From Paul Gervais de Bédée and for which I am truly honoured. As I wrote to Paul, it was a "marvelous surprise. I am flattered - no, I am touched - by this delightful painting and that you would choose to name it after my blog." Truly.
"I often think designers should keep their thoughts to themselves, and just let the results show their point of view. But in this particular case, I am anxious to talk about my work, because I think that what is most eloquent in this house is what doesn't meet the eye. I'm referring to absence - or abstinence, if you will. The most important thing about the house is what didn't go into it."
So said David Whitcomb over thirty years ago during a conversation about a 1950s modernist glass box he'd decorated in the Appalachian hills of Tennessee. What he said about absence in an interior struck a chord with me, for I like a certain simplicity, emptiness and a lack of visual clutter - qualities common to many of the interiors I've written about. All my favorite decorators of the last forty years share the same eye for proportion, simplicity, and appropriateness - an analogy with tailoring (bespoke is implicit) comes to mind - how a garment is constructed of fine stuff by hand after years of training of both hand and eye. In interior design there has to be training and knowledge, not just of historical styles (in which I include early and mid-century modernism) but of how the forms of furniture, the drape of textiles and the texture of color inhabit both a volume and the lives of the clients.
I'm not sure if it's a phenomenon of aging but I have come to feel the oppressive weight of possessions. I've never been a collector per se, and I don't think that nine framed drawings, two etchings, one large abstract painting, two watercolors, three photographs, a framed Hermes scarf, a small bronze, a tiny terracotta Grand Tour souvenir, 125 square feet of books, and twenty-eight-years-worth of The World of Interiors actually count as a collection - more, perhaps, the evidence of a life well-loved and a hell of a lot of dusting required.
I was reminded recently - it happens every time I see a piece of majolica - of a house early in the 1980s that in my memory was awash in chintz and majolica. No surface nor shelf was free of the stuff. The lady of the house had been persuaded by her decorator to collect majolica, as if by building this collection she was in some way validating her existence - I collect, therefore I am, as it were.
As frequently happens, when in search of something else, my eye was caught by something I was not looking for - this time, a mildly repellent passage in Patricia Cavendish O'Neill's autobiography and, suddenly, there it was - the word I didn't know I'd been looking for, which sums up my thoughts about much of today's interior decorating.
Soignée is a word not much used nowadays, and it's surprising, really, given that its meaning is quite simple. It just means well-groomed, carefully and elegantly put together. Before I develop my thought, let me quote the passage in which O'Neill refers to a famous, now dead (thus arguably fabulous) personage:
".... He had another hang-up, which was horrid. He liked all his women to smell au naturel and remain unshaven. I used to watch in horror all those beauties becoming unsoignée, going without makeup and gradually losing all their glamour. Having reduced them to the mundane, he would move onto the next one and repeat the process."
Unsoignée is precisely the quality that has become so much a part of modern interior design in America. It's not just the plethora of mise en scene props and accessories that overlay most horizontal and vertical surfaces, but also the unconsidered, and some might say benighted, groupings of mismatched pictures in small frames, and in the (to my mind) uneducated juxtaposition of furniture from various periods and styles. I'm not going to argue that the juxtaposition of, say, an Eames plywood chair with French a canapé or Verner Panton plastic with a farmhouse table is wrong, per se, but what I am going to say is that if brand, logo, name or provenance is the deciding factor, that leaves no room for proportion, scale or suitability. One imagines the intent is to be "eclectic," perhaps even worldly - but the result is all too often mere randomness, evoking an upscale flea market.
There was a time, starting in the 1960s, I think, when young designers began to take a piece of what nowadays is called important furniture and display it in isolation, spotlit, against a white wall and with lots of space around it. White wall apart, the point is, placement in relation to immediate surroundings and effect on the viewer, were considered. The unsoignée character of and the apparent lack of consideration in much of modern decorating is a clear example of how innovation - the mix of styles - becomes established practice and eventually descends into retrograde performance art.
How, you might ask, did we go from well-groomed and considered elegance to the accessory- and collection-riddled interiors of today? The answer to that lies, I believe, in the nineteenth century and is for another post.
Photographs by Daniel Eifert to accompany text, from which the quotation comes, written by Peter Carlsen for Architectural Digest, March 1979. The quotation of Patricia Cavendish O'Neill is from A Lion in the Bedroom, Park Street Press, 2004.
"I was appointed an honorary attaché to the British Embassy in Paris in 1948, and shortly after my arrival there I was invited to visit Lady Kenmare and her son Roderick Cameron at La Fiorentina. It was Easter and it was to the be first of many wonderful moments spent with them both in the years that followed, and particularly with Rory as Enid seemed to travel so much or would be visiting her daughter Pat Cavendish.
