The semester is over, the last interior design students are graduating, our Italian classes are finished - as are all our holiday celebrations, except for, that is, friends coming in for drinks tonight; lunch at Bergdorf's on Saturday and dinner with old friends in New Jersey later that evening; afternoon tea next Monday with a neighbor and her children at A Grand Hotel in London and dinner the same day with an old friend at A Trendy Restaurant; dinner in Rome on the 25th with neighbors from down the street and, on our return from Naples, a visit with the Celt's family in London. My goddaughter, the Celt's ten-year-old niece, has decided that the best possible treat for her uncles is for her to take them to the Victoria and Albert Museum, go ice-skating, view the city from the London Eye and eat Italian food in Soho.
You'd think, reading the first paragraph, that the Celt and I plan nothing that doesn't involve eating - and to a degree you'd be right. Food outside and frequently in the house often means friends are involved and seemingly being on vacation (going on holiday as we used to say it) isn't any different. Everything is planned and booked - flights, a train journey, hotels, restaurants, tickets to Villas Kerylos and Ephrussi-Rothschild, even a car to pick us up from the airport. I don't mind driving around Nice, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat or Monaco but I refuse to deal with Rome's traffic from behind the wheel of my own automobile.
Finally, we are going away - to places we love and to places we have never been.
"You're staring again," said the Celt. "I am," I said, "but it's all right - I'm too old to be visible." If I was staring it was inadvertent because actually I was listening to a young man, sitting at the counter of a New York coffee shop where coffee beans flew through tubes across the ceiling down to machines and baristas supplying inexplicably baroque concoctions of coffee,who wastalking, futilely, it seemed to me, to his companion who was busy watching another man at the other end of the counter who, in his turn was watching .... well, you get the idea. But what had caught my ear was the phrase "the rise of the novel" - not a phrase one expects to hear early on a Saturday morning anywhere.
Used as I am to being met with dismay and bewilderment when I suggest to students that they might pick up a book and read, I settled in, cup in hand, eyes safely averted in the direction of the famous-but-whose-name-escapes-me person walking his dog, for what I hoped was going to be an interesting few minutes. Well, it wasn't, but the speaker's voice having that rising inflection that makes all sentences sound like a question, kept me eavesdropping a few minutes longer until he really grabbed my attention by stating very dramatically "I. Nearly. Died."At which point the Celt, fixing me with a don't-dare-argue stare, said "We. Need. To leave."
We meandered on through streets virtually empty - so unexpected for Manhattan - until we climbed the steps to the High Line and realized it was no wonder the streets were empty, everyone was here and they were walking in clots very, very slowly along the pathway taking in all the wonders than a camera phone can bring.
Later, we sat for a while, that weekend after Thanksgiving, in the sunshine on a stone bench in Washington Square, talking about our plans for our winter vacation and how near our departure was; about how neither of us wanted to shop in the city, except perhaps, for curiosity's sake, a visit to the new Uniqlo on Fifth Avenue (for me, because of its crowds and noise, hell on earth); about where we would eat lunch; about how we hadn't any real interest in visiting museums ... just talking.
I mentioned an article I'd read in the Design and Decorating section of the Wall Street Journal, entitled 10 Odd, Yet Essential Elements of Styleandit seemed to me nothing more than trite advice about a formula for decorating a house. Which of course it is, but after I'd gone through the list, the Celt asked me if I'd checked around our place recently to see how manyof these odd yet essential elements we actually owned. "Nonsense", I said, poo-pooing the very idea. "When we're home again take a look," he said.
And here, dear reader, is what I observed. Ms Needleman's first essential is A little animal... people like cute things and animals are cute - it is so nice to have a small creature in figurine form in your house. A funny stuffed animal on a nicely made bed, a white porcelain monkey ... Well, I'm not sure if a Meiji bronze crab counts, but if it does, then I guess check! But, I must say, neither of us likes cute (unless, that is, it sports six-pack abs).
Next up: Jollifiers ... sentimental things that spread a little joy every time you cast your eye upon them. Goodness, we have not just one, but one each. For the Celt, a framed Hermès scarf and for me a Delft tulpenpot, a souvenir of times in Amsterdam.
Third on Ms Needleman's list are Mollifiers, which she defines as ... the stuff that you allow into your home because awful as it may be, it makes someone else happy. We appear to have none of these. Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that almost all our relatives live on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean so there's little need to appease or to be prepared for the unexpected visit.
Whilean odd chairis useful, it is not used primarily for sitting. It is desirable primarily for its amusing demeanor, making it more like a piece of sculpture in the shape of a chair... We certainly have one of these, in the form of a flea-market 19th century French Modern chair we had recovered in a Timney Fowler silk we bought thirty years ago. We had never found a use for the fabric, with its sketchy drawings of the Three Graces, but eventually it revealed itself as the perfect complement for this dumpy little chair. And the fact that we bought this fabric on a whim without knowing quite how we were going to use it brings to mind another of Ms Needleman's pieces of advice: when love strikes, buy it. You can figure out what to do with it later.
An inordinate number of geometrically-cut Murano and sommerso glass bowls that send off all sorts of scintillations probably come under the heading of shiny object, and are certainly, as Ms Needleman describes .... completely useless items whose only purpose is to sit around looking attractive....
Ethnic textiles are pretty scarce chez Blue, with the notable exception of a pair of pillows made from vintage Japanese kimono silk. Bought on Etsy on one of the numerous whims to which the Celt is subject. Thank the lord for return policies!
Not too much brown furniture ... too many brown pieces in a room is the surest way to suck the life of it. Ever seen a room and wondered why it looked like a hotel lobby? Brown! Nottoo much, just a smidgen, in each of our rooms - a dining table, a side table in the living room and bedside tables in the bedroom.
Decorative mirrors ... a big mirror over a fireplace or in a dining room can toss daylight around the room and multiply the light of a chandelier or the glimmer of candles set in its path. That, and it is a big beautiful object that can create the kind of drama that grounds a room. A highly functional decorative object if ever there was one. Yup, got two of those! One a large Venetian that indeed tosses light dramatically around the guest bathroom; the other a gilded, apparently Gustavian treasure that, amazingly, is in fact a gem from IKEA's all-too-short-lived series of reproductions of Swedish classics. We often ask first-time guests who admire it to guess its true provenance. No-one ever does.
