27 February 2012

From the Archives: The Exquisite Amateur (2010)

The drawing room of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman's apartment at 21 St. James's Place, London, England. Bearing vivid evidence of her associations with interior decorators Henri Samuel, Stephane Boudin, Daniel Hamel, and others, its contents were sold at Sotheby's New York on 28 April 2010. Image by Fritz von der Schulenberg/Interior Archive, courtesy of Sotheby's.

NOTE: This post originally appeared on An Aesthete's Lament on 12 April 2010. Auction estimates have been updated with hammer prices.

Design groupies across the globe have been distracted in the past few weeks by the latest Sotheby's catalogue to be pushed through the mail slot. Small wonder, given its contents. Entitled "Property from the Collection of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman: The London Residence," it is a 276-page paradise, allowing a long, lingering glimpse into one small corner of the world of America's most discerning collector of 18th- and 19th-century European furniture, paintings, and decorative arts, the philanthropist Jayne Wrightsman. The sale takes place at Sotheby's New York on 28 April [2010].

Jayne Wrightsman in her Palm Beach, Florida, residence in 1956.

The Michigan-born, California-bred widow of a brilliant Oklahoma oilman, Mrs. Wrightsman is one of those women for whom the word "socialite" is a label whose inaccuracy verges on rudeness. She is rich, yes, and has dressed beautifully and entertained with finesse for more than six decades, in the grand manner that has all but died out. And when it comes to collecting she is not the only person of her position to live surrounded by important objects but I would argue she has purchased them more seriously and with more care than her peers. Few individuals in modern times have managed to hang on their walls paintings and drawings by Rubens, Vermeer, Canaletto, Tiepolo, Guardi, Van Dyck, Georges de La Tour, and Caspar David Friedrich, to name just a few. Or to have acquired books and sculptures of astonishing rarity.

Churlish observers might snipe that major-league collecting is done solely to impress others. Trust me: Jayne Wrightsman has been exquisitely perceptive in her spending. Anyone with sufficient capital and the desire to buy a brand can purchase a painting by Jacques-Louis David, but it takes a real connoisseur to snap up the French artist’s sensational 1788 double portrait of the Lavoisiers, accurately described "one of the great portraits of the eighteenth century." (She and her husband donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977.) Frankly I’d love to see the paintings Jayne and Charles Wrightsman declined over the years; that would be an important lesson in choosing quality over quantity.

Lot 132: a Louis XVI giltwood bergère à oreilles with five legs, circa 1760. Made by maître ébéniste Nicolas Heurtaut, it is upholstered in green velvet appliquéd with a blaze of peacock-feather-pattern silk. Estimate $20,000—$30,000. The chair ultimately sold for $37,500.

Not long after Jayne Larkin's marriage in 1944 to Charles Wrightsman, the brunette beauty with the wide houri eyes decided to collect the best examples of ancien-régime art and cabinetmaking and thoroughly immersed herself in those subjects, an elegant autodidact among lettered scholars. The skepticism that surely greeted this daunting pursuit—after all, she possessed only a high-school diploma—soon faded, eventually vanishing altogether as her familiarity with 18th- and 19th-century European masters grew to formidable levels. She read widely, listened carefully, and befriended all the right experts: Bernard Berenson, John Pope-Hennessy, Kenneth Clark, Sir Francis Watson of the Wallace Collection, James Draper of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and French decorator Stephane Boudin, among others. As American interior designer Kitty Hawks once noted of Jayne Wrightsman, "My mother [Slim Keith] admired two things about—the things she learned and her discipline."

Lot 162: a Louis XV-style white-painted canapé designed and made by Maison Jansen, circa 1950. It is upholstered in ruby-red silk velvet. Estimated to bring $5,000—$8,000, it sold for $20,000.

As a result of that determination Mrs. Wrightsman has long more than held her own among blue-chip curators. She has also generously shared the spoils. The Wrightsman Galleries for French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she serves as an emeritus trustee, exist because of her largesse and vision, the glittering and highly popular parade of exquisite French period rooms getting better every year, again with her keen involvement. Important works of art displayed throughout that august institution are Wrightsman gifts as well; type her surname into the museum's search engine and hundreds of works can be viewed. She put her self-education to good use for the nation too during the celebrated restoration of the White House in the early 1960s, advising the new First Lady as well as quietly funding aspects of the headline-making project, which was overseen by the Wrightsmans' interior decorator at the time, Stephane Boudin, a man whose rooms blended historicist erudition with handmade passementerie.

Lot 15: a pair of Régence-style benches upholstered in green velvet. Mrs. Wrightsman purchased them in 1987 from French interior decorator Henri Samuel. Estimate $1,200—$1,800; sold for $15,000.
So what was Mrs. Wrightsman's apartment in a 1960 building near Spencer House like until it was recently dismantled and shipped to New York City to be auctioned off? In the main it was sumptuous but spirited, luxurious but not stuffy. The comfortable mélange of 18th- and 19th-century antiques that filled its rooms are dressed in deep, bold colors (ruby, aquamarine, emerald); lush, occasionally quirky patterns distracted the eye from the underfed moldings and low ceilings. I honestly would give every piece of furniture I own, along with a few other prized possessions, to win Lot 132, a French giltwood bergère clad in pine-needle-green velvet appliquéd with a blaze of shimmering silk woven with life-size peacock feathers, a Marie-Antoinette-ish leitmotif writ surreal. Alas, however, it is the work of maître ébéniste Nicolas Heurtaut and is expected to bring as much as $30,000. Nevertheless it is an inspiring example of how a formal furnishing can be made chic yet funky by an inventive fabric treatment. "Funky" is the last word anyone would associate with Mrs. Wrightsman, but for a distinguished woman renowned for her taste, that appreciation of peacock feathers is an endearing chink in her aesthetic armour.

