28 September 2011

From the Archives: Heaven Sent

"The Dream of St Ursula", a 1495 painting from a series by Vittore Carpaccio. Depicting a young princess being visited by an angel, it currently hangs in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Venice, Italy. © 1990 Scala, Florence.

Inspiration can be found in the oddest nooks and crannies. As Stephen Calloway's intriguing Twentieth Century Decoration (1988) explains, a quattrocento tempera painting called The Dream of St Ursula, for example, has inspired two known beds and likely a handful of others yet to be discovered. The work, executed in 1495 by Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio, depicts the young lady in question—a teenage princess doomed to martydom—supine in a majestic canopy bed set on a high inlaid platform or predella, its elaborate tasseled valance held aloft by delicate attenuated posts. This particular Carpaccio, one of a series of eight scenes examining the saint's life that was hailed by critic Bernard Berenson for its "vivacity and gorgeousness", originally hung in a school for orphaned girls dedicated to St Ursula; today it resides in the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice. Berenson proclaimed the painting less a portrait of a saint than "the picture of a room with the light playing softly upon its walls, upon the flower-pots in the window, and upon the writing-table and the cupboards".

True enough, because the sleeping subject is the least interesting part of the work. It is the limpid, barely furnished but strangely opulent interior—"a vivid impression of a Venetian bedroom in the late fifteenth century", according to one architectural historian—and in particular the astounding bed, that commands attention. John Ruskin, the British artist and critic, who first saw this painting in 1869, described it as "a broad four-poster, the posts being fully wrought golden or gilded rods, variously wreathed and branched, carrying a canopy of warm red". Carpaccio surely based it on something he had seen, say, in a palazzo of his time. The rooms of that city are rich with beds of all kinds of elaborate descriptions but this model—commanding yet curiously weightless, skeletal yet sumptuous—seems not to have survived anywhere to my knowledge.

Bedroom of Barbara Rutherfurd, 660 Fifth Avenue, New York City, New York. Both the bed and the chair beside it are copied from Carpaccio's painting. This image, by an uncredited photographer, was published in British "Vogue" in August 1917.

Around 1916, a Manhattan post-deb named Barbara Cairncross Rutherfurd (1895-1939) woke each morning in an apricot, rose, violet, and black room whose furnishings carefully reproduce those in the St Ursula painting, right down to the curious throne-like chair that appears on the canvas. Dominating the space is a bed that is a very slightly simplified adaptation of Carpaccio's virtual version, its headboard free of gilding and the pradella shallower and free of inlay. Its towering, theatrical character was a perfect complement to the Sleeping Beauty splendor of the Rutherfurd's home, an 1881 turreted French Renaissance castle designed by Richard Morris Hunt for her stepfather, William Kissam Vanderbilt Sr; her mother, the former Anne H.S. Rutherfurd, became Vanderbilt's second wife in 1903. The eccentric bed also was perfectly suited to its occupant, a creature of electrifying Casati-like beauty who eventually married twice, grew increasingly unbalanced, was committed to a sanitarium, and died at only 44 years of age. A photograph of this troubled soul, seated in the Carpaccio-style chair, is reproduced below. Somewhere there exists a circa-1921 portrait of her by sculptor Renée Prahar, a fashionable talent of the day, the work once described as "a lead intaglio set in ebony" and so highly polished that the lead possessed "the moonlight glow of old pewter".

The decor of Rutherfurd's bedroom, as described in British Vogue in 1917, deserves to be recounted in full: "The colour plan is made up of tones of apricot, rose, and violet, accented in black, which gives it character. The dado, mantlepiece, and ceiling, as well as the rough plastered walls, are all in tones of apricot, much glazed with violet; this produces an unusual mellowness and makes the tones in the different parts of the room vary according to the light and the hour of the day. The carpet is of a deep violet, and the doors and all the furniture are of black lacquer with the least bit of gold introduced. The bed ... is of black lacquer with a bedspread and day cushion of mauve and gold brocade. The canopy, nine feet high, is in cloth of gold lined with mauve velvet, and mauve tassels decorate it; the pillow at the foot of the bed is of turquoise blue velvet. The screen is composed of black glass panels and is hung with tassels of mauve. The wall lights are of black glass plaques mounted in gilt metal framework. The curtains for this room are of deepest violet damask, and violet and apricot-rose gauze inside curtains complete the window".

