Of all the faces, famous and not, that I saw at the 59th Annual Winter Antiques Show preview (one of a series of events organized by the Decorative Arts Trust) last Saturday morning at the Park Avenue Armory, the only one that spoke, as it were, was a marble third-century Roman portrait head. Perhaps it was the the disembodied humanity of it silhouetted against black but of all the wonders to be seen that day at the antiques show and during the weekend at the Metropolitan Museum, the apartments and houses on and around Park Avenue, it is this head, or its semblance of humanity across the ages, that occupies me still.
After lunch in the sombre Tiffany-designed Veterans Room we went our freezing way to the Metropolitan Museum where our group's guide, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts curator Wolfram Koeppe, alarms constantly sounding, showed us highlights of the exhibition Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens. The exhibition is now ended and I am glad I saw it, for it was one of the most superb exhibitions I have ever been to: ceiling-scraping cabinets, desks, chests, gaming and dressing tables were beautifully and generously displayed in all their decorative, secretive and mechanical glory. One of the most charming exhibits was the automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette playing a dulcimer, apparently an object that was put away quite shortly after she received it.
Saturday evening was spent very happily with Daniel and his partner in their entirely personal and beautiful apartment for drinks and thereafter for dinner at La Boite en Bois. Good food, good booze, good company and good music. Their place is not a long walk from our usual hotel but it was that evening I finally realized how much a Southerner I've become and how I have grown to hate cold weather, especially when shirt, woolen sweater and a woolen overcoat, a scarf, and a tweed cap are not enough to keep me merry and bright. I groused and shivered, shivered and groused all the way back to the hotel.
Looking just now through images on my phone I saw how little I photographed at the antiques show – this Anatolian bronze recumbent stag bowl, second millennium BC, the portrait head above, and a William Morris (not Morris and Co., the dealer pointed out) "Hammersmith" carpet. The rest? Gorgeous, fabulous, stunning, superlative, important – believe me, these adjectives all apply but, simply put, I'm just glad I saw the best at my leisure and under one roof.
With diffidence, I have to say that I never understood Americana and Folk Art but in the space of a few hours at the Armory I came to appreciate it – a little. I wouldn't collect it even now for aesthetic and financial rather than anti-American reasons for I feel it just wouldn't fit, even if we has space for anything else and we could afford it. There was a time when Americana did fit in, but the 1976 Ethan Allen "Don't give up the ship" painted aluminum eagle is long gone, as is the carved pair of swans (beaks touching with the cutest of heart shaped spaces between above an incised motto "Friendship") from Mable's on Madison Avenue. Mable was the first person, not French, I'd ever heard refer to herself as "moi." I was charmed.
Call me superficial, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree – anything for a quiet life – but, having lived through the rage for marbleizing, graining, distressing, Bi-Centennial reproductions of American furniture and the effects of Mrs Henry Parrish's "decorating shot heard around the world" when, via Bloomindale's, "Made in India" Wedding Ring, Bear's Paw, and Saw-Tooth Block quilts came to land on any surface not yet chintzed, faux-finished or distressed, I could say I live in hope I never see a second-coming of Neo-Colonial Revival decorating or that faux-finishes will ever again bring rapture to every keeping room in suburbia.
So, in a roundabout way the subject of marbleizing and graining brings me to this apartment and the thought that if there's a surface rarely considered in a modern room, it is the ceiling. Not so in this Park Avenue apartment where nearly every architectural surface, including the ceilings and doors had been marbleized using a bravura technique by the owner herself many years ago. Where was not painted was upholstered, occasionally in gaufrage velvet, layered with medieval tapestries, romanesque and medieval paintings and mural fragments, in front of which stood baroque, renaissance, medieval cabinets, tables, chests, fragments of pietra dura, bronze sculptures and a coffee table surfaced with a fragment of mosaic from Caligula's floor. A marvelous place, reminiscent of Renzo Mongiardino's complexity of design and the whole enlightened with scholarship and taste.
This last photograph, a vignette that in many ways sums up the whole place despite the ceiling being plain, shows an exquisite baroque cabinet allegedly (if I heard rightly) was deaccessioned from Buckingham Palace.
Roman head and Anatolian bowl fragment from here.