Lacking a fireplace, as we do, might be considered a disadvantage for tenet number nine: log baskets. But as Ms Needleman points out,even if you have no use for split wood, you might still like the rugged texture of a big woven basket in your living room or front hall. It gives you something a little rough and adds a sense of depth to both sleek-modern and refined, antique-filled interiors. And in fact, a rather large log basket does duty in our household as a laundry basket.
The last essential is, apparently, some patina, of which our home has plenty. Indeed, the occupants alone provide a fair measure!
I started skeptically believing my own exquisite taste to be immune to the newspaper article's ten decorating clichés du jour. So imagine my surprise to discover we've committed completed nine out of the ten! Well, my dear, I. Nearly. Died.
Click here for a celebration of family and, perhaps, give thanks.
Photograph of a kitchen table in a shepherd's cottage "... an early 19th-century cottage, one room thick, built of rough flints. Oil-lamps are still used here and cooking is done either on the open fire or on an oil-stove. The fireplace is built up with bricks and has a wrought-iron front of two bars. The fire-bar which once when across the chimney and from which pots and kettles might hang, has disappeared" from English Cottages and Farmhouses, text by Olive Cook, photographs by Edwin Smith, Thames and Hudson, London 1954.
I have written* and quoted much about Roderick Cameron over the last year or so and, though this is likely to be the last post about him for a while, I'm not done yet - to quote David Hicks, "I could write a book about Roderick Cameron."
Spurred on as I was, in the beginning, by my distaste at two comments in print about Cameron: waspish and grab-arse pansy, long dead of Aids** eventually I came to realize how central he had been, not only to the lives of his friends but central also, if not to my life, then to much of my thinking. Given that I've concentrated on the positive aspects of his character as related by his friends and, in two gratifying instances, by people who had worked for him, what I have written borders, perhaps, on hagiography but, to be honest, I've never been interested in writing an exposé.
"For almost all of us here this morning in the Grosvenor Chapel - a building he must have particularly admired - the death of Roderick Cameron marks the end of a very long friendship, which made a great addition to our lives. My own friendship with him began just after the end of World War I, and lasted nearly forty years. When I first met him, he was living with his mother in London at nearby Lees Place; and he and Lady Kenmare used sometimes to attend the delightful dinner parties given by the famous Anglo-American hostess Lady Cunard (who for some reason hated to be called a hostess) on the seventh floor of the Dorchester Hotel. I remember him in those days as a tall, elegant, but rather quiet young man, somewhat overshadowed by his resplendent mother, a celebrated beauty of the pre-war world. And it was only a little later, when I stayed with them at their house in the south of France, that he seemed quite to have emerged from the chrysalis of youth and to have become a completely individual character."
Among his earliest achievements, I suppose, was to redesign his mother's house, La Fiorentina, near St. Jean, Cap Ferrat. Before the war it had been a large Edwardian villa; but during the German occupation it was half-destroyed, and Rory completely transformed it on the classical lines of one of the splendid villas Palladio built near Venice. This was an important feat, since in later years, La Fiorentina was the harmonious background against which he exercised his gift for friendship. Rory Cameron was a man with many friends - that is a point I should like to emphasize; and, besides being himself a Man of Taste, he always loved to share his taste. It was not only for himself but for his friends' benefit that he both collected pictures and smaller objects of art, and at the same time laid out a glorious garden overlooking the Gulf of Beaulieu - it once included, I recollect, a pool covered with bright blue water lilies he had brought back from Australia, which, alas, a greedy fellow-gardner eventually stole.
"Rory's generosity was a keynote of his character. So was his hospitality; and among his guests were many writers. I remember Cyril Connolly (for whom La Fiorentina was an anticipation of Heaven) sunning himself upon the terraces. Rory's neighbours were William Somerset Maugham and Jean Cocteau. He was deeply interested in literature; and though he was conscious of having had a somewhat neglected education, he felt, himself, a keen desire to write. His subject was often his own travels; and his first book, 'My Travel's History,' which dealt largely with a visit to Egypt, was spotted by a clever publisher's reader, and accepted and published by Hamish Hamilton. He gave us - and I personally much enjoyed - no less that eight other books, mostly dealing with his impressions of foreign lands, from India to Australia, the continent where his mother had been born and brought up. And in each of his books I noticed the same quality. He had what I can only call a painter's eye. He could bring an exotic landscape or building to life by his evocative observations of line and colour, and his discerning sense of beauty.
"I have said enough, I hope, to suggest that he was no mere leisured dilettante, but had a true creative impulse. He worked hard, was always ready to accept criticism, and aimed at perfection in everything he did, whether he was writing a book, rebuilding a house, planting a garden, or placing a picture he had discovered and acquired exactly where it should be hung. His tastes were catholic, and he exercised them generously. In his personal life, as I have already said, he had an extraordinary gift for friendship. It is both as a friend we valued and as a creative spirit we respected that we are bidding him goodbye today."
Peter Quennell's "eulogy at Rory's memorial service, November 1985."
I first came across Roderick Cameron, merely a figure in a landscape - territory fascinating and as yet unexplored by me - in an article published in The World of Interiors twenty-seven years ago. I had no idea who he was - all I knew was that his house, Les Quatre Sources, at Ménerbes, impressed me no-end. The photographs and his description of what was his last house house stayed with me for years - his phrase the silver-green of the back of an olive leaf has assuredly been a touchstone for my own aesthetic. I look around our flat, sparely but not sparsely furnished, and can see colors, muted but not diminished, responding well to the early light from the east and to the golden light of the westering sun.
As the Celt and I head to Manhattan for Thanksgiving, let me offer my thanks to all of you who have over the past two years, contributed to and commented on my journey of discovery of Roderick Cameron and his circle. It has been, and continues to be, a delightful odyssey. Thank you all for coming along for the voyage.
*Click on Roderick Cameron's name in sidebar "Topics"
** The link for this quote seemingly is inactive.
Photographs of the Grosvenor Chapel where Roderick Cameron's memorial service took place from Wikipedia Commons.
"I could write a book about Roderick Cameron but this is a small and humble tribute to the nicest man I ever knew.