What happened to the bed and the chair is unknown. The name of the furniture's designer is also obscure, though at least one researcher attributes the bed to Geoffrey Scott (for more about him, see below). Between 1915 and 1916, Bernard Berenson, whose assistant was Scott, had published two widely read articles about Carpaccio, which brought the Venetian painter's work to broader attention in an era when Italian antiques had begun to transfix certain members of transatlantic society. And it is known that Anne Vanderbilt, Rutherfurd's mother, moved in the same circles as Scott, Berenson, Elsie de Wolfe (she would decorate Mrs Vanderbilt's house on Sutton Place), and other contemporary tastemakers. So perhaps Scott did have something to do with that Fifth Avenue interior. More research will have to be pursued.

What is known is that Barbara Rutherfurd married Cyril Hatch, her first husband, in 1916—apparently not too many years after her bedroom's completion—she soon moved into the starkly handsome Spanish Revival house that The New York Times reported was a wedding gift from the bride's mother. Its architect was Frederick J. Sterner. (Later owned by stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and later still by artist Jasper Johns, the East 63rd Street residence now belongs to director Spike Lee.) At present there is no indication that the St Ursula bed made the move uptown with the newlywed Mrs Hatch. Perhaps it was simply sold, sometime between the closing of the Vanderbilt house after her stepfather's death in 1920 and the vast mansion's demolition in 1926.

Barbara Cairncross Rutherfurd (Mrs Cyril Hatch) as a newlywed. She is seated in the same throne-like, black-lacquered chair that stands to the left of her bed at 660 Fifth Avenue; it also was copied from the Carpaccio painting. This image, unsigned but seemingly the work of Baron de Meyer, was published in the February 1917 issue of British "Vogue".

Another example of the St Ursula bed has been in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum since 1984. Credited to architect and art historian Geoffrey Scott (author of The Architecture of Humanism) and a London upholsterer called M. Southgate, it was made in 1922 for Scott's cousin William Heywood Haslam (1889-1981), heir to a cotton-spinning fortune and perhaps best known as the father of British interior decorator Nicky Haslam. Some scholars have claimed the bed was created in Florence, Italy, in 1914, but additional research has ascertained a different date and place of manufacture. Moreover, Haslam's is an adaptation, vigorous but significantly different from the quite careful replication executed for Barbara Rutherfurd. Scott dramatically altered the headboard, for instance, reducing its aristocratic arc to an suburban echo and dispensing with its exclamatory urn-like finial. He also created boldly sculpted bases for the posts, which themselves have been pruned and thickened, and mounted the bed on six gilded lion's paws.

William Heywood Haslam's bed in the 1930s, as seen in the Grotesque Room of his country house, Great Hundridge Manor, Chesham Road, Hyde Heath, Chartridge, Buckinghamshire, England.

Painted peacock blue, lavishly gilded, and crowned by an open canopy fringed with brilliant red Venetian silk damask, the bed was reputedly was ordered for Haslam's London residence, 8 Hanover Terrace. After his marriage to Diamond Ponsonby in 1930, however, it migrated to the couple's late-17th-century country house in Buckinghamshire, Great Hundridge Manor. There it was placed in Haslam's own bedroom—Scott designed a more feminine bed for his cousin's delightfully named wife—the so-called Grotesque Room, a first-floor chamber lined with bevelled paneling and extravagant landscapes framed by faux scagliola. To see Scott's bed for William Haslam in its fully restored glory, simply look below.