"To use Rory's own words, life and people were 'enchanting' and 'delicious' during those after-war years, and I think back to those Fiorentina days filled with speculation and excitement of who would be coming to lunch or dinner, or to spend a few days. There were of course many such visits and my early recollections of friends or Rory's - and some became mine - included Elizabeth Chavchavadze and her husband George, a great pianist, who composed a ballet for George de Cuevas aided by Marthe Bibesco. They became constant companions of Rory, particularly Elizabeth, who it was said wrote him a letter a day. She lived in Paris and also had a charming house in a garden full of lavender and English flowers, at Dampierre, close to Paris. She had a tremendous influence upon Rory's taste and he probably on hers. They did spend a great deal of time together till her tragic death - she and George were killed on the way to their house at Chatel Censoir.
"Somehow Rory developed from that moment on - but he kept on seeing his early friends either at La Fiorentina or in Paris, where he also lived. Rory later on said he never truly liked Paris, and seldom came. His dinners, his objects, either recent purchases or otherwise, and the ambience be managed to create, were exceptional. I can remember during this early period evenings or days with Jacque Février, Nora and Georges Auric, Odette Massigli, Bill Baldwin, Marthe Bibesco, Grahame Sutherland, Charlie Chaplin and his wife, the Quennells, the Lees-Milnes, Princess Grace, Van Day Truex, Hubert de Givenchy, Marie-Laure de Noailles, Bunny Mellon, Duff and Diana Cooper, Philippe Venet, Serge Lifar, and Marguerite and Mark Littman.
"There were many, many people in the life of Rory, and La Fiorentina was his true background - not the Vaucluse.
"Rory loved to travel, and recorded and photographed every face, place, nook, and cranny. His two favourite countries, he declared strongly, were India and Mexico. He knew them both well, of course, and it was Rory who led me by the hand on my first visit to India. For me the trip was enhanced by his knowledge and understanding of that wonderful country. When I return there I will think of him with much affection and nostalgia.
"Rory fancied himself a cook and there were times when one thought he had had a Cordon Bleu course, He loved concocting dishes for Sunday evening supper. There was quite often an Indian flavour to it all. I copied several of his recipes and I like to think my Paris dinner parties improved as a result.
"There were many faces of Rory that I could dwell upon. I could say he loved eating, putting on weight, and then going to Montecatini each July to lose it all. He loved dogs; he rhapsodized over butterflies; his favourite colour was probably brown; he spent hours with books and objects. Perhaps his greatest interest was his garden in the house where he died. As for the gardens at La Fiorentina and Le Clos Fiorentina, they are universally known.
"Rory enthused over flowers and it gave him great pleasure to arrange massive bowls of garden carnations in white and pink, or tubs of bursting-out peonies - always cut short near their heads. He knew the names of all the flowers and plants and quite often he and Charles de Noailles spent hours together comparing notes!
"I must stop! But you must agree Rory was truly an enchanting, delicious gentleman."
I must mention again how kind people have been to send me images, recollections, suggestions and texts in connection with my themes. The quotation above, one such gift - a tribute by Walter Lees to his deceased friend Roderick Cameron - is yet another instance of how fortunate I've been in my correspondents. The tribute, one of three sent to me together with Lees' portrait, is from a privately printed book that ... well, I'll let Anne Cox Chambers, explain:
"Shortly after attending Rory's memorial service in London, I thought how fitting - how right - it would be to help bring into existence a small volume not mourning his death but celebrating his life, so that we could all share with one another the happiness of having known Rory.
"To that end I took the liberty of writing many of the friends he had "collected," inviting them to set down their recollections of that rare and roving spirit.
"We remember him with pride and love, and in the hope that we were "worthy" - to use one of his favorite words - of being his friend."
Walter Lees was unknown to me before I wrote about Le Clos Fiorentina, Hubert de Givenchy's house on Pointe Saint-Hospice, the same house decorated previously by David Hicks for Sao Schlumberger who'd bought it from Roderick Cameron. I say he was unknown to me - but actually I'd read about him in Van Day Truex's biography and had forgotten. Lees, who died last year at the age of 100, was the son of a joiner, British Embassy attaché, an intimate of the Windsors on both sides of the divide, of the Mosleys, a diplomat in more senses than one, personal assistant to Stavros Niarchos and afterwards Pierre Schlumberger, model for a character in Nancy Mitford's Don't Tell Alfred, close friend of Hubert de Givenchy, and mentor and friend to Van Day Truex - a surprising, perhaps only to me, connection in my ongoing theme - a seemingly modest man who knew everyone.
The china on Walter Lees' dining table above (a vignette, I'm sure, created especially for the book) is the same pattern, Royal Worcester's 'Blue Dragon', that led Roderick Cameron in his The Golden Riviera to sketch an affectionate portrait of his old, much-loved and much-respected cook.