"In 1954, when I was twenty-three, I was invited to lunch at Fiorentina by Elizabeth Chavchavadze who was staying there with Rory Cameron. Arriving on my rented scooter, I had little idea of the impact on my senses that that first glimpse into Rory's world would have, or what a tremendous influence he would be on my taste, or what a friend he would become. I was bowled over by everything, from the white-washed trunks of the straight rows of orange trees in front of the Palladian portico to the vast arrangement of sunflowers on the Louis XV table, next to the Sung horse and the huge books of engravings, to the fez on Rejabo's head, the Moorish water garden, the Battersby trompe-l'oeil inner hall, and the vista between the sphinxes leading down to the pool, which seemed to be part of the sea below.
"At the pool an elegant whippet welcomed me, followed by George III, but strangely tanned and tall, who greeted Shirley Worthington and me with diffident charm and introduced us to Pat Cavendish, Peter Quennell, Lady Alexandra Metcalfe, Jimmy Douglas, Lady Waterpark, Anthony Hail, and Hamish Erskine. Princess Chavchavadze looked after me at lunch, which was absolutely delicious, and when we had almost finished Rory's mama arrived with a Hirax on her shoulder, murmuring to the assembled company, seated on the Italianate loggia above the box and lavender, 'Rather late - painting, you know." She had to be Rory's mama - anyone less elegant, exotic, and simply beautiful would not have been appropriate. His sapphire eyes were from her.
"Quite overwhelmed, we left for our pension in Antibes, but I was determined to re-enter the magic world created by Rory that I had seen and, before leaving, I had pressed my London telephone number into his hand.
"That autumn he telephoned and I got to know him. Out of his kingdom he was a frank, sometimes shy, always invigorating personality. His knowledge of enthusiasms - for the pre-Raphaelites, Mies Van der Rohe, flowers, photographers, designers, writers, eighteenth-century follies, clothes, restaurants, exhibitions, travel, antiques, house and 'interesting' people - were so sympathetic. I was able to take him to the legendary Winnie Portalington and my Essex folly, The Temple, and other architectural delights he didn't know. Subsequent, almost successive, summers from 1955 to 1983 I stayed with him at Fiorentina, Le Petit Clos, Le Clos, in Co. Donegal, and finally at Les Quatre Sources. He came often to Britwell and came over to see us when we had Place de l'Horloge in Roquebrune-sur-Argens near St. Raphael and at Classiebawn Castle in Co. Sligo. His visits were always enormously enlivening.
"He would go through the rooms, feeling the objects, opening those that had lids. Once, at Roquebrune, he opened a large orange Scandinavian tub and was delighted to find that it turned out to contain ice. He had one of the best senses of juxtaposing objects, a wonderful appreciation of opulence combined with understatement, and he used beiges in a masterly way. If he was not a professional interior decorator he certainly had an immensely sure touch when doing his own houses and gardens.
"And he was the perfect host - the food, the comfort, the guests. Also a wonderfully appreciative guest himself, and a great traveler. Pamela and I did two expeditions with him - one to Aixe-en-Provence, the other around a game reserve in Kenya, and he edited out the boredom of, respectively, too many fountains and too man girrafes. 'Come on,' he said quietly, after banging on the landrover roof, 'we've seen the giraffes, let's go on to zebra.'
"He always called me 'Master David,' and the most wonderful thing for me - after all, I learned so much from HIM - was when in the spring of the year he died to told my Persian friend Nahid Ghani, for whom I was building a house in Portugal and whom he hadn't met before, "My dear, you are in the best possible hands.' It will be, forever, one of my greatest accolades.
"Whenever I've solved an architectural problem or wondered about a planting solution or when I hang pictures in Portugal and group objects, I long, long, long to see his reaction, to have his approbation OR gentle criticisms as in the pool garden at Britwell in 1964 - 'Do you think the garden is a little big for the pool?'
"The Prince of Provence is no longer with us but we have so many happy stories and events to remind us of what a tremendous, hugely warm, erudite, generous and cosy friend Rory has been in all our lives."
Two portraits, then: one, an affectionate eulogy by David Hicks of his friend whom he called the Prince of Provence; the second, a portrait thought to be of Samuel Johnson's much-cherished servant, Frank Barber, versions of which hang in the Tate Gallery and the Menil Collection - Joshua Reynolds' A Young Black, whether copy or original I have no idea, hung above the chimneypiece in that same Prince of Provence's drawing room in Paris.
Image of Francis Barber (or, as it has been suggested, of Sir Joshua Reynold's own servant) from the Tate Gallery.
Roderick Cameron's living room photographed by Jacques Boucher for Les réussites de la décoration francaise, 1950 - 1960. Collection Maison et Jardin, Condé Nast S.A. Editions de Pont, 1960
"Well, at least nowadays I don't buy too many," I said. The Celt, born tactful, forbore from commenting or even glancing at the growing pile of books by my chair - my old professor is retired and culling her library - as I unwrapped two parcels I'd just collected from the mailroom. I really don't buy too many books, though I suppose that depends on what the definition is of too many books.
Of late, I have found it difficult to buy interior design books - I'm willing and have the means, yet despite the flurry of publishing in the last month or so, I find so little of interest on the bookshelves. I know that, as I've aged, I have become very critical about the content of a book and consequently am loath, as I once was not, to buy examples of vanity publishing or compendia of this, that and the other, whether allegedly curated or not. I wish I could dismiss the impression of an ever-and-increasingly-revolving cycle of nonentity, but seemingly cannot. Maybe, as you might well infer, I feel I really have seen it all.
One book I have wanted for a while now, and the first to be unwrapped, is The English Country House: From the Archives of Country Life. It is a big and heavy book, filled with the most beautiful houses photographed, with nary a vignette (but plenty of close-ups of details, certainly), all sixty-two of them, since Country Life began in the 1980s to publish photographs in color. These photographs have the rare quality of being as attractive and as texturally rich as were the black-and-white photographs of the previous decades. There are plenty of full, explanatory captions and, tipped-in, six essays by the likes of Marcus Binney, Tim Knox, John Martin Robinson, Geoffrey Tyack and Jeremy Tyack. Too heavy, without benefit of a lectern, to read in bed, but a joy to leaf through early in the morning, coffee in hand and brain on resurrect, this book is example from Rizzoli on how to produce, publish and persuade.