William Haslam's bed, designed in 1922 by Geoffrey Scott and restored in recent years by Seymour Furnishings, Upholsterer. The bed measures 88H by 46.5W by 96D. The image shown above appears on the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. © V&A Images

27 September 2011

Do the Twist

The gallery of the Agnelli country house near Turin, Italy. The image, by Horst, was published in American "Vogue" in 1966.

Though for years I have been an firm proponent of big, blowsy, naturalistic floral arrangements—in the manner of Constance Spry, for example, or Anne, the Countess of Rosse—I've recently developed a renewed appreciation for bouquets with a high artifice quotient, the more sculptural, the better.

Consider, for instance, the bold compositions of snow-white and hot-pink spider mums set atop a pair of Piedmontese silver-gilt tables at Villa Agnelli, the Fiat automotive dynasty's country house in the hilltown of Villar Perosa, Italy, in the mid 1960s. With their conical silhouettes and barber-pole swirls of color, the graphic arrangements bring a crisp, declarative statement to the sweeping space, the striped bouquets holding their own amid this gala interior's delirious swarm of golden arabesques.

26 September 2011

Well Said: Ghislaine de Polignac

Ghislaine, Princesse de Polignac, by Alejo Vidal-Quadras, Paris, 1957. Image from the artist's website.

"Men are simply not accustomed to suffer to be beautiful."

So said Princesse de Polignac (née Ghislaine Charlotte Claire Brinquant, 1918-2011): Continental society ornament; former wife of Prince Edmond de Polignac; public relations director for Revlon in France; fashion stylist for Galeries Lafayette; mistress of many, and by all colorful accounts, an all-around good-time girl. 

14 September 2011

Well Spent: Millicent Roger's Ruby Heart

Known for passionate affairs of the heart, the legendary Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers—subject of Cherie Burns's new biography, "Searching for Beauty" (St. Martin's Press)—advertised that her propensity for romance on her sleeve. Or, rather, her bodice, in the form of a heart-shaped brooch made of pavé rubies pierced by an arrow composed of caliber-cut yellow diamonds. It is being offered for sale at Siegelson, the Manhattan jewelers. The price? A company representative coyly says the interested buyer should expect to spend in "the upper half of the six digits." So if you are seriously interested in acquiring this 3-3/8 inch by 2-3/8 inch ornament, click here to email your query.

Millicent Rogers, wearing the Flato brooch, with her third husband, stockbroker Ronald Balcom, in 1939.

Made around 1938 from a design dreamed up by Rogers for her friend society jeweler Paul Flato—its rounded, voluptuous shape is sometimes called a fat or puffy heart—the brooch is draped with a sapphire ribbon bearing the yellow-gold Latin phrase Verbum Carro. This has been translated as "A word to my dear one," thought it could be a play on Verbum caro, "The word made flesh," a reference to Jesus Christ as recounted in John 1:14. This makes some sense, since scholars have observed that the colorful jewel recalls the South American folk charms known as milagros.

11 September 2011

Happy Fashion Week

Ginette Spanier, circa 1960. The Anglo-French Spanier (1904-1988, Mme. Paul-Émile Seidmann) was the directrice of the Paris fashion house Pierre Balmain for more than 25 years, after which she worked for Nina Ricci. This photograph of Spanier—wearing a Balmain evening dress, of course—appears in her memoir "It Isn't All Mink: The Sparkling Autobiography of a Woman of Style" (Random House, 1960). The highly entertaining book was edited by Spanier's lover, British journalist Nancy Spain.

"Why do women want to be chic? Why do women feel like this? Why do they pay attention to their clothes?
"Men say it is to attract men. Women think it is to knock spots off other women. I have my own belief. Women need the sense of security that the griffe gives them. The griffe is the little label that the couture sews into the back of the dress, with the great name (Balenciaga, Balmain) on it.
"I can remember perfectly the first griffe in the first model I had. I bought the model in a sale in Cannes in 1933—a pale-pink evening dress by Worth and a coat that went with it. My dream would have been to wear the dress with the griffe of Worth outside. Indeed, I kept negligently throwing my evening coat on the back of a chair with an organized gesture. The label meant nothing to the man who took me out for the evening. It meant everything to me. It gave me confidence. It said, 'Go in and slay them, Ginette.' It helped me talk to people. It made me walk into a room with shoulders back."

