Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Glowing in the gloom

The Celt and his mama have gone to church, I remain in the breakfast room listening to the waiters, watching the boats pass by the windows, listening again to "Oh Holy Night" much as we did yesterday outside the church of San Vitale, and marvelling how even in the morning gloom the colors of Venice glow. And they do, especially on the walls surrounding me. 


Yesterday afternoon, looking at the subtle warmth of the pinks and corals of La Fenice, how balanced they were with clear pale greens, natural whites, faux marbre, scagliola, acres of rococo gilding and shaded lamps, I wondered at how, at home, color speaks in gruff, hoarse tones from which accent and nuance are gone.

Perhaps too serious a subject for today which is, after all, the celebration of a Promise glowing in the gloom two thousand years long. 

The photograph of Santa Maria Della Salute taken last night, Christmas Eve, just before we went to bed. 

Christmas Eve, Venice

   Tea in the hotel bar after a day walking.

   The view from my chair.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


When did I write this? I thought, when I found the following – not that anyone else could have written it in the Notes app on my iPad – but I really haven't any recollection of it. On a plane journey, perhaps, or in the middle of the night when sleep toys with me.

" … but I might lie on that floor in front of the fireplace, pillow under my head, on a night when watching snow fly outside the windows palls a bit,  Fido by my side, iPad in hand, reading and sipping a glass of amaro. The Celt in his chair, the tired shuffling of his feet suggesting it's time for bed but he's waiting for me. So we close our iPad, Fido and I, the Celt helps me off the floor, and we go to bed, he to sleep, Fido to his basket, and I to lie awake next to the Celt, watching the snow the while convinced I can hear it over the two of them softy snoring. My hand under the pillow next to mine, my eyes will close soon enough, as the snow continues to fly behind my lids… "

The major theme of this blog has always been home and because of what I came to perceive as my superficial exploration of the theme, it has become a burden. I don't want to stop writing – despite appearances this last few months – what I want is to explore that which interests me more than the facile surface of home – the wider, more universal meaning hidden, mostly, in a blizzard of fatuity.

The man needs a vacation, you might think; and if you did so think, you'd be right. And this weekend, the 35th anniversary of when we met, the Celt (more in need of a vacation than I) and I will fly to Rome. We're staying at my favourite hotel, just along from the Piazza del Popolo, with views up the Pincio. Nothing is planned except a visit to an exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

Walking around Rome is one of the most perfect of pastimes – though there have been times when, feet so tired, I wondered how I'd ever get back home. I learned on that first visit to Rome to take a hotel at the bottom of a hill – the Spanish Steps (the widest and most tourist-thronged stairs in Europe) being absolutely no help at all when one almost has to be winched up for a drink at the Hassler Hotel.

After Rome we go to Milan where likely I'll be parked in the Duomo whilst the Celt and a friend from Amsterdam, now living in Geneva – and whom we've not seen for twenty years – go boutique-hopping together. I cannot abide shopping for clothes, though yesterday, whimsically, I bought myself a new Barbour. We have tickets for Leonardo's Last Supper and I'm very much looking forward to seeing the Duomo facade with its combination of Gothic and Classical styles. 

Christmas itself we shall spend in Venice, together with the Celt's step-mother. Our hotel, newly renovated and on the Grand Canal with a magnificent view of Santa Maria della Salute is one we've not stayed at before.

After Venice we fly to the north of England for a visit with my family, where it's likely not to be snowing – but if there's snow on Pendle Hill then I'll be pleased. Thereafter to London for a visit with the Celt's family and our oldest friends. We're back at New Year.

Joyous holidays and a happy New Year to you all. Auguri!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Two books

Some books one comes back to time and again and, rather than be buried on bookshelves, are kept to hand for dipping into on weekend mornings when coffee and a good read are precursors to a much-anticipated easy day. My pile, small as it is, contains Mark Hampton on Decorating, two volumes of John Hatfield's The Saturday Book from the 1950s, A History of Rome also from the 1950s, and Esquire's Handbook for Hosts from 1949.

In With The Old, a book by good friend and neighbor, Jennifer Boles, will join my pile. The minute I unwrapped the review copy I read it cover to cover. The book is as classically elegant as one might expect from this author and filled with clearly expressed personal opinions about painted floors, trompe l'oeil, screens, skirted tables, singeries, rush matting, ballroom chairs, et al – all beautifully illustrated by photographs, drawings and paintings.

Weighty in more ways than one Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration – it weighs nearly seven pounds – is not a book (pun intended) to be taken lightly.