Had I not already owned Manhattan Style; Sister: The Life of Legendary American Interior Decorator Mrs Henry Parish III; Parish Hadley: Sixty Years of American Design; Albert Hadley: The Story of America's Preeminent Interior Designer; Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration; The Inspiration of the Past: Country House Taste in the Twentieth Century or Colefax and Fowler: The Best in English Interior Decoration, I might have found Sister Parish: American Style more interesting than I did. Please don't misunderstand: I am definitely glad I bought the book which is well-produced and designed by someone who knows, perhaps too well, the discipline of the grid. A few times I wished some photographs had been larger, and I really felt I had learned nothing new - a negative comment made by Mrs Parish about Mrs Onassis, notwithstanding.
Have I really seen it all? I wonder.
My magazine subscriptions have dwindled to two: The World of Interiors and the New Yorker; one taken since 1983 and the second given to us as a Christmas gift when we came here eighteen years ago. We read them both, still, after all these years. It is not that I let the other subscriptions lapse - one, as I mentioned a while back, I cancelled because I found I had unwittingly or, rather, unwillingly, agreed to a constant renewal service, and the second I cancelled for the same reasons. In the second case I learned during a phone conversation in the entanglement the 1-800 menu that my subscription had just been renewed until 2014. With neither magazine is a constant renewal service, and I use that word "service" advisedly, worth my while. I look into both, and others, in the bookstore but having learned to resist such blandishments as go for classic with easy, unfussy details or go for graphic from window to walls or, my favorite so far, go for big gestures and make it fun I put them back on the shelf.
I was curious about the third book, but waited to order it until I'd had a chance to leaf through it in the bookstore. I have an older book about Oliver Messel which is interesting enough but left a lot to be desired. I was curious - and was pleasantly surprised to find that Oliver Messel in the Theatre of Design could be a good addition to our library. I confess that in the past I have found Messel's style more than a tad twee, too redolent of the high-pitched precious accents of the British elocution schools. I must say his much-lauded tropical architecture baffles me - at least, the lauding baffles me. However, not wishing to appear negative about a book I'm actually glad to own and look forward to reading more of, I shall explain where my irritation lies.
One of the pleasing things about book design to me, indeed one of the most desirable, is where the layout does not detract from the contents. Such, alas, is not the case with the Messel book. It is with the layout, the graphic design, that my irritation lies - by the time I got to the Contents double-page spread and the Foreword page I was grousing about the page layout and the typography, muttering to the Celt, "look at this, look at this!"
How, you might be asking, did I not spot this at the bookstore. Actually I did spot it but, in my desire to have the book, I suspended my disbelief. I am not returning the book, because the contents are good enough to transcend the irritations of the layout, and give me a better understanding of who Messel was, and what his achievement was.
The image of Sister Parish: American Style from here though the book was bought at Amazon.com.
The image of The English Country House: From the Archives of Country Life from Amazon.com whence the book.
The image of Oliver Messel: In the Theatre of Design from here. My copy came from Amazon.com.
The other morning at the only surviving bookstore in this part of town, ready to be persuaded despite the histrionic title that I really needed to have the latest book by a well-known decorator, an erstwhile favorite of mine, and someone, I'm sure, nominated tastemaker and trend-setter many times over. I wasn't going to buy the book then and there because, being willing to defer gratification by a few days, I intended to order it online. In the end, though, after going through the book twice, I decided not to buy it at all. When a book, to my eye, is nothing more than a series of vignette after déshabille vignette, I find, much to my and undoubtedly the Celt's relief, that I no longer can be persuaded that I really need a book for its potential historical value, especially when, disconcertingly, I hear myself saying I might not live long enough for it to become history.
However, this isn't going to be a criticism of that particular decorator's work or even about the fatuous language used when writing about celebrity interior designers (tastemaker and trendsetter) or those that wish to be so - rather more a plea for fewer vignettes and less styling thereof. Perhaps I'm being lazy, but sometimes it's hard to understand how a room as a whole works. I'm sure I don't need to elucidate because you've all seen the petal and leaf bestrewn table tops, the asymmetrically arranged mini-gallery of mini-art, assortments of trinkets disposed on bookshelves and on and under tables, darling little lamps on kitchen countertops ........ well, you've seen 'em all and possibly loved 'em all as well!
Dear reader, it is what it is.
One of the more restrained and interesting riffs on the Post-Modernism of the 1980s, a mix of allusion and illusion, modern with the seeming old, David Whitcomb's four pavilions connected to a long hall, an eighty-five-foot-long spine, set high on a ridge overlooking the Hudson River was, I thought at the time, one of the most exciting houses published in the 1980s. I still find it interesting but, to be honest, not quite as exciting as it once was.
Perhaps my eye is a lot more critical than it was twenty or thirty years ago and Whitcomb's house is very definitely of its time. Not that I wish to imply that for a house to date is a bad thing but there are some decades, being afflicted by extremes as were the 1980s, that have a very strong flavor and cannot but date.
I struggled with what I wrote above (a train of thought I still cannot complete) about as much as I struggled with the feeling that sometime during the the late spring and early summer I crossed a personal Rubicon, and over the last month I came to realize my own "summer stream"(to misquote H V Morton)* had dried up. Many a time I've opened this post to continue writing and each time I went away frustrated with myself. It is clear to me, much as did the Rubicon of old, I must set a new course.
*H V Morton, a fellow Lancastrian, prolific travel writer and, for me, a newly-discovered pleasure and one of the positive aspects of what I suppose has been a kind of writer's block. In the hopes of finding a remedy, I haunted the university library and found many a book to occupy me and dampen my frustration - Max Beerbohm's A Christmas Garland, E M Forster's short stories The Life to Come, Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham, Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog, Wilde's Devoted Friend by Maureen Borland, and Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino.
A Traveller in Italy by H V Morton, not actually found in the library but given to me recently by my old college professor - a happy coincidence given that we are planning our own travels in Italy - is a such a pleasure to read. I cannot say travel writing is a genre that has heretofore particularly interested me but I can see me reaching for more of Morton's books, especially those about Rome. TheFountains of Rome was a darn good read if a little too heavy (physically) for bedtime reading.