So wrote Jenny Yvonne "Ginette" Spanier in It Isn't All Mink: The Sparkling Autobiography of a Woman of Style (Random House, 1960).

07 September 2011

The Simple Life

The breakfast area of a London dining room decorated by David Mlinaric, circa 2007. Image from "Mlinaric on Decorating" by Mirabel Cecil and David Mlinaric (Frances Lincoln Limited, 2008).

Simplicity is something I've never been much good at achieving, particularly when it comes to outfitting a room. The reductive results either look impoverished or impractical. But if I could achieve the same spare, bold, hushed atmosphere embodied by the picture above, in our house or our apartment, I think I might come close to true happiness.

The Platonic serenity of this image is resolutely modern but also strangely classical, a functional space furnished for the bare minimum of activity and raked by cold, unforgiving light. (Not for nothing was this 19th-century structure in Chelsea the former studio-residence of artist John Singer Sargent, for whom northern light was crucial in the production of his portraits.) It has something of the calm clarity of the paintings recently shown in "Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century," the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition of depictions of sunlit European rooms, especially the works of German artist Georg Friedrich Kersting. The room seems empty but is actually quite full, furnished with honest materials spanning the poles of light and dark—curtains of silk the color of fog; plaster stippled an even more evanescent shade of grey; satiny marble; seats of supple leather; a carpet of woven sea grass; and polished mahogany chairs with cornucopiae supports. That exuberant last-named detail, the horn of plenty, is an eccentric chair element though so fitting in a room for meals. I am also keenly appreciative of the lack of overt decoration, a paucity that demands one heed the person opposite and what he or she is saying (or not saying), as coffee is poured and toast is buttered; this is a no-nonsense spot, a place where one cannot hide, where extended silences would be considerably awkward. It contains but it does not cosset. Of this atmosphere I wholeheartedly approve, since a room's decoration, to my mind, should never subsume its occupants.

One must admit, however, that this particular photograph is taken out of context. It is not the small room it seems but instead the breakfast-area end of a spacious dining room in the London residence of financier Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, shaped by Theis + Kahn Architects and interior designer David Mlinaric. The now-relatively-retired founder of Mlinaric, Henry & Zervudachi is a decorator so brilliant the septuagenarian really should be knighted, though the CBE he received in 2009 "for services to interior design and to heritage" is not to be sniffed at. Consider, for instance, the superb asymmetrical siting of the art here, notably Auguste Rodin's Le Sommeil (one of three marble versions) pushed firmly and idiosyncratically into its corner. There the sleeping woman—a gift from the artist to his American-born last mistress, Claire de Choiseul—commands attention and yet, because of her smoky-white complexion, she seems to fade into the grey wall along with the resolutely plain plinth. And what about that pulsating thread of vivid blue connecting the Yayoi Kusama abstract on the left to the Ben Nicholson canvas on the right to the armchair in the kitchen beyond? Subtly handled, I'd say, and highly deliberate.

To me, this sliver of tailored space embodies everything Mlinaric once said about his approach to fashion, according to an interview posted on the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum: "I always quite liked being smart, tidy and clean and trim." To that, I'll raise a glass.

NB: Other blogs have previously posted images of Sir Evelyn and Lady de Rothschild's London residence, namely Cote de Texas in 2009 and Brilliant Asylum in December 2007. A large article about the house was published in the January 2008 issue of W.

05 September 2011

Technical Issues: Please Stand By

Dear Readers,

Apparently the text of An Aesthete's Lament is experiencing garbled wording here and there. I have called upon our crackerjack engineers to determine the problem and eradicate it. Your patience is much appreciated.


