Friday, December 31, 2010


At the end of the year what a wonderful treat it is to be in this marvellous city on the final day of our Grand Tour. I'd like to take a moment to thank everyone who has read The Blue Remembered Hills this year; everyone who has commented (because it's the discourse that makes this blog what it is); and finally all those other fascinating bloggers who are my must-read list. Wishing everyone a Happy New Year and see you again in 2011.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

God rest you merry, Gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

Photograph by Evelyn Hofer, House and Garden December, 1983.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


"Here he amassed his immense art library, paintings and drawings and such memorabilia of Picasso, a close friend and neighbor. Here he drew around him that circle of painters who shed a special luster over the first half of this century, so that their work - which he began acquiring around 1928, in his ambulatory years between London, Paris and Berlin - became less collector's trophies than records of personal relationships. 'The Chateau de Castille was a noble house, and people came there, and I was able to ennoble it,' says Douglas Cooper, describing the legendary Picasso wall, which ran the length of open loggia used as a summer dining room. Its concrete surface was ornamented with five 1962-63 drawings by Picasso, projected by magic lantern, traced and then sandblasted - the lines being created by black basalt chips embedded in the grout. The subjects, which were specially chosen by the artist, had a personal meaning and relevance for him.

"Abandoning a life of such dimension for the restrictions of an apartment might appear daunting. It is certainly surprising to find this profoundly cultivated, yet rumbustious force de la nature among the high rises of the principality of Monaco. 'It was a question of timing,' he says. 'You know, about ten years ago I did manage to foresee the problems of inflation, taxation and staff shortages closing around. Besides, when you have created something, and perfected it, it's time to move on. Life is a cyclic affair. Most of those who came to the chateau had died. Can you see me stagnating among the bourgeosie in the small town of Nîmes?'"

Cooper's life at Chateau de Castille is not really of any interest here, except as another step in my theme of connections because two more associations are made. After John Richardson - Cooper's companion at Chateau de Castille, who had yet to write Picasso's biography - left Cooper to work at Christie's, New York, Cooper met William McCarty, the man who became his lover, adopted son and heir, at the Rittenhouse Square house of Henry McIlhenny.

The chateau itself is of interest, not really for its architecture or age, but for the designer to the owners after Cooper, an émigré American, Dick Dumas. Dumas, a name not I think much known this side of the Atlantic, but one I'd first heard of twenty-five years ago at Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Provence. In a sense, thus, with Dumas I've come full circle, or at least so it appears. 

Dick Dumas, born in Bryn Mawr, spent his teenage years in Detroit, joined the navy during the Second World War, had bit parts in Hollywood movies, married, divorced, worked for Charles James, had his own label, moved to Paris from New York, and eventually bought what became his fourth house in France, a former café, in Oppède-le-Vieux, a town not four miles from Ménerbes, where not only Roderick Cameron, but Peter Mayle, the author of A Year in Provence, also lived.

Dumas' provençal interiors typify, in my estimation, what may be thought of as expatriate interior decoration, beguiled by the sun, bedeviled by the wind, light-toned, pretty, comfortable, bucolic but not churlish - in fact, simply a one-sided conversation with the spirit of the place, and of little significance beyond that.

What is of significance for me is that as the end of the year draws near, I feel the need to reiterate, but not draw a line around, my themes of the last few months. I began thinking about my theme, to which I have only recently given a name - circles within circles - with this post on Billy Gaylord. He was not the first of what a friend has called my "dead decorators" series; but something written by an anonymous commenter, who has subsequently became a dear friend, made me see Gaylord, this man who died of cancer when forty years old, as perhaps emblematic of a theory, the structure of which I had not yet perceived.

The history of 20th century interior design has, in my opinion, been skewed by two major tendencies: the first, the predilection for beatifying celebrities to the frequent exclusion of quality, originality and what the ancient Greeks believed be the three components of beauty: symmetry, proportion and harmony; the second, the growing ignorance about those men who died during the last two decades of the 20th century, frequently of AIDS.

I use the word men in the last sentence quite consciously. For various reasons, I have limited myself to writing about men, not all of whom were gay. Yet there was such a preponderance of gay men who died during the 1980s and 1990s that it could be argued that the history of 20th century interior decoration is gay history - a theme to be investigated in the new year.