"A few miles north of Rimini, on the coast road to Ravenna, I came to a trickle of summer water that was flowing under a bridge. Its name was the Rubicon. It was once the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Rome, and any general who crossed it with his army, without the permission of the Senate, was committing rebellion. Caesar crossed it because his spies had told him that his enemies in the capital were plotting his downfall, and he knew he had to march on Rome or perish.........
"It is curious how often famous rivers fail to live up to their associations: the Tiber is not much to look at, and the Jordan is hardly wider than the Rubicon. In winter, of course, the Rubicon, like all torrents, would be formidable, and Caesar forded it on January 10, in the year 48 B.C., which, as the unreformed calendar was about seven weeks ahead of the sun, would really have been during the November floods. As I stood looking at this stream, to me one of the most thought-provoking sights in Italy, cars, motor-cycles, scooters, coaches, and caravans continued to rush past; and during the few moments I was there several hundred people must have crossed the Rubicon without being aware of it."
Photographs by Langdon Clay to accompany text written by Gini Alhadeff for Architectural Digest. Architecture by WM. Richard McGilvray and interior design by David Whitcomb. I cannot cite the date of publication yet.
Years ago, before the onslaught of truth-in-advertising-standards, Britain's elderly, when in need of a tonic, were tempted by advertising for a very popular fortified wine that promised, or at least implied, that a tipple of the sweet sherry-like substance drunk on a daily basis, would be fortifying for the nerves.
In that sentence I purposely used a phrase that in weaker moments can drive me to needing a tonic - in my case a Manhattan. "On a daily basis," is a construction, like "on a regular basis" that makes me grind my teeth. WTF is wrong with good old-fashioned "daily" or "regularly?" Why use four words when one suffices? "Double-check" is another, though, having once worked for someone whose default was "doublecheck," there may be more than a little prejudice about that particular phrase. "My fine china and crystal" - to my ear elided as "myfinechinaandcrystal" is enough to make me reach for my hip flask if not my revolver.
Having recently spent a few days with my fellow-original-countrymen, I know, believe me, how heinously intrusive stock phrases can be. Brits use "pop" all the time - as in "I'll just pop down to the slaughter-house" or "be a lamb, and just pop this in the oven" - pop, pop, pop, all over the damned place! On the subject of "pop", could we just stop using the phrase "pop of color?" Please?
I caught myself using what, around here, is a typical response when asked how one is. "I'm good," said I to my mother-in-law when asked how I had been. Of course, what I meant was that I had been well - the moral aspects of my character having nothing to do with it at all, at least to me.
Our fine china and crystal? Wedgwood and Yeoward, of course. Which reminds me, I need to pop the dinner in the oven, and before the neighbours pop in for a drink, the Celt has his orders to pop into the supermarket for things we need on a daily basis, and I'll need to pop into the bathroom to freshen up, but first, let me just double-check the spelling and I'll click "post" and pop this into blogosphere.
I found these pictures of a dining room by William Hodgins in the same batch of clippings the photographs of Arthur Smith's house came from. I'd had these photographs since 1983 and the room with its delicious combination of dark wooden table surrounded by white-painted chairs and flanked by bookshelves seems as fresh and inviting today as it did nearly thirty years ago. A tonic indeed.
Photographs by Peter Vitale accompanying text written by Francis Levy for Architectural Digest, May 1983.
Early this morning, before class started, I began a conversation with two students about reading, assuming that they'd enjoyed researching, reading and completing the writing tasks that were due today. I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that neither of them read for pleasure: reading to them means cramming the evening before a test. I admit that two students may not be representative of a generation (both students are in their early twenties) but I wonder if typical they may be. The recent statistics about the drastic drop in hard-cover and paperback book sales make me wonder who is reading. Is it just old fogies like me? When I and my like die, shall we, anachronistically, have represented an era - one, it occurs to me, that is already long-gone. If you'll forgive an Ecclesiastes reference, I wonder if the time for planting became the time for uprooting without our realizing, for beyond what we read bookstore and library closures and the loss of jobs, there is the closing of the collective mind.
Not quite what I set out to write after a fortnight's blogging silence, that first paragraph, but I must say recently I have found it increasingly difficult to stay on track. I've been occupied with things other than interior design - newly married friends gave a dinner party, the Celt's family from France, Scotland and New York were in town - averting my gaze, as it were, from the fact that that I find little of interest in modern decorating.
"He who dies with the most toys wins" - a phrase current in the 1980s and one not easily forgotten if, like me, you are a lover of simple, uncluttered interiors - though my use of the word "simple" is perhaps a little disingenuous for it is not simplicity per se, but a distaste for the self-consciously artless, the ironically unpolished, the carpingly self-effacing or the profligately vacuous.
I realize there are limits to looking back to 1980s and 1990s interior decorators - those men, generally speaking, whom I call the Lost Generation - and a time must come when that particular seam is mined out and a new direction must be found. That said, yesterday I found another Arthur E Smith interior (his own, a carriage-house and second home, in Charleston, SC) in a batch of old magazine clippings - an article saved because of the house and its interiors, not because of the decorator, for those days, I think, I had little idea of Smith's role in my recurring theme of connections within connections.
I wish sometimes it were not possible to think in terms of class and I'm very aware that we Americans find it a difficult subject to discuss - almost as difficult as the existence of bidets - but this interior of Arthur E Smith's is entirely driven by class, and one based on education of both the mind and the eye.
It could be argued that there's a correlation between the number of mass-produced and faddish accessories, the owner's aspirations and the suspension of disbelief with regard to marketing. Fads make fools of us: witness the dominance of the so-called Belgian style - the greyest of styles deriving from the antique shops of Axel Vervoordt and other Brabantse antiquairs and decorators and now devolved via trend-driven decorating magazines to mall and catalogue. The style could be Belgian, French Provincial, Gustavian, English country house - the name doesn't matter. What matters is that we keep on buying the furniture store vignette (remember that annoying tune "buy the room, get the ....") much as we might buy an outfit put together by a clothing store clerk. That's what matters.
