Monday, February 25, 2013


A month ago a correspondent sent me this link to an article about the eighty-seven-year-old Patricia Cavendish O'Neill's latest memoir A Chimp in the Wine Cellar. Her brother, of course, is not mentioned in the video embedded in the article but what I found interesting was her accent – of an age long gone and of a class that, however notorious its behaviour might be to outsiders, saw privacy as its right. This video has set me off down another path in my personal search for this man, Roderick Cameron, who proved to be so influential in twentieth-century decorating – all without being a decorator himself.

If a compilation of eulogies is not a mirror, giving glimpses of subjects and authors as it does, I'm not sure what is. One such, Anne Cox Chambers' Remembering Rory, has proved to be a source of much pleasure – odd word, I know, pleasure, when used in relation to eulogies, but what else can said when each page is a source of connection, learning and reading? Also, when reading them, how can one not be conscious that all reputations will be subject to revision by a following generation.

Remembering Rory sits slipcased in all its green leather, gold tooling and marbled paper glory next to Patricia Cavendish O'Neill's memoir A Lion in the Bedroom, Roderick Cameron's own The Golden Riviera and now, Some of My Lives by Rosamond Bernier – the author of one of Cameron's tributes. I'd hoped to find traces of Roderick Cameron in Bernier's book but so far, at a cursory glance, have not. Not that it matters, for Rosamond Bernier's book is proving to be a good accompaniment for those hours after midnight, when the soft ticking of a clock that has done so since before Napoleon became emperor, the rustle of sheets from the bedroom I have just left, the occasional siren of an ambulance racing along the continental divide outside the window, and the scent of hyacinths, all suggest that if heaven were here on earth, this is how it would be.

In her eulogy of Roderick Cameron, Rosamond Berniers speaks, as do many in the book, of his aesthetic, quoting other people as she does so:

"Rory Cameron in his own houses worked for a quality of repose. Bustle and confusion and untidiness were not for him. Having shopped with him in former years, I know that his eye for size, shape, and predestined location were unerring. Planning for his house in Ireland he selected piece after piece almost without bothering to measure them, only to find on arrival in Donegal that every one of them fitted snugly into the space that he had in mind for them.

"Mark Hampton remembers, amongst much else, the range of color that Rory allowed himself – 'coarse linen the color of Caen stone, yellow in warm shades running from heavy cream to deep maize, celadon greens, and every possible shade of white.' He liked large, calm, yet grand pieces of furniture – perhaps they echoed his own large, calm presence – but he never allowed them to dominate. Other, smaller pieces of miscellaneous provenance were encouraged to come forward and sing their songs, and sometimes he dressed the room down where everyone else would have dressed it up.

"Unlike scholars who 'know everything' but cannot conjugate their knowledge with the business of living, Rory Cameron had an infallible sense of what to do with a house. To mix and mate one object with another was both this genius and his greatest pleasure. Better than almost anyone around, he knew how to release the conviviality of objects. People never forgot their first introduction to one of his houses. Thirty years after the fact, Kenneth Jay Lane remembers the moment in Paris when luncheon was wheeled in on a lacquer table by Jansen. The silver was English, eighteenth-century, there were black lacquer bowls from Japan, and very grand but rustic French dishes come on heavy silver plates, with glasses hand-blown and full of bubbles from Biot, in the south of France. There was a set of grass mats woven by the Queen of Tonga and given to Rory."

A lacquer table by Jansen, English eighteenth-century silver, Japanese black lacquer bowls, hand-blown bebubbled glasses from the south of France, grand but rustic dishes on heavy silver plates."

So, the other path I mentioned in the first paragraph is one I'm not yet walking and wonder if  I should. There is not much more that, however many eulogies I might quote, can be written about of Roderick Cameron's aesthetic and the influence he had. Since I began writing about him, I've not been too exercised about this much-loved man's private life but, inevitably, there have been glimpses of that in a lot of what I've written and quoted. What has always interested me the most are connections. so when I read, for example, of his acquaintance with Unity and Diana Mitford, the Moseleys, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (actually friends of Cameron's mother), Greta Garbo, Grahame Sutherland, David Hicks, Peter Quennell, Freya Stark, Somerset Maugham, Alvide Lees-Milne, Elizabeth de Chavchavadze, Louise de Vilmorin... the actual list is much longer... I wonder about his politics.

I wonder too about prurience (not Cameron's, ours) –  though why I would in a society where every celebrity's doings are fair game for the press – when I read this about one of the heroines of many a style blogger's fantasies.