I cannot tell you the name of the photographer for these images as the page where his or her name would have been was cut from the magazine before I acquired it. If someone can tell me I would be grateful.

The text they accompany and from which I have drawn notes was written by Dodie Kazanjian for HG, January 1989 - that much was in the table of contents.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sugar bag blues

Dominique Browning's post today reminded me that for various reasons I had neither completed  nor posted this draft I began weeks ago. One day, it being time to begin the annual fruit cake making ritual  - an observance much followed in this house, for a Dundee cake with its preponderance of currants over raisins (etymology of currant: Corinth - currants were once known as raisins of Corinth) topped with concentric rings of almonds is a much appreciated accompaniment to the Celt's afternoon cup of tea - I went looking for bulk-buy dried fruit.

What I found, however, was that in the so-called bulk-buy section, my local foodie-foods supermarket's pride in its much-touted organic mission had been subsumed under a welter of small plastic packaging. The more the mission was touted, it seemed to me, the more plastic there was and bulk-buying had been reduced to small plastic packages of a few ounces.

I've been worried for a while about the increasingly larger role plastic packaging plays in my life. I find it virtually impossible to buy food previously packed in glass not packed or shipped in plastic. Even many of the corks of the wine I buy, and I admit it is not that grand a wine, are plastic and seemingly becoming the norm.

It is not just nostalgia that makes me remember the food retailing during my youth - the local, within-walking-distance, butcher, baker, greengrocer, grocer, and I might as well say it, chip shop. My grandmother always kept a separate shopping bag - cloth, homemade and washable, if I remember well - for potatoes which were not today's perfectly washed and processed specimens and usually came with the black earth clinging to the skins. Other vegetables, carrots and parsnips went straight from the weigh-scale to another cloth bag without being wrapped. Brussels sprouts required a paper bag, usually brown. Summer tomatoes (not a redundancy, that word summer, for there were no tomatoes except for a few short weeks in summer) were bagged in paper after weighing and soft fruits came, magically to this child, in mini wooden crates, or punnets we called them. Bread, baked behind the shop, as were the pies, both sweet and savory, was wrapped in paper when sold. Delicate cakes, individual pies - pork, Scotch, nutmeg sprinkled custard, bilberry, and apple and, in season, mince pies, jam sponges, fancies, fairy cakes, Battenbergs, and meringues, were placed carefully, reverently even, in thin card lidded boxes, for they were an expensive and much-planned-for treat to a cotton worker working, as she would have said, "all the hours God sends." Sugar, and this really is years ago, came ready packed in blue paper bags. Milk was, and still is in some parts of Britain, delivered in glass bottles to the doorstep each day, meat from the butcher - and he was a real butcher - was wrapped in "grease-proof" paper, as was cheese, usually locally-made Crumbly or Tasty Lancashire - the best cheese you'll ever find for Welsh Rarebits or to be eaten with a slice of well-fed and matured fruitcake. Crumbly described the soft granularity of the immature cheese and Tasty the sharpness of the firmer matured variety. Of course there was canned food, tinned as we would have said, and the odd thing is, despite finding most not worth her notice, my grandmother bought cream and fruit in a tin.

There was a brief period that Lancashire cheese, much to my delight, was available at the cheese counter, but the problem was, I understood, when eventually it disappeared, it quickly molded under its plastic wrap and there was too much wastage. As well it might, I thought, for cheese if is to be wrapped should be wrapped with paper only. Of course, as far as retailers are concerned paper is not transparent, and if the product, sliced, packaged and visible, sits in an open case, then for hygiene's sake plastic seems to be the obvious choice.  Why then, I wonder, are some cheeses, not plastic-wrapped, sitting glamorously, like jewels from the dairy, in closed vitrines? Why then, I wonder, in my cynical way, is "cheese paper" available in its own display atop that vitrine - a display with its tagline suggesting that cheese needs to be treated with respect?

So, in a way, my no-longer-available hometown cheese is to me emblematic of the ills of food packaging in general. The most worrisome aspects of packaging are the chemicals that leech from plastic into food, and the gross amounts of plastic disposed of every day.