Photographs by Peter Vitale to accompany text written by him for, I think, Architectural Digest. I clipped and did not note magazine, issue or date. If anyone can tell me so I can correct this, I would be grateful. Also, if anyone can identify the print on Smith's wicker chairs I would very much appreciate it. I know it was from Brunschwig et Fils.
During the last few weeks as my life creaked its way to back to normality, I did much planning of the country house that looms large in my imagination and which, despite all my attempts at getting us to reconnoitre lake and mountaintop, we have yet to buy.
It's the English half of me, I think, that longs for a house in the country - I read somewhere an acerbic comment that when Brits make a pile of money they all head for the country, heads filled with notions of joining the gentry, to refurbish every bothy, parsonage and manse in sight - whereas the American half rather would like a snappy little cottage, fit only for ourselves and a couple of friends, atop a gusty dune by the ocean. The Celt, raised as he was by parents who for various reasons lived in the Scottish hinterland, considers the countryside nothing more than psychical and cultural wilderness, brimming with rain, flies and shit. Undeniably, the countryside does have a lot of each, but my relationship with a romantic idea remains strong despite me knowing that, were I there, I'd probably spend a lot of time sloshing, swatting, dodging and squelching. The Celt, as I say, does not think as I do.
I can accept that one might, romantically, wish to connect the interior of a country house to its surroundings - give a nod to the spirit of place, as it were. I accept, also, that in the language of design there is a degree of cant - conventions and pieties that seem to express an esoteric level of connection. For example, the once de rigeur phrase bringing the outside in has been supplanted by a more mystical honoring of the landscape beyond the windows - a paying of tribute, nymph-like, to the trees, the streams, the flora and fauna. What it means, of course, is that wicker, grass, rust, distressed paint, driftwood, flour-sack pillows, litters of herbal, avian and floral motifs, even a jelly-jar or two, aflitter with lightening bugs, cosy up together with hand-adzed beams, reclaimed barnwood walls and floors, faded oriental carpets, crusty antiques from last week yesteryear in a tasteful tizzy of rustic whimsical cliches. None of it actually risible, if that is what you like or, at least, lust after, but to me it is about as real as the stylist's set pieces in magazines where one sees tea tables set out on a lawn or under trees - as if there wasn't a fly, mosquito, a chigger, flea, tick or snake within a million miles.
Our friend Will emailed to tell me about photographs of David Whitcomb's country house that he'd found and another friend kindly lent me the book. I recognized it immediately, of course - somewhere here there's a box of clippings amongst which is the original article about the house - I was so impressed thirty-odd years ago, when I saw the photographs for the first time. In fact I still am, and it's quite clear that Mr Whitcomb had no truck with a gimcrack pantomime of country life. His house, a converted mill, which he enlarged with a stainless-steel structure as simple as a child's building block, became his year-round residence after he gave up his city apartment.
I could bang on about Mr Whitcomb's sense of place, his appreciation of the structure of the old mill, his taste in furnishing it, and how the more contemporary room, the steel studio, has stood the test of time, but I don't need to - its clear from these photographs.
And it's clear to me that this is precisely the kind of house I would like for us to inhabit. Oh, I don't necessarily mean a mill-house, though that would have its charms; rather, a house comfortably and amply furnished, cognizant of infirmity and youth, and with those most valuable of commodities: space, peace and quiet.
Photographs of David Whitcomb's country house from Architectural Digest: Country Homes by Daniel Eifert to accompany "original text adapted by Cameron Curtis McKinley." The Knapp Press, Los Angeles, 1982.
Hard to imagine, perhaps, but one of the most beautiful aspects, to me, of the Frick Collection, is the muted murmur, the continuous crackle and creak underfoot, of the wooden floors. On a rainy day, as it was a couple of Sundays ago, that softest of sounds had but one counterpart in the soft splash and plop of rain on leaf and pond - the sound of introversion and contemplation - in Russell Page's beautiful courtyard garden, itself a reflection of the court at the centre of the museum which, in its turn, is nothing more than the atrium with its peristyle and impluvium of Ancient Rome.
The night before we'd talked at dinner, the four of us, about second homes - for me enticing but for the Celt, a not-so-captivating idea. For our friends, two men from London, a second home was nothing more than an extra expense, extra responsibility, etc., a dismissal so heartfelt and final I was glad I was old or wise enough not to argue. I understand all the arguments against such an establishment but, much in the way the Frick's courtyard garden attracted me because of its sense of enclosure and separation from the noise of the city, so does a small place - a recourse rather than ivory tower - surrounded by woodland, within the sound, if not the sight, of falling water, blind to the road but open to a courtyard that captures, each in its season, the fall of sun, moon, rain, snow and leaf.
Another drenching storm had passed when, last weekend, we drove up the steep and winding road to the great white house atop a mountain in North Carolina. A weekend house filled with elegantly dressed people invited to meet two of the the Million Dollar Decorators, and from which the mist-softened panorama of the wooded slopes of the Appalachians came as such a beautiful surprise. To stand, even for a few minutes, under a sky no longer ominous but still flickering with lightening, deaf to all around and looking at a view so rare, was the most invigorating of moments.
It is hard to say how many times over the years I have visited the Frick but it has never palled. The Fragonard Room, in which his The Progress of Love is arrayed, is the perfect room in which to while away a book-riddled hour or two on a dim, wet and fire-lit day. These paintings, at the end of the 18th century, having been rejected by Madame du Barry, came to hang in Fragonard's cousin's house in Grasse. This reminds me, as an aside, that Roderick Cameron described Charles de Noailles, who had a villa and garden in Grasse, as one of the world's great gardeners - a compliment indeed from such a talented man as Cameron.
Our two friends from London, and this is their progress of love, asked us to go with them the following Monday to the Office of the City Clerk in Manhattan and witness their wedding - which we did, in the lavender-decorated ceremony room. I'm pleased to say that neither the color scheme nor the continuing rain dampened their ardor.
Photograph (cropped) of Finnish cabin from 1609 by Paul Wistman, accompanying text by Klaus Eriksen, for The World of Interiors, January 1986.
Image of Fragonard's The Lover Crowned from Wikipedia Commons.