The Aesthete

04 September 2011

Home Away From Home

India is a country that looms large in my mind. Its culture, its cuisine, its messy, glorious, violent history; the mindboggling decadence of its princely rulers; the abjectness of its impoverished; the rigidity of its caste system; its flamboyant deities: All these things, for some reason, rivet me no end. One cannot be bored by India; one can only be astounded.

Recently news that one of my favorite books, William Dalrymple’s riveting White Mughals, will be made into a movie—as well as the discovery of Penelope Treadwell's Johann Zoffany: Artist and Adventurer (Paul Holberton Publishing), a 2010 study of the 18th-century painter, who spent some artistic quality time in the court of Oudh—got me thinking about Indian style, especially those fertile moments in design, when subcontinental motifs and foreign influences collide and coalesce. (NB: How the producers intend to shrink Dalrymple's sprawling tale of history, romance, and social anthropology into a two-hour tale is beyond my comprehension; it really should be a miniseries along the lines of "The Jewel in the Crown.") 
A self-portrait of artist and designer Robert Home (1752-1834), court painter to the King of Oudh. This image, posted in Wikipedia's Robert Home article, has been in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery since 1943.

This melding of styles is not always an easy one but it is always entertaining and frequently inspiring. Take, for instance, the inexplicably underexamined work of Robert Home (1752-1834), an intrepid Yorkshire expat who studied with German-born British painter Angelica Kauffmann and ultimately found fame and fortune on the Indian subcontinent, where he relocated around 1790. One sitter, in fact, described him as “the best artist in Asia.”

A native of the city of Hull, Home (pronounced "Hume") spent a highly productive chunk of his senior years in Lucknow, working for 13 years as the court painter to Ghazi-ud-din Haider (1769-1827), the seventh nawab wazir and first king of Oudh, before dying in Cawnpore. (The name of the kingdom is pronounced "uh-VUD.") This sophisticated monarch of Persian lineage and Muslim faith was limned by Home in a marvelous portrait that was identified last year. The circa-1819 image shown below was included in a 2011 exhibition of Lucknow portraiture at the Musée Guimet in Paris and is now offered for sale by the London gallery Philip Mould. Another of Home's portraits of his royal patron, a rather large example, is the collection of Queen Elizabeth II (Her Majesty also owns two additional Home works); another hangs in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. A description of the last-cited painting, published in 1907, is as follows: "[The King] is dressed in a canary-yellow chapkan; and strings of pearls and other precious stones encircle his neck and bluish-yellow turban." When he wasn't busy painting the ruler, his wives, and their children, Home put likenesses of British official to canvas, including the Marquess of Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington), of whom he painted more than a dozen portraits. 

Ghazi-ud-din Haider, King of Oudh, circa 1819, in a portrait by Robert Hume. The work is presently being offered for sale by Philip Mould, a gallery in London.

Home didn’t merely record august personages in brilliant oils. As an album of his drawings held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum bears eyepopping witness, he also took up design with breathtaking abandon. Given the architecture, furniture, jewels, clothing, and decorative objects he proposed to the monarch—how many of these fantasies were actually produced seems to be unknown—one could easily call him the Thomas Hope of India. Like his English contemporary, Home seems to have been a master of swaggering Regency extravagances flashy with gilding and not a little exotic pomp. It is a pity that the Yorkshireman and the Prince Regent, later George IV, never met, because the former’s objects for the British royal’s Oudhian counterpart would have looked right at home in the delirious chinoiserie interiors of Brighton Pavilion.

An extraordinary crocodile barge designed for the King of Oudh by Robert Home. The image, which is contained in an album of Home designs held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was published in "Made for Maharajahs: A Design Diary of Princely India"  (Vendome Press, 2006). © V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum.