What I also went looking for that day, coincidentally, was mayonnaise. As far as I could discover, and this came as such a shock, for it seemed to happen overnight or, at least, between the buying of one jar and the next, mayonnaise, even the kind emblazoned with claims of organic rectitude and imparting this or that, yet-to-be-determined-by-the-FDA, health benefit, is hardly available anymore in glass. I have the impression that despite any qualms consumers might have about transference of harmful chemicals from plastic to fatty foods, nut butter manufacturers also went from using glass to packaging in plastic - a big change that happened, in my experience, this year. I cannot quantify it, but I really have a strong impression that plastic packaging has increased exponentially this year.

I can make some changes and am doing so - fruit and vegetables go straight into the trolley, admittedly on top of my shopping bag, without first going into a plastic bag. I buy the last packed in glass mayonnaise, at least the one I can stand eating. Increasingly I am not buying ready-made foods or other types of prepackaged food, such as frozen vegetables if packaged in plastic, or prewrapped cheese for more reasons than the leaching of chemicals. If peanut or other nut butters are eventually only available in plastic jars then I shall no longer buy them.

That it's all a question of convenience, is undoubted, though whether the convenience of the consumer as is usually suggested, or of the manufacturer, I question. I cannot say I'm totally convinced by the truism or, perhaps, the marketing ploy that convinces us we work harder than our ancestors or that we have less time to enjoy life than they and that convenience packaging is a palliative for our stressful lives.

By the by, anyone ever wonder what the carbon footprint of a blueberry from Peru at this time of year must be? 

The photo of a vermeil fruit basket, designed for Tiffany & Co by Van Day Truex, from Tiffany's 20th Century: a portrait of American Style, John Loring, Harry N Abrams. 1997. The small black and white photograph is of the designer and for which I have no photographer's attribution. That will change.   

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Vin chaud and white lights

It's three in the morning and here I sit, glass of hot vin chaud - the spiced and brandied red wine I made earlier this evening to have with leftover boeuf bourguignon, and it finally hits me that after a more than a week of visitors, Christmas parties, finals, grading, faculty meetings, and yet one more party to come, that it is only eleven days before we set off on our winter vacation. Normally, we would take the winter vacation in New York but this year we going to Rome, a city neither of us has been to. Florence is on the itinerary as is New Year in Venice. Of all the buildings I'm going to see, Bramante's Tempietto is the one I'm most most looking forward to.

Christmas, in its own way, a festival of lights, when in the short, dark days of the northern midwinter fires were lit not only against the cold, holly and mistletoe, the greenery of the old gods, hung above doors and windows, and trees ornamented with candles. One of my most clear memories of childhood Christmases is of a card printed with a snowy coaching scene that because of its metal foil surface and a shred of embossing glinted magically in the light of the fire. The magic of that glint, the glow of fire in a dark room, the blue shadows beyond the slab of light from a window thrown across snow, has never left me. Last night at our condo holiday party the major decorations were large glass vases filled white lights and white twigs from which hung many icicles - to me the most glamouring of combinations, frost and fire. It's good sometimes to snatch a few seconds, just to appreciate how light in the dark is so essential and elemental a condition.

When, last weekend, I asked the Celt what we might serve for his sister-in-law's last-night-with-us dinner with friends he immediately said boeuf bourguignon, gratin dauphinoise and roasted asparagus with a bought-in fruit tart to follow - suggesting he'd hitherto given it a tad more thought than had I. Boeuf bourguignon it was but the odd thing is I realized I'd never made it before. I'd made the Flemish version of beef in beer, slowly stewed beef with prunes and red wine, even stroganoffed filet (the "t" is not silent in this household) with sour cream and mushrooms - in fact over the years I'd stewed a lot of beef but had never done the classic, Julia Child popularized, blogged-about and movie-starred boeuf bourguignon. Well, I made it and I can tell you honestly it was a total disappointment - until, that is, on reheating two days later and with the last minute addition of buttered mushrooms and pearl onions, it had evolved into the most salubrious of casseroles. There's a morsel, perhaps not served well by a second and third reheating, left for lunch tomorrow.

As to gratin dauphinoise, and this is where I recognize the irony of taking anti-cholesterol medication, I like it simple - well-seasoned, thinly-sliced potatoes, layered with cream and lots of garlic (none of the rub the dish with garlic nonsense) and slowly, slowly baked. Simple, subtle, and salacious.

I shall resume posts about connections, circles within circles, next week.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Shut the France up!

"I'm not allowed to say the "F" word" announced my six-year-old goddaughter one morning recently to her teacher - a statement probably not the most inconsequential to be greeted with at the beginning of a school day, and undoubtedly one that spawned all the normal signs of panic - palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, if not a distinct impulse to head for the door.