"Oh, you need a three-hundred-pound seat" the brisk female voice on the other end of the phone said after I had explained, as delicately as I could, and without embarrassing either of us, that ... well, let me put it this way, and without being overly euphemistic, both bodily functions could not take place at the same time within the aperture of the seat of the "beside commode" I'd been given when I left hospital. The aesthetic desecration of our Philippe Starck-designed toilet pot caused by this baldly utilitarian object, with its white tubular construction, grey plastic lid and splash guard, was of little consequence compared to the ease promised by its 21-inch-high seat - six inches higher than the one above which it hovered - a promise short-lived in the event, for the reason given above. If I understood that person correctly, this method of assessing the required dimensions of a toilet seat – by the weight of the user - was new to me and, it has got me wondering about what I know.
It is only at times like these, in my case a temporary disability, that it comes upon one that the beautiful rooms one has gone to great lengths to create come up short in one vital aspect - accessibility. I found that much of our furniture, except the bed, no longer worked for me – or rather, with me. Until this week, the fourth since surgery, there has been but one chair – one of a set of four Provençal dining chairs with arms we bought 25 years ago in France – that has been in any way hospitable to my condition. The chairs and sofa in the living room, the library and the bedroom, all by well-known designers and from reputable manufacturers were, variously, too deep, too low, too springy, or too soft - qualities which in normal times may be much appreciated. We got the decoration right, but what we forgot was to make the rooms usable in all sorts of conditions. So, for a month, I have perched like a petulant parson on a dining chair, surrounded by furniture I could not use, immensely thankful for the arms (in more ways than one) that surround and support me.
I sit now at my writing table, in another of those Provençal chairs, propped by a pillow at my back, and though this morning I heard from the surgeon that everything has gone brilliantly and I may drive and fly again, I'm still too wary of the other furniture to try and sit in it. Sit in all I shall, eventually, but the lesson has been learned - function is prime. It is the ergonomics, the universal user-friendliness informing the design of furniture that counts.
This morning I looked around at the surgeon's waiting room and thought again what a difference there is, generally speaking, between the residential side of the interior design profession and the contract side - not necessarily a difference that is universal but one that comes down fundamentally to the training either side receives. There was so much space, though none wasted, for allowing free movement of wheelchairs, walking frames, and couples side-by-side supporting each other.
At home, when we remodeled, we got our openings – the doorways – right, in that I was able to get the wheelchair and, later, the walking-frame comfortably through them – not something that could be said of many houses around this nation. But where there is a registered architect, a licensed interior designer or an experienced interior decorator involved, there should be no problem with clearances or accessibility in residences, and there will be a universality of design - the rooms will not be hostile environments to those who are in any way, and however temporarily, physically challenged.
Drawings of chairs by Emilio Terry from an article written by Marie-France Boyer for The World of Interiors, November 1987.
We had planned so much to do in London and Manchester - not the least of which was to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum's The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 and, nostalgically for me, in Manchester look at one the best collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings anywhere, paintings I'd not seen, outside of books, for many a long year. So much planned and commensurately such a disappointment in having to cancel - not on a whim, but out of necessity. A disappointment heralded by the PA's reaction on his first look at my MRI films. "Whoa!" he said, with awe in his voice, "I've never seen anything like this." It confirmed, I suppose, what we already knew, but had gone unspoken, about having to cancel the vacation - this after an epidural, the onset of "dropped foot" in both legs, and a return, despite the epidural, of the worst sciatic pain I'd ever had, followed by a fall flat on my back in the shower, and the fact that I was in a wheelchair. I thought "whoa!" was a fair reaction to what he saw.
So, an unplanned break from blogging having ensued, as has surgery and physical therapy (ongoing) I'm now able to totter, with the use of a cane, to my desk and sit for a while, fogged a little from the medication, and wonder what I'm going to write about. I have read so much the last four weeks but somehow don't want to turn this post into a "what I read this summer" grade school essay but, nonetheless, when you're flat on your back for a couple of weeks there's not much else to do but read.
I mentioned a few weeks ago how I'd finally come round to e-books and was quite enthusiastic about them. I still am enthusiastic but, much as with p-books, e-books are a mixed bag in terms of design, typography and proof-reading or the lack thereof. Many e-books are poorly typeset, with total disregard for basic typographic principles – more "widows" and "orphans" than a Dickens' novel, captions cut adrift from the illustrations they describe, letter-spacing choppy at best. This might be excusable in the free e-books, on the basis that one is getting what one has paid for, but the same problems regularly arise in commercial e-books, too.
Paradoxically, at the same time as they appear to flout the basic good manners of typography, many e-books also seem locked into a "print" mindset, and fail to take advantage of the potential of the new online medium. Like the online shelter magazines I discussed here, they seem to designed by people whose training is in print, and not in web design. Both e-books and e-magazines are designed - though "design" in this context implies intent - to resemble their print counterparts. And that, to me, is the intrinsic flaw. Why, given the capabilities of digital linkages, am I still having to turn the digital page, and in the case of e-books why are the illustrations bundled together in sections as one would find with a print book? As I say, e-books and e-magazines, as I experience them, are designed by people who were trained in the limitations of print - limitations that do not, or should not, exist in e-design. The nearest I have come in my search for what I think an e-magazine should or could be is Flipboard.
So, what did I read this summer?
A terrific read, the top of my list, despite the fact that because of medication I found it hard to concentrate for long, is Rome by Robert Hughes - a book not yet published in the United States - a highly personal account of the city of Rome from its founding to its present-day cultural destitution. A quotation from the last chapter gives a good sampling of what you might expect from this book - a quotation, I think, that pretty well sums up the cultural meagerness of the present day, and not just in Italy.
"..... It has got worse since the sixties with the colossal, steamrollering, mind-obliterating power of TV - whose Italian forms are amongst the worst in the world. The cultural IQ of the Italian nation, if one can speak of such a thing, has dropped considerably and the culprit seems to be television, as it is in other countries. What is the point of fostering elites that few care about? It bestows no political advantage. In the wholly upfront culture of football, 'reality' shows and celebrity games, a culture of pure distraction, it is no longer embarrassing to admit that Donatello, like the temperature of the polar ice-cap or the insect population of the Amazon, is one of those things about which you, as a good molto tipico Italian and nice enough guy, do not personally give a rat's ass."