An almost entirely satisfactory book that suffers from a couple of minor flaws – color rendition in some photographs is poor (the lilac and blue bedroom created for the 1984 Kips Bay Show House, a timeless room if ever I saw one, is rendered grey and coarse); there isn't a book jacket, and the fact that a lectern to hold it would be useful. Poor color rendering or tonal unbalance is something I've noticed in a few books using images from twenty, thirty or forty years ago and I cannot believe it is an editorial decision to leave alone, especially when there are the same images in other books and magazines, that are truer to the original. Whether by design or not, the spine of my book has asymmetrically placed typography and rules and it irritates.

Carping aside, the book is worth every penny and I'm glad to have it. The room that still resonates after thirty-something years is the Dillon Room at Blair House – now as then, a breathtaking mix of color, texture and form. A delicious room that is emblematic of Mr Buatta's talent and, whether one likes the Country House style or not, or however one might wish for less layering and clutter, his ability to create rooms of great comfort, beauty, and instant social background.

In with the Old: Classic Decor from A to Z, by Jennifer Boles. Foreword by Alexa Hampton. Potter Style, October 2013.

Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration, by Mario Buatta, Emily Evans Eerdmans, Foreword by Paige Rense. Rizzoli, New York, October 2013.

Photograph of trompe l'oeil table by Erica George Dines.

P.S. I'm still on intermission. Back in November.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

It's been a while ...

... as you may have noticed, since I wrote regularly and with a lot more humor than I have recently. I think this comes to all writers: a feeling of being in a rut; of having little of value to say; of being tired and having it show in one's writing; and wondering what the heck to write about next.

Circumstances, none bad, have kept me from the keyboard, will continue to do so for a while and so I'm taking the rest of the month off and will be back at the beginning of November with what I hope will be fresher, livelier essays than those of late. 

Until then.

Photograph by Matt Cardy from The Guardian Eyewitness, here

Thursday, September 19, 2013


On Saturday, the Celt being at the Petshop Boys concert, I spent the evening with a friend, a gemologist, looking at stones and their settings. It struck me, over the second bourbon, that it takes a man who loves his subject to make it interesting to someone who doesn't feel overly fascinated by jewelry – even watches, cufflinks and rings have limited appeal – and, besides, it got me thinking about the importance of settings, and not just for gems. By the third or fourth bourbon we were having a raucous discussion about men's intimate jewelry and whether or not diamonds and platinum might be less embarrassing – impressive, even – when the TSA demands a strip-search after said intimate jewelry has set off the alarms. All a matter of the setting, I suppose, but I digress.

A remark by a friend that he was designing a pavilion for himself and now was looking for land in Virginia on which to build, had finally taken root in my brain and sent me to a part of my library – by this I mean not the east wing but a different set of shelves – to look for books about pavilions, follies, gardens and plants. I surprised myself by finding many a book about gardening and gardens (I like one not the other and I'll let you to guess which) and, lurking in "history and biography" a book I hadn't yet read or knew I had. The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton will join the pile of twenty-six yet-to-be-read books on my bedside table – books from friends, my old prof, the Celt and even myself on an occasionally regretted impulse.

If I learned anything on Saturday night it is that setting is of great importance if the stones are to be shown at their best but that best is relative thing and can change according to whim and fashion – much the same can be said for houses and their settings. It goes without saying – you'd think – that the setting should enhance the building, be it of a hermit's lair or Philip Johnson's Glass House, yet if one looks at the newer clear-cut, graded, minimally landscaped and shadowless suburbs around any major city then one wonders if setting was ever a consideration.

I don't know the final design my friend, a lover of orange trees and fragrant blooms, has chosen though I have been privy to a few of his ideas as to style. Neither do I know, but I suspect, what kind of setting he will create, but it will be beautiful – I hasten to add at this point that none of what I write or show here is meant to be either advice or influence. My personal taste whether in decoration or gardening is for strong contrast, for chiaroscuro, the sweet and the sour, the rough with the smooth, for dappled light and, above all, for scent and the patter of rain on leaves.

The photograph above , of a then new garden designed thirty years ago by Arabella Lennox-Boyd for her childhood friend, now the dowager Queen of Belgium, at Le Belvedere, in the grounds of the Palace of Laeken outside Brussels. A beautiful attempt, it seems to me, to humanize the scale of formality and the structural emphasis beloved of André Le Nôtre, set within it Arts and Crafts drift planting, form, texture, scent, light and shade, and moments of repose, and embed it in a lush Capability Brown-style park. I wish it were possible to see it now, nearly thirty years later.