"Mummy had known Windsor for many years and, although I do not think he had been one of her lovers, she liked him very much. It was not long after this that they came to Fiorentina with Jimmy [Jimmy Donahue]. After lunch, everyone was sitting on the terrace talking when the duchess said, 'I just want to take Jimmy and show him the marvellous view from your point.' The duke sat around reminiscing, saying, 'When I was monarch ...' while everyone knew the duchess was having it off with Jimmy in one of the upstairs guest rooms. Mummy told me that the duchess was famous for her expertise in fellatio: rumour had it that she had had lessons in China on this particular art. She was a very masculine woman; there was nothing soft or feminine about her, and I personally did not think she was at all good-looking. She had a presence. I suppose that was the best one could say about her."

If I were to write a biography of Roderick Cameron, I would have to overcome my distaste of knowing too much about someone's sexual habits. Perhaps I'm a prude.

Beyond all that, what is clear at this point is that Roderick Cameron, his circle of friends and those whose aesthetic he influenced, is that they sit at an ever-increasing distance (Cameron died twenty-eight years ago, Billy Baldwin forty years ago, David Hicks fifteen years ago, Van Day Truex thirty-three years ago), hidden in the pages of books, and the focus has blurred and in some cases been obliterated. Their work, when compared to what is published today, has a quality of being edited, of having things taken out rather than added to. Those rooms were photographed on their best behavior, reserved but not standoffish, awaiting patiently for the music of voices, for the clink of ice, the scents of flowers and warm pulse points, and time's passing.

Quotations from Remembering Rory, Anne Cox Chambers, and A Lion in the Bedroom by Patricia Cavendish O'Neill. Photographs from A Lion in the Bedroom.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Gallery walls

There's something terribly bleak about pile upon pile of the ephemera of past lives – dead people's stuff – and so much of it, that with each step I feel increasingly forlorn, if not downright depressed. It's not that I'm creeped out by the modern equivalent of grave goods still awaiting decent burial or burning, it's more that the amount of crap (and there's no other word for it) that has been produced, is still being produced, and will continue to be produced. This is not to say that none of it is without value be it to poor families, young marrieds looking to impress the subdivision, pickers, the recyclers of 60s and 70s worst moments, the taste-bereft or the aesthetically unrestrained.

If I were still suffering from visual and moral dyspepsia after yesterday's tour of a flea antiques market I might take a jaundiced view and say that, occasionally, I feel restraint is long gone from interior design and with it also are gone the underpinnings of history, utility and balance. I might wish my view were not so jaundiced and there certainly are times when my negativity is denied but I am sure of one thing and it is that balance is not understood or, at least, not often apparent, or even appreciated in today's interior design as seen in magazines and books. It is very hard nowadays to get a balanced idea of how a room works – there's a wealth of visual information in the form of vignettes, partial views and close-ups but actually to see how a room functions in relation the people who use it is a rare treat.

So, you might ask, what has got me on this path. In a word, Pinterest. Don't get me wrong – I don't dislike Pinterest, but my ability as a twenty-first-century man living at this week's apex of technological advancement to use a lot of time looking at pretty pictures (dogs or rooms, it doesn't matter) is truly worrying. I cannot blame Pinterest for that. These photographs below and their ilk, from a Google search, have led me to rethink the placement of five drawings (they hang in a row) on our living room wall – remove them altogether or leave one.

It's not just the incoherence, absence of balance, or the seeming unconsidered nature of the relationship to the wall and the room itself that bothers me: it is that they are not contained (in my old-fashioned way, I prefer disparate images to be contained, grid-like, within an implied border and despite asymmetry have balance) and appear to disperse from more than one centre. Also, it looks as if someone spent a lot of time trawling flea-markets – in itself not a bad thing, unless you're me, that is.

I realize, also, these present day asymmetrical arrangements of images and objects, so-called gallery walls, are not just reactions to static, yawn-inducingly-traditional groupings, such as in the photograph below, but a definite but not extreme attempt in their beginnings to enliven a modern way of living in traditional interiors. Now these gallery walls are a fad and as to whether that is a bad thing the jury is still out.  What I do know is that asymmetry is hard to achieve without an eye educated about balance.

There are precedents of course, not few and far between: two literally gallery walls (Uffizi and Royal Academy) and they share a common purpose – display, both artistic and social - with the following two (Van Day Truex and William Pahlman).  I'm not sure if Pahlmann's is an in-store display or a residence but either way that display of artwork above the cabinet must have seemed wonderfully modern at the time. Pahlmann's work is a little hard to assess at this remove but that is a discussion for another day.

John Zoffany's Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772

William Powell Frith's A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881

Van Day Truex, 1944

William Pahlmann, 1950s

Behind this discussion (rant?) about placement of pictures on walls are thoughts I've been having about walls just being allowed to be themselves and not just supports for art or artifacts. Not revolutionary, this idea of having walls bare except for an applied finish, but it occupies me and I would like to discuss it in the near future.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Shivered and groused

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.

Picture of The Berlin Secretary Cabinet (David Roentgen, 1743-1807) from here.

William Morris "Hammersmith" carpet from here