"How attached one becomes to one's routine, always the same china; Royal Worcester's 'Blue Dragon', a stylised pattern dating from the last century and one that is to be found in countless English houses. Mohammed, a Moroccan who has been with me for years, greets one with a flashing smile, produces the papers and pours the tea. Next to appear on the scene is Catherine. Catherine, of Italian extraction, was brought up in our village. She must have been very good-looking, and even at eighty-four is still handsome. Her face, lively and wrinkled, has changed very little in the thirty-odd years she has been working for us. Living in the village, she rides up every morning to the house on her mobilette, long flûtes of bread sticking out of the basket attached to the back of her bicycle. Unbeknown to her I was driving behind her one day as she mounted the hill from the village, and her progress was almost royal: 'Bonjour Madame Catherine.' 'Bonjour,' she intoned with a dignified bow of the head, sitting very straight, averaging a pretty fast clip, too fast for me to overtake her. She is a remarkably good cook and loves being taught new dishes, working by instinct rather than measure. When we meet she stands, hands joined in front of her clean white pinafore, while we discuss the menu, a procedure we have reduced to a form of telepathy. I remember her, also, in the days when one used to attend the galas in Monte-Carlo. She would stand next to the great olive growing at the bottom of the entrance steps, waiting to see my mother, and this, also, would be discussed with next morning's menu. She was crying, I noticed, the day we all drove off to Princess Grace's wedding."
If you look closely you will find the portrait of Lees in his London living room at the right-hand top corner of the photograph of his Paris living room with its mirrored walls, white-covered sofa, rococo chairs, Giacometti tables, old-master drawings, Russian silver, David Hicks carpet and a view of the dome of Les Invalides.
There is one more stop to make in Paris - the house of another of Lees' acquaintance - and then it's back across the Atlantic to stay, I think. It seems that in trying to broaden my scope, I've merely completed a circle.
The first photograph, according to the correspondent who sent it to me, is of Roderick Cameron's Paris living room. I do not know who the photographer was, or where the image was originally published.
Update to the above: thanks to Mr Toby Worthington, I now know that the photograph of Roderick Cameron's Paris living room is from Les Réussites de la Décoration Francaise, Les Éditions Condé Nast, 1960. The photograph is by Jacques Boucher.
Photographs by Jean-Bernard Naudin, from The Finest Houses of Paris, Christiane de Nicolay-Mazery and Jean-Bernard Naudin, The Vendome Press, New York, 2000.
As I wrote last week, one of the more gratifying aspects of blogging - and, believe me, there are many - is the way that people over the last two years have been generous with sources, suggestions, reminiscences and even images of my subjects. And so it was with with this photograph of Marguerite Littman, but what excited me, and here I don't wish to be ungentlemanly, was what was on the wall behind Mrs Littman - a double portrait of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Seeing that painting again was one of those moments when, wordless and blind, I traipsed through memories long buried.
I need to tell you, and this will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me well, is that I did not enjoy Cabaret. Piteous, I know, and it's an admission deplorable enough to require my gay card to be rescinded or, at least, be withheld until I've been re-gayed. Whilst I'm being a confessin' queen I might as well just get it all out and admit I couldn't stand listening to Judy Garland or her daughter. I know, I know!
What you might think, has that got to do with Marguerite Littman? Well, actually, not a lot. But what is germane is that Christopher Isherwood wrote I Am a Camera, the book on which Cabaret was based - a book that, together Jean Genet's Querelle of Brest, Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, James Baldwin's Another Country, John Rechy's City of Night, and the nude drawings and blue swimming pools of David Hockney, was a seminal influence in my youth. You could say, if you'll pardon the pun, they all made a bigger splash, and were emblematic of youth yearning to be misspent.
I say above the connection with Marguerite Littman is tenous - a background to a photograph and nothing more - but if truth be told, she was one of the first people to organize a response to the spread of AIDS, and continues to be involved, a fact that should be again noted here. The connection, then, is with the younger me and my admiration of David Hockney. In his autobiography he talks about meeting Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, how they took him up and introduced him to his new life - much as happened to me in a different circle all those years ago.
"By this time I had met Christopher Isherwood and we instantly got on. He was the first author I'd met that I really admired. I got to know him and Don Bachardy, whom he lives with, very well; they woud invite me out, take me around to dinner; we had marvellous evenings together. Christopher was always interesting to talk to about anything and I loved it, really loved it. I don't know how it was that we hit it off, but we did. It wasn't only that we were English, but we were both from Northern England. I remember Christopher later said Oh David, we've so much in common; we love California, we love American boys, and we're from the north of England. Of course, Christopher's from the opposite side of the north of England: his family was quite rich, mine is working class."
