color halftones that were made before the refinements of the 1980s, and which, when enlarged beyond their capacity, begin to look fuzzy and dull on the page. Not all the images suffer in this way, but there is many a photograph that is fuzzy and dull. None of this can be laid at the door of the author - he after all is at the mercy, if mercy is the right word, of his designer and publisher. In this case, the publisher should have exercised more editorial control over the graphic designers.  Did anyone think of doing a print check?

When buying a book online, and I increasingly do because they are cheaper, I cannot leaf through as I could in a bookstore. There's a lesson here, of course, for had I been patient and waited until this book appeared on the shelves I would very likely not have bought it. Of all the books that were slated for publication last month, two were of interest to me - Billy Baldwin: The Great American Decorator being one of them. I'm so disappointed I think I'm going to return it. The other I've yet to check out - in the bookstore!

Photograph of David Hicks from David Hicks, A Life of Design, by Ashley Hicks, Rizzoli, 2009. The second photograph of Wright Ludington's salon by John F Waggaman from The Collector in America, compiled by Jean Lipman and the Editors of Art in America, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


"In one of the links to your last entry, there was mention of Billy McCarty meeting Douglas Cooper at the house of Henry McIlhenny in Philadelphia. McIlhenny had astounding furniture and pictures. In House and Garden, April 1986, John Richardson (part of the circle) wrote a remembrance of him with great photographs of the Rittenhouse Square house in its last incarnation. I believe you would enjoy seeing it."

So wrote a kind reader and when I replied that I didn't have that issue, within hours he sent me scans of pages from his files, and here they are - together with photographs, vignettes really, published in House and Garden after McIlhenny's death. These photographs - the ones after Degas' bronze Dancer, Dressed - accompany a text, a tribute to a friend, indeed written by John Richardson. I had found the essay mentioned above but not where I'd first looked.

"Henry McIlhenny, the Philadelphian collector who died this year, was one of the last American Maecenas: witness his sumptuous house (actually three houses knocked into one) on Rittenhouse Square and the Balmoralized castle he used to own in Donegal. Henry was not only a great connoisseur, he was one of the last exponents of a tradition going back to the Augustan Age: the tradition of the scholarly plutocrat with a passion for the gamut of civilized living - for gardening, cooking, and conversation as well as art, music, and literature. There was also a dash of the nabob about him: a benign Beckford.

"Although his French paintings were incomparable - in my opinion the best private collection of its kind in the country - Henry never allowed them to upstage his way of life. On the contrary, unlike today's collectors, most of whom exploit their acquisitions for financial, social, or egotistical reasons, he was at pains to play down his possessions, except in the company of other art lovers whose pleasure enhanced his own."

"To his vast circle of friends, Henry was also one of the warmest, funniest, liveliest, most generous men on either side of the Atlantic. For he lived by his dictum that 'wealth must be used for the enjoyment of others.' Henry's hospitality was such that one expected a flunky with McILHENNY ARMS embroidered on his cap to be waiting at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station or Belfast's airport. As he told Patrick O'Higgins, 'A good host is nothing more than a good innkeeper.' In fact, Henry was far, far more than an innkeeper, as the countless visitors to Rittenhouse Square or the thirty-thousand-acre fiefdom in Donegal (now a state park) can testify."

John Richardson wrote a extensive account of Henry McIlhenny's life - too long to be quoted in full here but he ends it with another heartfelt tribute to his friend.

"Last summer Henry planned to return to Venice, but death intervened: first his sister, Bernice; then, less than two weeks later, Henry himself. The flags of Philadelphia flew at half-mast and, on one public building in particular, could only be persuaded to return to normal with considerable difficulty. In due course, the Philadelphia Museum - heir to most of Henry's art - will put the collection on view and thus provide its creator with the best of monuments. Meanwhile, Henry lives on in the memories of those who knew him as more than a great host, more than a great collector: a friend who had the distinction, rare in the very rich, of a heart that eclipsed his fortune,"

Such a fine valediction is not met with often. Would that we all could be so well thought of at our passing.

One of the obvious differences between the two sets of photographs, besides the aforementioned vignetting, is one of disposition: the first being workmanlike record of space, the second a memoir of abundant atmosphere - and both represent a shift in the way interiors are viewed, and, by extension, the way photographs are perceived. Art or mechanics: your choice.

Look back through interior design magazines from the 1960s and 1970s and it becomes clear that the tradition of simply recording interiors established in the early years of the twentieth-century by Country Life, etc., had currency into the 1970s. It was in the 1980s that a change began to take place - drama began to be a quality sought after and was remarked upon in the magazines of the day - and homes began to be stage sets for lives written about in society columns and design magazines. For a number of years now shelter magazines, increasingly, have not been about design but about salesmanship and celebrity. I've mentioned before, I think, that for me the nadir of design publishing or, perhaps more correctly, the triumph of celebrity over good design were the two recent Architectural Digest essays about Michael Jackson and Gerard Butler.