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, indeed, comes much to amuse and divert and yesterday was no exception. Over dinner the Celt's beloved sister-in-law, in town for a couple of days, told the story that caused me almost to lose it. I was luckily not chewing or drinking at the time so I didn't choke from food only from sheer hide-my-face-in-my-napkin, unstoppable laughter - something I needed for I was very grumpy about the level of noise - a jazz band and singer, no less - in my favorite, if low-ceilinged, restaurant. Boy, did I need to laugh.

Whether or not the teacher immediately twigged what was going on, I cannot remember, but at some point, if only in a conversation with mama at the end of the school day, she must have done - my god-daughter and her father were taking a trip to France and were not yet telling her four-year-old sister. Her father, a lover of puns, told her not to mention France and phrased it "Don't use the "F" word."

The delight of it kept coming back throughout the meal and each time reduced me to giggles - so much so, the Celt told me to "shut the France up!" which set me off into giggles again. Absolute delight!

A digression.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fakin' it

I'd like to say it was seeing The Birth of Western Civilization in the role of book-as-cultural-talisman, that crystalized my thoughts, but actually it was reading Famous Last Words, a book recommended by a correspondent who thought I might find it relevant to my theme of the past few months - circles within circles - and relevant it is, this tale about an American citizen, friend of European aristocracy, confidante of the Duchess of Windsor, and spy for the Third Reich. Though set in times too recent for it to be considered an historical novel, the book is in its way pertinent to today's post about a history of decorating - itself a fiction if ever there was one.

Sometimes simple things have little individual significance, but occasionally they coincide and together have more import than they might severally have had. And so it was with these two books - one a propper's accessory in a pretend apartment designed for imaginary inhabitants themselves characters from a movie about spurious relationships; and the other about chimerical alliances and duplicity with and by mythical fascists. From one extreme to the other, you might think: but the common thread is that of duplicity - fakin' it, in other words.

For a while now it has been obvious that shelter magazine editors and by extension we the readers are not satisfied with a mere portrayal of rooms - there must be a story. Whether a story of celebrity, notoriety even, or just plain old-fashioned worship, a story there shall be. The plot, or subterfuge, if you will, is frequently the same - someone just walked out of a room that is littered with aesthetic and cultural detritus emblematic of riches and free time. An alliance between theatre and fiction, no less, the scripted yet supposedly extempore situation is the decorating world's equivalent of reality television.

I wonder if this making of backgrounds, stage sets really, for the mini-dramas of the rich and notorious is compensation for the neutralizing - one might say the dumbing down - of interiors that has happened over the last two decades? Interest must come from somewhere, after all, and the more complex the storyline, the more layers are applied to the room; thus the greater the opportunity for product placement - not in itself a bad thing, I'm sure you would agree.

I wonder also where stylists go from here. To those modern sanctuaries, so-called retreats from the stresses of modern life - the bedroom and the bathroom, perhaps? In the cause of creating camera vérité, could a disheveled bathroom with its toothpaste bespattered mirror, a toilet seat not returned to a genteel horizontality, and a pair of his and his robes, room fragrance by... not be emblematic of a life well-lived? Or the bedroom, perhaps, with a trail of discarded clothing leading to a bed déshabillé - while we're there, why not three trails and a set of handcuffs on the bedposts? Now there's a story!

Famous Last Words? though fiction, is an unvarnished portrait of a number of historic figures, Wallis Windsor being one of them. It appears to me that in our little outpost of the blogosphere there's a tendency to write adoringly about previous generations of aristocracy and royalty, be it actual or plutocratic, without overt cognizance of history, character, or politics. They are presented simply as style icons, their often deplorable behaviour and affiliations being totally disregarded. They are, merely by virtue of being old, rich and (mostly) dead, fabulous. In such a way is history rewritten, for in my opinion, there cannot but be a dimension beyond the superficial and the iconic.

Fakin' it, thus, is where it's at. I don't want to appear overly serious about what I see as the fictionalization of interiors, but I wonder what happened to require such a change. A change perhaps that came hand-in-hand with an apparently ravenous purience about the lives of people who are highly unlikely ever to be our intimates. Perhaps an appetite so strong it needs to be fed, however blurred the lines between reality and fable.