The idea of rooms in gardens, not a new one, persists still – the white garden below, by the late Lady Adeane, epitomizes for me the English garden in all its highly-designed antiquated romantic beauty.

The following gardens are by Pied Oudolf, the garden designer par excellence, plant designer of New York's Highline and in my opinion one of the most exciting garden/landscape designers working today.

As attractive as the idea of garden rooms is, it has begun to feel more than a little passé – and this is the problem with fashion, as pervasive in garden design as it is in interior design. The grandeur of André Le Nôtre's designs for Versailles, influential all over Europe, gave way eventually to the English Romantic style of "Capability" Brown which in its turn gave place to Italianate gardens which in their turn gave way to ..... and so on .... until, arguably one is left, nowadays, with a blob of bright annuals around the mailbox, foundation plantings uniform from subdivision to subdivision, lawn after lawn, bereft of shade and peopled with "cement" replicas of geese, goddesses, urns and, occasionally, the holy family.

Arabella Lennox-Boyd's garden plan and photographs by John Vaughn from The World of Interiors, September 1985.

Photograph of the Philip Johnson Glass House from Architectural Digest.com as is the photograph of the Highline.

Watercolour of a thatched 'hermitage' from Garden Mania: the ardent gardner's compendium of design and decoration.

Photograph of the white garden from David Hicks's My Kind of Garden.

Other photographs of the work of Piet Oudolf from oudolf.com

Friday, September 6, 2013

Apropos a po

Despite telling everyone we know that after thirty-four years together we neither needed nor wanted anything, we received two wedding gifts  – one a beautiful old piece of Meissen from my old prof and, only last week, a colourful and gilded, if disconcerting, chamberpot. "WTF," said the Celt, when he saw it for the first time. Mild-mannered as he normally is, seeing a chamberpot, or po as we both knew such an item, on the dining table threw him, I think. 

There was a time when bathrooms moved inside and chamberpots, in theory, were no longer necessary and as late as the 1960s they flooded antiques stores in Britain (I remember Portobello Road, so many chamberpots on display, it looked as if the market had prepared itself for an epidemic of dysentery) and it was thought amusing to deal with them as cachepots and display them in a daring, if whimsical, way and, frequently atop an art nouveau-ish pedestal. The spider plant, looking for all like a big splash, was the favorite. Never got it, myself, but each to his own. 

However strongly I theorized about an aesthetic tension between a mid-nineteenth-century utilitarian object and an early twentieth-century iconic modernist table it was a friend's fixed grin that convinced me it did not look good on the coffee table. Unimaginable as it is to use it for the dining table or even as a vessel for nibbles at a cocktail party, and the idea of using it as a plant pot is just too waggish, we are faced with what to do with a gorgeously decorative po. Thus, as we wait for inspiration to strike, it sits in the office, bracketed by pairs of red sandstone carpet weights, high on a shelf, the whole ensemble looking like some forgotten souvenir of the Raj. 

Remembering as I do the freezing bathroom of my childhood – in winter the windows had ice on the inside – I cannot, nowadays, bear an uncomfortable bathroom. I don't need carpet, though a good thick toweling bathmat is welcome if the floor is unheated – that 1980s decorette mode of creating a "country house" bathroom to look like a conversion from a bedroom or library was not and still is not to my taste.

Having gotten used to Italian hotel bathrooms, marvels of compression and utility that they are, they have given me a taste for the luxurious finish – marble-clad bathtubs, vanities and shower stalls, mosaic paneled walls, heated towel rails and flattering-to-early-morning-skin paint colors.

It's not easy to think of bathrooms as being timeless yet the functions are quite clearly defined and unless there is drastic change in human physiology those functions of elimination and cleanup will remain as they always have been. A third function, essential of course, is to provide lighting sufficient to the task of performing the necessaries efficiently. Anything else ascribed to the space, be it as a retreat or spa, is just fluff designed to appeal to the aspirational and envious amongst us – as pleasant as it might be to have warmed floors and towels, the costliest of marbles and glass, and every scented candle known to mankind.

The first bathroom is by William Sofield, photographed by Fritz von der Schulenberg and taken from Mr Schulenberg's excellent book Luxurious Minimalism, and is the definition of aspirational from my point of view, that is.