A scant five years before I first read of a new and rapidly aging, aggressively wasting, ultimately fatal disease affecting gay men, I'd bought Hockney's autobiography - a book I still own and in which the light of California still glances off the glittering pools, the hissing lawns and the bronzed bodies. It had been an all too brief time of recognition, liberaton and great fun - certainly not a time of innocence as the past tends to be - and without, as is always the way, any hint of the catastrophe to come.
I'll let David Hockney himself finish this post with a paragraph that has such savour of those years:
"I went to visit the place where Physique Pictorial was published in a very seedy area of downtown Los Angeles. It's run by a wonderful complete madman and he has this tacky swimming pool surrounded by Hollywood Greek plaster statues. It was marvellous! To me it had the air of Cafavy in the tackiness of things. Even Los Angeles reminded me of Cafavy; the hot climate's near enough to Alexandria, sensual; and this downtown area was sleazy, a bitt dusty, very masculine - men always; women are just not part of that kind of life. I love downtown Los Angeles - marvellous gay bars full of mad Mexican queens, all tacky and everything. The Physical Pictorial people get men, boys, when they've just come out of the city gaol: Do you want to earn ten dollars? Take your clothes off, jump in the pool, that sort of thing. They're all a bit rough-looking, but the bodies are quite good. The faces are terrible, not pretty boys, really. I must admit, I have a weakness for pretty boys: I prefer them to the big butch scabby ones. I was quite thrilled by the place, and I told the guy. I bought a lot of still photographs from him, which I still have."
Whilst I'm, or Hockney is, on the subject of Physique Pictorial:if you've ever seen the painting When Did You Last See Your Father you know exactly how I felt when my grandmother demanded of me, then aged fourteen or so, an explanation of why I had a stash of the magazines in my nightstand! Like the young man in the painting, it took me a long time to find my voice in these matters.
Odd how pictures can have so many consequences and memories.
Image of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968, from David Hockney by David Hockney, edited by Nick Stangos, Thames and Hudson, London 1976.
I’ve mentioned before that people write to me about connections they have made or feel I should make, and these past few weeks have been no different in that. Last week I read about the irritation one correspondent feels when he reads or hears the phrase “pop of color” and I knew exactly what he meant.
My particular bête noir is “sneak peek.” I’d like to say it’s the only piece of decorator-speak that irritates me but “wow factor” comes pretty close, as does “a fresh take on …” and “... with a twist” as in “timeless yet modern twist on traditional style" - whatever that might mean! I fully appreciate we all have set phrases, patterns of speech, jargon – lord knows, I recognize mine each time I put fingers to keyboard - but there are times when the sloppiness and vacousness of it all gets up my nose exasperates me. It seems to me that the more inconsequential interiors have become in recent years, the more consequential, referential and reverential the descriptions have needed to be.
Last Thursday I said I intended to move away from Roderick Cameron and his friends for a while and look in other directions - my own fresh take, or a twist on tradition, if you will - and in this post I am doing so, but not moving too far. To be honest, I cannot say I had made the connection between Marguerite Littman and the men I've been writing about, but now it has been pointed out to me, I realize it's a connection I could have made for in the 1960s Littman and her husband were clients of David Hicks. Marguerite Littman, though not a decorator, fits into my theme of circles within circles because she is connected to a number of the men I have written about.
Mentioned by Edmund White in the latest chapter of his autobiography and, indeed, written about by him for Vanity Fair, friend to Princess Diana, Rock Hudson, Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams and - well, the list is endless. In the main, I've stayed clear of the characters of those I've written about, preferring in my own way to stress positive rather than the opposite - not in any way striving towards hagiography but simply being clear that it is the work rather than the character that counts. Not that I want to sound naive - I'm very aware of the utter vacuousness and frequent viciousness that characterized the lives of the many style icons. It has never been my intention to be an apologist for the likes of ... but that is for another post and I want to stress just in case I have not expressed myself clearly, none of the above applies in my mind to Marguerite Littman.
For, if by their deeds ye shall know them is the standard by which we can judge then Mrs Littman comes, amongst these Blue Remembered Hills, pretty close to sainthood. In the mid-1980s when conservative and fundamentalist politicians on both sides of the Atlantic were ignoring or, on occasion, celebrating the growth of an epidemic she founded the AIDS Crisis Trust in the United Kingdom. If you are a gay man, or just a human being, of a certain age, you will remember how while a thin red line was being drawn through history anorexic socialites and their walkers danced till dawn with the unheeding leaders of Western society in the White House and other bastions of the establishment.
It is that thin red line, the Maginot Line of our times, that the likes of Mrs Littman, a woman to whom I shall return, recognized and walked across. It is the consequences of that red line drawn through late 20th-century history that underlies my fascination with the circles within circles and those who orbited within them.
Photographs of Mr and Mrs Mark Littman's house from David Hicks: A Life of Design, Ashley Hicks, Rizzoli 2009
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.