Whether driven by the otherworldliness of the subcontinental kingdom where he resided or a natural sense of fantasy hybridized with fashionable British taste, Home was a man who trafficked in extravagances. Among his works for Oudh's ruler (the seventh nawab wazir acceded to the throne in 1814, took the title of king in 1819, and reigned until his death in 1827) was a lengthy barge in the form of a grinning crocodile. On its scaly back sat a howdah-like pavilion so the monarch of Oudh and one or more of his numerous wives—among them was an Anglo-Armenian and an Anglo-Indian—could relax in the shade as rowers propelled them along the lazy waters of the Gombti River. Which, it must be added, was crossed by an iron bridge shipped from England on the King's orders.

The fish-shape Royal Boat of Oudh, a torpedo-like pleasure vessel with decorative fins, as seen circa 1858-1860. The image, by Anglo-Italian photographer Felice Beato (1832-1909), is from Bernard Shapero Fine Books, via Wikipedia's article about the photographer.

Another royal Oudh boat in the same water-creature vein—which was recorded in a photograph snapped by Felice Beato in the middle of the 19th century—assumes the shape of a fish, right down to its dorsal and tail fins. A range of jalousied windows stretches along one side of the fish, and presumably the opposite as well, giving its passengers a measure of privacy, which surely must have been welcomed given the vessel’s bizarre appearance. The stately progress of this boat along the Gomti—a giant, glistening fish skimming the waters like a god come to life—surely caused the jaws of the King’s subjects to drop. Whether it was designed by Home, however, is unknown. It seems a bit lumpen in its execution but the vessel's mad looks could well have been inspired by Home's work for the first King of Oudh. Or perhaps it was Home's work after all. Scholar Mildred Archer has written that the artist's proposals had a "certain zaniness," notably "silver carriages shaped like shells supported by peacocks and extraordinary boats in the form of a swan, fish or alligator." Perhaps this fish vessel is the very one described by a 19th-century eyewitness. He wrote of a fish-shaped pleasure boat "made of cedar, for the harem ladies, covered with scales of silver, each the size of a rupee though not so thick. The interior was more luxuriously fitted ... [and] there were jalousies through which the fair and dusky occupants, without being seen, could themselves look upon a city as naughty as Nineveh." One English resident of Lucknow in the 1850s recalled a royal boat shaped like a dolphin and brilliantly enameled.

An 1895 image of Bara Chattar Manzil, a palace complex erected by the first King of Oudh, which was built alongside the Gomti River between 1819 and 1837. Among its pleasures was an English-style picture gallery furnished with chairs designed by Robert Home. Image by G. W. Lawrie and Company, from the website Old Indian Photos.

Capable of striking awe into the observer too was the enormous palace complex commissioned by the king during Home’s tenure in Lucknow and in whose creation Home had a part. (The complex was such an ambitious project, however, that it was not completed until 1837, under the reign of the king's son and successor.) The picture gallery of the dome-topped Bara Chattar Manzil (Umbrella Palaces) was an essay in classical British taste and furnished with chairs made to Home's designs. The eminent British cleric Bishop Heber, who visited Lucknow for ten days in 1824—he declared it "the most polished and splendid court at present in India" and sat for his portrait by Home during his trip—left to posterity a detailed description of a formal breakfast in the room:

"... [It is] a long and handsome, but rather narrow, gallery, with good portraits of [the king's] father and [Governor-General of India] Lord Hastings over the two chimney-pieces, and some very splendid glass lustres hanging from the ceiling. The furniture was altogether English, and there was a long table in the middle of the room, set out with breakfast, and some fine French and English china. [The King] sate [sic] down in a gilt arm-chair in the center of one side, motioning to us to be seated on either hand. ... The King began by putting a large hot roll on the Resident's plate, and another on mine, then sent similar rolls to the young Nawâb his grandson, who sate on the other side of me, to the Prime Minister, and one or two others. Coffee, tea, butter, eggs, and fish were then carried round by the servants, and things proceeded much as at a public breakfast in England. The King had some mess of his own in a beautiful covered French cup, but the other Musselmans eat as the Europeans did."