These latter photographs, vignettes as I have said, of the much celebrating and celebrated Mr McIlhenny's rooms are more than a mere record; they give the impression almost of a slinking caress of light and shade over the lustrous surfaces of the Charles X bois claire furniture, watered silk, silk damask, brocades, marble, Degas' bronze, ormulu, gilded wood, Ingres', David's, Delacroix's, Renoir's, and Matisse's paint, a Boulle commode, and a fir tree's lights glowing through puffs of baby's breath.

So, finally, I come to my theme of late: circles within circles or, more simply put, connections. There is more to be written, vignettes drawn, not perhaps about Mr McIlhenny, but certainly about others who connect.

I have no record of the photographer for the first set of photographs. The photographs in the second set are by Oberto Gili and accompanied a text by John Richardson published in House and Garden, December 1986.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The problem with real life ...

... is that it gets in the way of blogging. We all have these weeks, lifetimes even, when looking back one wonders where the time went - and, just in case you were wondering, it really does go by faster the older one gets. I won't bore you with an account of a misspent fortnight, just suffice it to say that after many a tired moment and guilty feeling I'm back at my desk with a bit more energy than I've had for a while.

I first came across William McCarty's name two years ago in a forty-year-old Architectural Digest, and noting that he did not appear too often, at least in my collection of old magazines - a clear case for not writing based on assumptions - I wondered why he never made the big time. Little did I know, for when I began to research him as part of my personal history of late twentieth-century decorating, I discovered what to many of you might be an established fact: McCarty had been very well-known as a decorator in London, had worked for David Hicks, thereafter established his own firm and worked on both sides of the Atlantic. However, McCarty-Cooper, as he became, is of interest beyond any rooms he may have created.

There is a lot of available information about William McCarty, written after his death, and I felt rather put out that this, for me, new discovery - a member of the lost generation as I thought - was in fact very well-known. I was so put out, I deleted the essay about him I'd begun and got on with other subjects. But as the saying is, what goes around ... etc.

Earlier this year, in the office I came across a pile of Connoisseur magazines from 1991 and there written by David Patrick Columbia in the December issue, was an account of McCarty's life - all a run-up to the sale of his estate with its estimated $30,000,000 worth of art, the remnant, if remnant is the right word, of an inheritance left to him by his lover and adoptive father, Douglas Cooper - the man McCarty first met at the Philadelphia home of Henry McIlhenny. Also, and this is what tipped the balance of my renewed interest, there is a photograph of William McCarty at Van Day Truex's house in Provence - circles within circles, thus. In Columbia's account of William MacCarty's life is a curious quotation from Jay Steffey that in its way relates to what I have been writing about these past few weeks - circles of influence and friends of friends.

"He met people the way an attractive intelligent young gay man did in those days. There were cliques of older men. They found him; he didn't find them. Being homosexual and intelligent, Billy wasn't the type to spend his life running around bars and being a hooker."

As I say, a curious, if not dubious, implication about an older generation of gay men, cliques no less, roaming the cultural byways of Europe and America seeking in a Pygmalion way the young and the ready for advancement. Whatever the process, the twain - the older man and the young flibbertigibbit - Cooper and McCarty met, and history was made.

Here you see photographs of Douglas Cooper's Monaco apartment decorated by William McCarty - described in the text of the article as "an old friend and therefore aware of Cooper idiosyncrasies" - an apartment which, despite the poor quality of the twenty-year-old images, is pretty impressive, if in an hermetic way. These are rooms in a highrise building overlooking the Mediterranean, created out of newly-constructed raw space, that have the character of a reliquary, precious, preening and protective of priceless contents - and perhaps it is precisely those contents, the paintings, the sculpture, gouaches, medallions and drawings by artists such as Henri Laurens, Picasso, Giacometti, Gris, Miró, Léger, David d'Angers, Braque and Klee, rather than the architecture and decoration, that make these rooms interesting. Not that I wish to diminish William McCarty's achievement - for it must be said that the space does not seem vast and my image of a reliquary, small-scale, enameled, inlaid, chased, gilded and lined in costly stuffs, is not far off the mark.

Beyond what I have written here about McCarty, I think it a better use of your time if you read this and this. It would be redundant to repeat either. However, what is of interest are the connections, circles within circles and who know whom. Much of the history of twentieth-century decorating is, in my opinion, an account, albeit deeply buried, of talented gay men who had connections, cultural and social, both covert and concealed.

William McCarty-Cooper died of AIDS in 1991, aged fifty-three, having disposed of his estate beyond a few small bequests equally amongst family and friends.

Photographs of William McCarty's work by Derry Moore to accompany text by Lesley Branch for Architectural Digest, February 1981.

Photograph of William McCarty in 1973 at Van Day Truex's house in Provence by Gloria Braggiotti Etting, published to accompany an essay Sons and Lovers written by David Patrick Columbia for Connoisseur, December 1991.