Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Three portraits, three rooms

"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.


  1. you've chose to illuminate a bright moment in the modern history of glamor and the culture of beauty, many thanks for bringing it all back to life in these memories and images.

  2. So much style -don't you want to just die? Someone just recently showed photographs of his Paris apartment, apparently the stitching on his napkins of the Invalides echoes the view out the window? I'm still not sure if thats a tad hokey or clever -but as he had such extreme good taste I'll go with 'clever'!

  3. Hello:
    One of the great regrets of living in the C21 is that the number of people who are cultured, witty, intelligent, educated and able to sustain a conversation, seem to decrease by the hour. Or so it appears to us.

  4. Paul Gervais de Bédée, thank you. It was a bright moment, wasn't it? Those years before all the color drained away.

  5. ArchitectDesign, thank you. At first I thought the embroidery on Lees' napkins was just a Chinoiserie motif but I think you may be right - it is very reminiscent of the dome of the Les Invalides. In the other portrait of him I have the dome is visible through the window.

  6. Jane and Lance Hattatt, thank you. As it appears to you so it appears to me! There are a few left, those that can hold a conversation, but they are outnumbered many times over by those who will only spout borrowed opinions.

  7. Your first image, of Rory Cameron's Paris flat, is from the book
    Les réussites de la Décoration Francaise 1950-1960 published
    by Les Éditions Condé Nast in 1960. Photo by Jacques Boucher.

  8. Mr Worthington, thank you! I shall update immediately. You are much appreciated amongst the Blue Remembered Hills.

  9. wow, i read the van day Truex book, wow what a man! seems look rory was a close friend..

  10. A beautifully written article. I had a friend in South Africa who knew George Chavchavadze in Paris and who told me stories of his visits to George at his hotel particulier, and of the subsequent accident in which George, his wife and their chauffeur died. Thank you. Warren