Visitors to the palace during the reign of the King's son (his mother was a palace chambermaid) commented on the European-style atmosphere, ticking off a dining room "that differed from an English dining-room in no essential particular," a chef who hailed from France, and a coachman from Ireland. (The second King of Oudh, who openly declared his passion for anything European, also married an Englishwoman, the daughter of a rich Lucknow merchant.) It seems arguable that Home, with his expansive creativity, oversaw more than just the gallery's seat furnishings, though more research needs be conducted on this subject. (I plan on following this thread in the near future, hopefully with an update.)

Bara Chattar Manzil, the former palace of the King of Oudh, as it is today. Image from the website of the Central Drug Research Institute.

The splendid palace complex, which is located on a bank of the Gomti River, caused some Western visitors to wince, particularly individuals claiming refined taste. The 1883 Encyclopaedia Britannica approached it with barely concealed condescension, calling the structure " a huge and irregular pile of buildings, crowned by gilt umbrellas, [that] glitters gaudily in the sunlight." An English visitor of the time had a similar opinion, reporting that it was "an immense mass of buildings with no architectural pretension." Partly transformed into a soldiers' club and library after the deposition of the royal family in the 1850s, Bara Chattar Manzil is now the headquarters of the Central Drug Research Institute.

The arms of the Kings of Oudh, which incorporate twin fishes centered between two tigers passant. The female figures appear to be winged mermaids, which also figured in Oudhian iconography. Image from the website Royal Ark.

Twin fishes were emblazoned on the Oudh coat of arms, so Home was careful to incorporate them into many of his designs. In his circa-1819 portrait of the king, however, Ghazi-ud-din Haider apparently sits in one of Home’s giltwood chairs, and no fishes are visible; instead, the scroll-arm chair seems to be ornamented with fruit-like finials. A fish-theme Oudh chair attributed to Home is in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Pictured below, it incorporates a double-fish backsplat and arms supported by scrolling elements that also possess a piscine silhouette. Given its stately yet madcap details, is it any reason I'm longing to see more of Home's creations, whatever they may be?

A carved-wood armchair with gilded brass and gilded gesso mounts, likely designed by Robert Home for the first king of Oudh, circa 1820. Later owned by the 5th Earl Amherst of Arracan, it is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. © V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum. The chair is also featured in the 2001 book "Furniture from British India and Ceylon" (Peabody Essex Museum in association with V&A Publications).

02 September 2011

Fight Club

Angelica Kauffmann's 1787 portrait of Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, with his first wife, the former Lady Elizabeth Hamilton, and their heir, the future 13th Lord Derby. Don't let the happy scene fool you—the countess ended up running away with another nobleman, bearing an illegitimate daughter, and expiring at an early age.

Over the summer, members of The Friends of Honeywood Museum convened at the site of a now-demolished 18th-century country house in Surrey, England, to discover evidence of an architectural curiosity: a cock-pit built for Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, a Georgian Croesus whom historian Alistair Rowan once described as “one of the Adam brothers’ most opulent patrons.”

While steering well clear of animal-rights issues in this space, I do want to go on record with my fascination with this project—and not only the archaeological dig, which unearthed nothing relating to the cock-pit, though its participants fished up antique brick foundations, the remains of 18th-century plaster architectural details, and a 1903 farthing. What impresses me most with The Oaks is Lord Derby’s ingenious solution for fulfilling his at-home gaming desires. Designed as a mini-stadium for watching angry roosters maim each other in the name of sport, the earl’s cock-pit was integrated into The Oaks, his dog's-breakfast of a country house.

The Oaks, as seen in an 1809 engraving.

The building, which has been little studied, appears to have been a picturesque mishmash, set in the midst of a handsome park with gentle hills and painterly clumps of trees. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, for one, gingerly called The Oaks "large and irregular." (One suspects he really meant "ungainly and unfortunate" but couldn't bring himself to write the words.) Architect Robert Taylor designed its initial Palladian-villa phase in the 1750s and expanded that in 1765 for Lord Derby's paternal grandfather.