The second is by Tino Zervudachi from his book Tino Zervudachi: A Portfolio – another excellent book that I frequently dip into. Having been raised without a shower and only a tub, I feel if I ever see a bathtub again it'll be too soon, still I love this bathroom – despite the wc and bidet being by the window. Below the window, by the window or across from the window doesn't matter but when it's in full view of the neighbors be they human or flying squirrels, I demur. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Vulgarized by misuse

"Taste is a particular person's choice between alternatives. It is choosing a tie to go with a shirt to go with a suit to go with an occasion. It is the way you arrange oranges in a greengrocer's shop; the way you light your room; the colour you choose for the outside of your motor car. It applies to food, to interiors, to manners, to anything where it is a question of choice between one alternative and another in connection with colour, style or behaviour.

"There is a certain stratum of people around the world who consider that they know what a good choice of these elements is: this is what has become known as good taste. Thus you can have what is generally considered to be good taste in pictures, good taste in gardens, good taste in interiors, and conversely you have kitsch taste, theatrical taste, vulgar taste and common taste.

"The international cognoscenti elect themselves over the generations. At the end of the nineteenth century John Ruskin made tremendous proclamations about taste which you cannot really argue with today: he was right within the context of what he was preaching. In the 1900s Edith Wharton was regarded as a paragon of taste. People like Syrie Maugham and Elsie de Wolfe were regarded as leaders of fashion and style in interior design in America, England and France in the late twenties and thirties. History has not, on the whole, proved them wrong.

"Taste is not something you are born with, nor is it anything to do with your social background. It is worth remembering that practically anyone of significance in the world of the arts, whether in the past or today, was nobody to start off with. No one has ever heard of Handel's or Gainsborough's father. Nepotism and parental influence count for little in the history of talented designers, architects, painters and musicians. Good taste is something which you can acquire: you can teach it to yourself, but you must be deeply interested. It is no way dependent upon money.

"Many things are palatable to those of us who are supposedly people of taste. But then they are copied and become vulgarized by misuse; through association with their misuse they become unpopular with us. But I am always open to revivals – it is just a question of  reusing something in the right way. There was a time in my life when moiré or watered silk was absolutely intolerable to me, but I now find it acceptable because the mass of vulgarians have moved away from it; now I can reintroduce it and reuse it in a sympathetic way. There was a time when I loathed vermicelli quilting – it used to be done by pathetic lady decorators on watercolour chintzes of no character whatsoever. But now I like it and use it. It must be done on plain chintz though, and not on a patterned fabric. One reason why I like it so much now is my deep interest in rustication in architecture, a theme which has played a very important part in classical and baroque architecture throughout the centuries.

"There is in fact an acceptable way of using almost everything. If someone asked me to design a room for them, but confessed they collected gnomes, I would make a gnomescape on a table. If someone had a passion for flights of ducks I would say that I would use not one but nine flights and would arrange them in a Vasarely-type way, painting the ducks black and white alternatively."

All very well, Mr Hicks, I thought, but I'd've loved to have seen what you could have done when faced with what in my youth was a nadir of taste: two dolls, a flamenco dancer prancing on top of the telly, light from a low-wattage bulb shining through the black lace flounces of her skirt, and her sister in the loo, forever frozen in an attitude of dramatic renunciation, hiding a spare roll of bathroom tissue under her flaring skirts. So kitsch were they then, those dancers, that now seem so retro as to demand homage.

My taste, be it good or bad, has been formed principally by an aversion to the popular or, as David Hicks describes it, vulgar and common taste – a result, I suspect, of my early years in design school and later in university where I read two magazines almost religiously and for years. The more important of the two was Design, the magazine of the now defunct Council of Industrial Design, and Graphis, a Swiss-produced graphic design magazine that was glossy, expensive and precious. There was a third, but at this remove I cannot remember the name. All I know is that it was in the pages of these magazines that I first read about Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp, Moshe Safde's Habitat 67, Buckminster Fuller's geodisic dome, and many a sleek, well-designed product. It was an era of good design when the why, how and what for were paramount – an era of innovation rather than of imitation and restyling.

On my bookshelves I recently came across Phoenix at Coventry, The Building of a Cathedral by Basil Spence. I wonder if I bought it, put it away intending to read it another day and never did, until now. In my youth I once visited the new Coventry Cathedral (the 14th-century St Michael's was bombed and ruined in the Second World War) and it's clear now where my love of combining old and new comes from – for the the power of seeing that ruined stone through the huge engraved screen of window still has resonance. The combination of old and new is still at the basis of my aesthetic though the proportion of each has changed.

Neither ducks, flamenco dancers nor gnomes are in evidence in these two rooms – though a gnomescape might be a splendid, if impermanent, addition to the first, serene, if curiously under-lamped room. Here the combination of modern and old is exciting and, if truth be told, more reminiscent of the 1960s than the architects might care to acknowledge. The modern leavened with the old, rather than the other way round, seems balanced and fresh.