Lot 89: a pair of Louis XVI mahogany chairs, circa 1785, attributed to Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené. They are upholstered in leopard-spot silk velvet. Estimate $8,000—$12,000; sold for $74,500.

As the photograph at the top of this post illustrates, a panache of peacock plumes the approximate size of a showgirl's headdress bursts from a precious Regency blue-john urn in the drawing room. It's a stylish takeaway: as blogger Emily Evans Eerdmans, in a recent post about the forthcoming Wrightsman sale, pointed out, that entrancing fountain of feathers is "a look that could be replicated albeit with a more humble receptacle." In case you're interested, Lot 35 consists of about 500 individual peacock feathers (estimate $1,200—$1,800), while Lot 33 is a trio of peacock feathers Mrs. Wrightsman picked up on a visit to Houghton Hall in Norfolk in 1975 and placed in a small circa-1780 Louis XVI giltwood frame (estimate $2,000—$3,000).

Lot 110: A near-pair of large George III urns made of blue john, Derbyshire black marble, and alabaster. They are estimated to bring between $12,000 and $18,000.

Another object I covet from Mrs. Wrightsman's London flat is Lot 162, a 1950s Maison Jansen canapé covered in silk velvet the color of crushed raspberries. The seriously saturated colour is so intensely fruity that one's mouth literally water. What makes this sofa special to me is not just its highly collectible maker or the lavish fabric but the meticulous quality of the upholstery. Stuffed with traditional down and horsehair, it is perfectly plump, even voluptuous, the courtesan curves of the cushions balancing the sinuous Louis XV-style frame in a way that few upholsterers today get exactly right. The seat cushion alone is nearly a foot thick and surely weighs 20 pounds. Traditional skills like these are slowly disappearing, and our appreciation of them diminishes apace. Jayne Wrightsman, however, knows exactly how a sofa, whether 18th century in origin or 18th century in style, should be properly upholstered. After all she's dedicated a great deal of her life to learning rather than just lunching and shopping. The ridiculous creatures on the "Real Housewives" reality series should take note.

Lot 179: an Italian chinoiserie six-panel painted-canvas screen, mid-18th century, probably Piedmont. It was once owned by Belgian nobleman Baron Paul de Becker-Rémy (1897—1953), whose former wife, Rénée, was one of the Wrightsmans' aesthetic mentors. Estimate $40,000—$60,000; sold for $134,500.

Lot 282: a pair of Louis XVI-style low tables designed for storing books. Supplied to Mrs. Wrightsman by French interior decorator Henri Samuel in 1971, this practical and stylish design that deserves to be an integral part of the decorating lexicon. Estimate $1,200—$1,800; sold for $7,500.


The Devoted Classicist said...

Mrs. Wrightsman's fondness for appliqués to create the look of a one-of-a-kind fabric has been a big influence on developing my own taste

The Swan said...

She's the best of the AMERICAN WOMANs dream! I send her many thanks for her gifts to us ALL, unmatched by even those who aspire to her Crown to this day.

Bumble at home said...

She has great style her rooms looked wonderful 40 years ago and would look just as wonderful now-timeless,because of the quality of her collecting.I copied her wall of birds,sadly mine are not all 18th century like hers.In fact posted them on my blog yesterday.Check me out channeling Jane Wrightsman.

Bumble at home said...

She has great style her rooms looked wonderful 40 years ago and would look just as wonderful now-timeless,because of the quality of her collecting.I copied her wall of birds,sadly mine are not all 18th century like hers.In fact posted them on my blog yesterday.Check me out channeling Jane Wrightsman.

Bumble at home said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bumble at home said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bumble at home said...

yesterday I posted on my blog a photograph of a wall of porcelain birds in my house that I copied directly from Jayne Wrightsman, sadly mine are not all 18th century.

Anonymous said...

There was Mona Bismarck and Pauline Potter and then Bunny Mellon and Jayne Wrightsman and then there was . . . ?

the modern sybarite ™ said...

What happened to the critical eye and" good" taste? and by that I'm not necessarily talking about antiques, because not even them are ALL well designed. Nowaday's the undeveloped eye of the wanna-be hipster with millions of tweeter followers and FB friends dictates taste. Where will this take us?

Anonymous said...

whatever was wrong with the words is fixed. I noticed it but it is now normal.

MJH Design Arts said...

I loved this post the first time around--and this time it is even better. Oh, how I wish I could have been at that auction. What an amazing woman!! Thanks. Mary

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post dahhling.. enjoyed it very much.

Thomas said...

I remember hearing a story about the restoration of the 18 century Chinese wallpaper-- Her husband was less than happy with the subdued colors and was yelling at the restorers to "Brighten up those G@dd@mn birds"

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