A view of the interiors of the temporary pavilion designed by Robert Adam in 1774 for The Oaks, Surrey. Lavishly plastered, richly statued, and comfortably furnished, the pavilion was built for a party celebrating the union of Edward Smith-Stanley, Lord Strange, heir to the 11th Earl of Derby, and Lady Elizabeth "Betty" Hamilton.

In 1774, in order to celebrate his forthcoming wedding to a daughter of the 6th Duke of Hamilton, the young aristocrat commissioned Robert Adam to erect a grandiose pavilion alongside. The temporary structure was built for one purpose only: to serve as the centerpiece of a fête champetre, a country-theme entertainment whose extravagance bedazzled Georgian society—Parliament actually went on hiatus so its noble members could attend the fancy-dress shindig. By the end of the century, The Oaks had again increased in size and appearance, a drizzle of castellation giving it the countenance of a fanciful castle. It was sold out of the Stanley family in the mid 19th century and razed to the ground by 1960.

Eighteenth-century gentlemen attending a cockfight.

Now back to Lord Derby's cock-pit. As a writer observed in the weekly journal All the Year Round in 1878, cock-fights had been popular for ages but were all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries. "In those old times, nobleman competed in the cockpit rather than at agricultural shows, and game-cocks were bred instead of short-horns," the reporter explained. "The 'old Earl of Derby' [the subject of this post] is reported to have had many a main of cocks fought in his bedroom, as he lay sick for the last time." His Lordship's favorite fighting fowl came from his own flock of Black Breasted Reds, the roosters of which possessed white legs, "claws strong," and "nails long and white," according to his son and heir's gamekeeper. (The breed is readily obtainable today, though the white-legged variety seems to be a rarity.)

Lord Derby's best-known cock-pit was erected in 1790, in the Lancashire village of Preston, where he also established a well-known race track. (Horseflesh was the aristocrat's primary hobby, in fact, and he was the founder of the Derby and Oaks races.) Unlike the cock-pit at The Oaks, the cock-pit in Preston was a freestanding brick-and-timber building with a domed skylight and elegant arched windows, where the rakes of the day hung out in intervals between races. Not long after the earl's death in 1834, this den of violence and vice became, of all things, a Mormon temple.

Oral histories suggest that Lord Derby's cock-pit at The Oaks was located below the tripartite room shown at the bottom of this illustration. Trenches A, B, and C delineate segments of the recent archaeological dig. Image from John Phillips and Paul Williams's "Research Design for an Excavation at The Oaks, 2011," published by The Friends of Honeywood Museum.

The cock-pit at The Oaks was a private pleasure rather than a public provocation. It was hidden from view, incorporated into the mansion as an ingenious example of architectural camouflage. The architect (evidence suggests Adam was arguably the responsible party) concealed it beneath the floor of a tripartite room in the mansion's east wing.

As a 20th-century inhabitant of The Oaks recalled, as cited in a report posted online by The Friends of Honeywood Museum, "Furniture would be cleared from the centre of a room on the ground floor to the East and sections of the floor hinged back with benches on the underside forming a square with the pit in the centre." (To the full and fascinating study, go to Google and type in Cockpit Earl Derby Oaks; the report's PDF file will appear in the listings. Download and immerse yourself in the details.) Once the brutal match was over, the pit could be rinsed clean—cock-fighting was a bloody business—the hinged floor closed up, and the furniture moved back into place, with no one the wiser.

01 September 2011

Save D. Landreth Seed Company

On Facebook today, America's oldest operating heirloom-seed house, D. Landreth Seed Company, posted a plea to ensure that an astonishing garden resource will not go out of business in 30 days. This cannot be the fate of this extraordinary business and its centuries-old legacy.

Help reduce its looming $250,000 debt, which has been called in by an investor holding a note: buy a $5 mail-order catalogue now, buy two, buy three, buy more if the spirit moves you. If the debt is not wiped out by the end of September, D. Landreth Seed Company, founded in 1784 and owned today by Barbara and Peter Melera, will be no more.

Click here to read about D. Landreth Seed Company's time-sensitive plight.