The second room is the one where one might well meet a flight or nine of ducks crossing a wall and as different a room from the first as can be. Or, so you would think – most of what is visible is modern, but what differentiates it from the first room is not only plumpness of shape, but horizon line, color, lack of emphasis on the vertical, and clutter. The eye does not rest as easily in this room as it does in the first, though the backside may well do so.

The first room is from the excellent and stimulating Shelton, Mindel & Associates: Architecture and Design, and the second from a book new to me, The World of Muriel Brandolini, my purchase of which elicited a raised eyebrow from the Celt. He was silent as he read it and made a sage comment afterwards. "Hmmm," was all he said.

Shelton Mindel's room, reminiscent of no period but its own, has a neutral, timeless quality to it, but the Brandolini room, on the other hand, reminds me no end of the late 1960s though its arch cleverness dates it to today.

I surprised myself by liking Brandolini's book for there is little that gibes with my own aesthetic. Yet, though the author veers too frequently towards kitsch there is a freewheeling quality to it all that I find appealing. Would I recommend it? I'd recommend you go to a bookstore and look through it then decide if you want it. I did.

The World of Muriel Brandolini: Interiors, Muriel Brandolini, Amy Tai, Pieter Estersohn (Photographer), Rizzoli.

In a previous post I wrote: Shelton, Mindel &Associates: Architecture and Design is one of those books I bought in a "must-have" moment and, despite it being an impulsive purchase, I remain glad I did. In the Amazon blurb above the most telling phrase to me is "luminous aesthetic" – for light enlivens every page. On the other hand, there is a faded-in-the-sun look to many of the rooms but the powerful integration of architecture, space and light cannot be denied. Not a coffee table book, but it does look splendid on a Barcelona table.

Photograph of Flamenco dancer from here.
Photograph of flying ducks from here.
Photograph of gnomes from eBay.
Pelican bookcovers from here.
Photographs of Coventry Cathedral from Wikipedia.
Poster of 2001: a space odyssey from Wikipedia.
Photograph of Aston Martin DB5 from Wikipedia. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

For your library

Not a book for taking with one for a long soak in a bubble bath or, for that matter, for reading in bed unless your bed is equipped with a lectern, and the breakfast table would be a hazardous place if one, as one read, dipped soldiers in egg yolk, but, that said, a precious, fascinating, and in more ways than one, a weighty book it is.

It is not a decorating guide unless one longs for a sham Caroline interior – not that there's anything wrong with sham, because if one were to look through the book it would become clear that simulation in the form of French courtliness, painted marble and scagliola, was not to be be sniffed at the court of Charles II. Also not to be sniffed at, as it were, is a chamber pot engraved with the Dysart arms beneath an earl's coronet, which weighed in at 30 ounces of silver.

The Library

Nearly thirty years ago I visited Ham House – I'd taken a walk along the Thames and around a bend in the path loomed Ham, rain and low cloud lent it an atmosphere that drew me in drove me to the entrance where in my uncomfortably damp clothing I, entranced, walked around the house. Perhaps not a true memory, but not a light burned on a day that had quickly turned from light to dark, and each room appeared, as it were, from its own shadowy corners, and from the windows, gloom as dull as pewter, softly polished lacquer and gilt, drew out faded colors of textile and wood and the marvelous inlayed floors creaked as I, seemingly the only visitor, stepped on them. Details are few in my memory but atmosphere remains.

The North Drawing Room, watercolor by H W Brewer, c 1866.

Chimneypiece in the Queen's Closet, Baldassare Artima, 1673.
Fired and painted scagliola.

The Duchess's Private Closet

A Man Consumed by Flames, Isaac Oliver, c. 1610.
Watercolor on vellum. 3 x 2 3/4 inches.

Silver chamber pot, David Willaume, 1731-2. 
Engraved with the Dysart arms beneath an earl's coronet. 
4 7/8 x 10 x 7 1/4 inches. 

If you have not read this book and balk at the list price of $150 (it is a scholarly tome) then I suggest you read Peter Thornton's much more accessible Seventeenth Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland. Better yet, buy both. They'll look fabulous on the coffee table with a little seventeenth-century blue-and-white to the side or, heaven forbid, on top.

Photograph credits: 

A Man Consumed by Flames, The Duchess's Private Closet, The Library, National Trust Images/John Hammond

Silver chamber pot, National Trust Images/Christopher Warliegh-Lack

The Chimneypiece in the Queen's Closet, National Trust Images/Bill Batten

The Duchess's Private Closet, John Paul Photography-