William Shawcross' Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography, my first e-book, led me to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother at Clarence House, by John Cornforth, a book about the history of the house itself and the role of the Queen Mother as art collector; thence to Christopher Hussey's Clarence House published in 1949 to commemorate the then-newly-married Princess Elizabeth and Duke of Edinburgh setting up home together at Clarence House in rooms formal and sparsely, if comfortably, furnished, with:
"Many gifts made to Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip at their wedding consisted in furniture of the second half of the eighteenth century. This was fortunate, for English cabinet-making and design reached their zenith during the reign of George the Third, in the hands of Robert Adam, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and the consummate craftsmen who executed their designs. These designs, moreover, were inter-related by a continuous though changing trend of development. Consequently a definite stylistic unity is given by the furniture to the rooms of Clarence House. These, though built during the Regency, are essentially late Georgian in character, with the spacious simplicity that suits furniture produced during that epoch."
Christopher Hussey, the erstwhile editor of Country Life, wrote a beautiful and poetic description (some might call it purple prose) of the Sitting Room and it's worth quoting it full.
"The most attractive room in the house is undoubtedly Princess Elizabeth's Sitting Room..... There are two lofty windows in the long wall and a wider one in the end opposite the entrance, the strong light from which is diffused my white muslin curtains. For the walls Her Royal Highness specified aquamarine, a delicate pale blue with a hint of green in it. This is carried up into the ceiling cove, which should, in general, be the same colour as the walls, and thereby emphasizes their height. The mouldings dividing the walls into compartments appear to be early twentieth century, but those of the chair-rail and skirting give evidence of being original. The original chimney-piece of white marble and ormulu has been moved to provide a second fireplace in the Drawing Room, the original chimney-piece it closely matches. Its place has been taken by one of carved pine, re-assembled from members found in store at Kensington Palace. Its entablature, crisply carved in high relief with festoons of flowers in the rococo taste, sets its date fairly easily in the time of George II who occupied Kensington for most of his reign (1727-1760). The window curtains, of patterned damask, match the walls. The magnificent modern Chinese carpet of self-coloured wool, textured with an over-all pattern of conventional flowers in relief, is considerably lighter in tone and contributes to the effect of diffused lightness which is perhaps the outstanding impression given by the room.
"The impression might be imaginatively described as catching the sensation of an early morning in September, when the sky is of a pale cloudless blue, but when the sun is still veiled by a thin haze and the lawn is silvered with dew. At that hour, in the freshness of the dawn, when the cool light vibrates in refraction from an infinity of tiny prisms on gossamers and flower-petals, the scene sings with soft, clear, colour. But in the margins, among the stems of trees that still cast long shadows over the lawn, the light is stained to deeper tones by the green canopies above, except where through a chink some ray falls on a still pool, a dew-dropped twig, or golden cache of fallen leaves.
"The components of this fanciful picture have close analogies in the colours assembled in the Princess's room. The phloxes and hollyhocks of a late summer garden are always reminiscent of chintz, a covering material of which it is said she is fond. The pattern chosen here for sofa and easy chairs incorporates pink and white hollyhocks against the same misty blue as the walls. The cut-glass chandelier, of late eighteenth-century design, has a skeleton of old gilded bronze from which hang the festoons and cascades of drops catching and concentrating the sunlight. The oval Chippendale mirror above the fireplace, with rococo carved and gilt wood frame, is the craftsman's version of the sylvan pool, while in each wall-light of gilded and carved wood he has actually portrayed a pair of doves, whose song we might add to the scenic analogy."
At the bottom of my list, an e-book, The Age of Comfort by Joan DeJean - and this is not a criticism of the author's writing style or the content of the book - was maddening in its lack of proof-reading, its seemingly random underlining of certain sentences and paragraphs, and its occasional instruction to "see color illustration" of which I could fine none. I had the distinct impression that there had been a rush to e-publish, the detriment of quality being beside the point. It is this book that has caused my wariness of buying e-books. Nonetheless, the book is a good and interesting read - the author's premise being that there was a particular moment in 18th century Paris when comfort, rather than grandeur, became the priority and thereby transformed architecture and interiors up to the present day - but what began to dominate the author's account of that transformation was my reaction to the careless typesetting mentioned above.
Somewhere between the two extremes, and in no particular order, are: State of Wonder, by Anne Patchett - a beautifully written story of a "research scientist with a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company, sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor ..." not, in my opinion, the spellbinder the book cover promised and I labored at it for quite a while. I think I should read it again for I admit I did not give it my best, falling asleep as frequently as I did when reading it; Doctored Evidence, the first of a number of Donna Leon's books I've enjoyed over the past weeks - marvelous evocations of Venice and the Italian political scene as experienced by her humane Commissario Guido Brunetti; The Man from St. Petersburg, by Ken Follett - I knew by the end of the first chapter this book was not for me but because it was a gift I persevered, again between bouts of nodding off, but neither the tale nor its characters enthralled me; Edward VII, Christopher Hibbert's biography (e-book) of Queen Victoria's eldest son, who despite his appalling childhood and lack of training in the job of monarchy, became a well-respected king, a loving father and grandfather; The Aspern Papers by Henry James, which I have yet to finish (and to be honest, doubt if I ever shall); Jane Austen's Persuasion (free from iBooks) which I assume needs no further description, and, finally, the newly-published and excellent Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich - a very good read and an acute history of a line of rulers, spiritual and temporal, that began with St Peter and ends, thus far, with Benedict XVI. Actually an e-book which has got me through many a long dark hour when I awoke in the middle of the night and didn't want to wake the Celt by switching on the bedside light. I'm enjoying John Julius Norwich's book so much, obtusely perhaps, am going to buy the print version. And, I'll read it again from beginning to end.
So... what are you reading?
Photographs of Princess Elizabeth's Sitting Room and her Drawing Room from Clarence House, Christopher Hussey, Country Life Limited, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1949. No photographer's name given in the book.
Photographs of the Queen Mother's Sitting Room and her Drawing Room by Mark Fiennes, from Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at Clarence House, John Cornforth, Michael Joseph London in association with The Royal Collection, London 1996.
An interior design history enthusiast and in my own way an erstwhile chronicler of those I call the Lost Generation - those men, some of them gay and many of whom died of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, and who are to a great degree forgotten.