Monday, October 31, 2011

Three books

"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 StyleSister: The Life of Legendary American Interior Decorator Mrs Henry Parish IIIParish Hadley: Sixty Years of American DesignAlbert Hadley: The Story of America's Preeminent Interior DesignerDesigning 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
The image of The English Country House: From the Archives of Country Life from whence the book.
The image of Oliver Messel: In the Theatre of Design from here. My copy came from


  1. Hello Blue,
    I also own the Country Life book, and find it delicious. There was never a better record of houses and their interiors as in that magazine, in my view. I adore the B&W photos, many taken under challenging circumstances and with only the most basic of technology. Marvelous.

  2. An amusing post-script: what should Boy appear with this evening in his bag, but the Oliver Messel book! Completely by coincidence. I have the earlier Messel book, too, and agree with your assessment of him. I'll be interested to look through the new book and see if it changes my thinking...

  3. Hello, Reggie, and thank you. The English Country House is the latest of twelve we already have from Country Life. They are superb books with good illustrations and well-written texts. I just wish life did not get in the way of spending my days reading them. However ...

    I'd be very interested to hear what you think of the latest book about Messel.

  4. Love The English Country House. Have you seen the new English Country House Interiors book by Jeremy Musson and Paul Barker? I have not but am curious as to whether anyone has seen it and what their opinion of it is.

  5. Dearest one,

    Haven't heard a peep from you since your wonderful cocktail party. Hope you got my email.

    I also bought the Country Life book and adore it. I used to subscribe to Country Life years ago but somehow getting it in this part of the country seems silly so I don't subscribe anymore. Now that we are getting a bigger house maybe I will be allowed to buy books again!

  6. I was just leafing through these very books at a bookstore in London just the other day, but my cheapo flight wouldn't have appreciated the extra weight—I'll have to order on line, oh well! Great suggestions, great eye!

  7. Hi Blue,
    While, I haven't seen Martin Wood's new book on Sister Parish, if you want to know what she was like both as a person and an employer, may I suggest that you look at Keith Irvine's A Life in Decoration. He worked for both Mrs Parish and John Fowler and is brutally frank about both of them.
    BTW, some of Irvine's work from the 80s is a bit OTT but a lot of his rooms are beautiful and lot less well known than the ubiquitous Sister.


    Herts Man

  8. Back after spending an evening with the Oliver Messel book. I was impressed by it, and him. My "take" after reading the earlier tome on him was that he was a glorified window dresser, now I've come to appreciate his talents more, particuarly in stage design. Challenged by being damnably "pretty" and therefore hard to take seriously, but ultimately one to do so, in my view. I'll always believed Beaton was the more talented, but I suppose it is a matter of degree, really, and the added dimension of the diaries, I suppose.

  9. Anonymous, thank you. I saw the new English Country House Interiors book by Jeremy Musson and Paul Barker yesterday and found it very interesting. I photographed the list of contents to see how much is covered in older books - perhaps in black and white. I need to look at it again before I order.

  10. Lindaraxa, thank you. I thought I had replied to your email but I'll check - perhaps I began a reply and was distracted. It was good to see you both here and I'm glad you enjoyed yourselves!

  11. Paul Gervais de Bédée, thank you. The English Country House book is very heavy - lifting it makes me very nervous.

  12. Herts Man, thank you.

    Your comment reminded me that I have Keith Irvine's book on the shelves. I read it when it first was published and had forgotten how frank Mr Irvine was about Fowler and Parish. I shall reread it this weekend.

  13. Reggie Darling, thank you. I agree about the Messel book - it's brilliant. Despite my quibbles about the design of the layout I'm very glad to have it.

  14. Reggie Darling, P.S. I have not read the Beaton diaries! It's time, I think.