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.

09 February 2012

From the Archives: Thelma Foy's Top-Drawer Chic

The reception room of Thelma and Byron Foy's country house, Foy Farm, in Locust Valley, New York, circa 1945. Image by Garrison from "House & Garden's Complete Guide to Interior Decoration" (Simon & Schuster, 1947).

NOTE: This article was originally posted on An Aesthete's Lament on 3 November 2008 and has been augmented with additional information.

Most of us will be lucky if our obituaries manage to get our names spelt correctly, let alone offer a glowing encomium. So imagine how gratifying must it have been for Thelma Chrysler Foy (1902—1957) to have seen, from whichever fluffy white cloud she landed on, The New York Times declare the slender, vivacious, and highly strung automobile heiress, on the day after her death from leukemia, "the woman of the greatest taste in the current life in New York."

Nice tribute, no? But what was it exactly that earned the publicly serene, privately tempestuous Mrs Foy her position at the top of the heap? I would argue this: a sensitivity to colour schemes, fashions, and furnishings that threw her brunette good looks into high relief, as well as a control-freak adherence to good housekeeping. As for Foy's nasty temper, perhaps it had something to do with her diet—writer Jean Nathan noted in an article written for Vogue that Foy seemed to live on little more than black coffee.

Automotive heiress Thelma Chrysler Foy

Some evidence of Foy's high style lies in the archives of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where dozens of her haute-couture clothes repose—including two stupendous gowns by Christian Dior, each looking like something plucked out of the armoire of the Snow Queen, their billowing skirts stupendously spattered with glittering paillettes and gleaming artificial pearls. Small wonder Time magazine, in its observation of her death, noted that she was "repeatedly voted among the world's ten best-dressed women." And why a society admirer once noted that Foy was so immaculate that she resembled "a picture that had been newly varnished."

Junon gown made for Foy by Christian Dior, 1949. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Venus gown made for Foy by Christian Dior, 1949. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Gown made for Foy by Madame Grès, 1954. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Further proof recently came into my hands in the form of a two-volume catalogue of the auction of Foy's china, furniture, and art, a sale that took place at Parke-Bernet in New York City in 1959, two years after the socialite's death. Page after page provides evidence that she bought the best, and decoratively speaking, when it came to the boiseried rooms of the sprawling apartment on the 17th floor of 740 Park Avenue—where she lived with her husband, Byron, a dashing Texan and longtime Chrysler executive—it was all about white paint, oyster and grey silk, dashes of pink, signed 18th-century French furniture, and major Impressionist paintings. That fresh, diaphanous decor was a striking contrast to the humble houses of Foy's blue-collar childhood, back when her father, Walter Chrysler, was a mechanic, and nobody ever dreamed he would become one of America's automobile magnates.

Thelma Chrysler Foy's bedroom at 740 Park Avenue, circa 1950. The colour scheme included white walls, white curtains, and 18th-century French furniture upholstered in a restrained white silk dappled with pale pink flowers. Image from the Foy catalogue by Parke-Bernet.

That particular palette appeared to be the preferred scheme of the former Thelma Irene Chrysler, whatever the residence's geographic location. Known as Foy Farm, her summer house in Locust Valley, New York, was decorated in similar colours, as seen in the photograph of its reception room at the head of this post—ash-grey walls, pale-grey-and-pink-striped upholstery here, pale grey there, and sumptuous silk-taffeta curtains of a colour House & Garden described as "pink tourmaline." The automotive heiress must have looked like an exotic orchid against those fresh, pale backgrounds.

The lyrical settings, however, concealed a pathological undercurrent. "It was a perfectionist collection; no note of counterfeit intruded," Wesley Towner wrote in his book The Elegant Auctioneers. "Relentless in her quest, the curator of that concinnate display would ceaselessly add new triumphs of acquisition, combing the world's great galleries to replace the almost perfect piece with one a hairbreadth nearer perfection." Towner added to this recollection a startlingly strange detail of how the Foys occasionally spent evenings together at home: "After the servants had withdrawn, Mr. Foy would get out the x-ray machine that was otherwise used medically—to stall the developing leukemia from which Mrs. Foy suffered—and they would spend the evening x-raying the porcelains to make sure the butler had not broken one and had it surreptitiously mended." 

A room at Thelma and Byron Foy's apartment at 740 Park Avenue, New York City, 1959. Image from Foy sale catalogue by Parke-Bernet.

Much of the credit for the couple's domestic splendor must go to interior decorator Robert Samuels, the same courtly man her younger sister, Bernice Garbisch, hired to oversee the furnishing of her apartment at the Carlyle hotel in New York City. From 1908 until his death in 1962 he worked for his family's Francophile design firm, French & Co, an august establishment patronized by society swans such as Millicent Hearst, Janet Annenberg Hooker, and Gloria Vanderbilt (in her Mrs Sidney Lumet phase).

The New York Times noted in 1962 that Samuels's postwar interiors for Thelma Foy and her sister represented a sea-change in Manhattan decoration, "The smaller rooms, simpler taste, and more elegant lines of the French furnishings ... underlined by his way with soft greens, blues, and yellows." The decorator's work represented a sea-change in Foy's personal taste too.

18th-century canapé flageolet owned by Thelma Chrysler Foy, which was among the furnishings of her bedroom. Photograph from the Foy sale catalogue by Parke-Bernet.

Thelma Foy once had been a devotée of English traditionalism, and she briefly flirted with the neo-Attic elegance purveyed by T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. But 90 percent of the furnishings that went on the block at the Parke-Bernet sale were absolutely ancien-régime in origin, amassed over the last 15 years of her life. The spark for this Gallic collecting focus apparently was the Foys' acquisition of a Louis XV-style mansion, at 60 East 93rd Street, in New York City, in the 1940s. Designed by John Russell Pope, the house had been completed in 1931 for mining heiress Virginia Fair Vanderbilt, and its opulent architecture required a complementary decor. After the Foys moved to Park Avenue in 1954, the former Vanderbilt property became the headquarters of the Roumanian government's delegation to the United Nations and later still, a segment of the Lycée Français de New York. Today 60 East 93rd Street, gloriously restored, is occupied by the antiques gallery of Carlton Hobbs. 

Vogue called the Foy's Park Avenue apartment "the finest French" residence in Manhattan, noting its antique gilded paneling and choice Impressionist paintings, including works by Renoir and Degas. "Everything reflects Mrs Foy's unerring collector's eye," the magazine observed, "her unswerving taste, and her talent for making a house gay and livable, as well as visually lovely." Milady's passion for pearl-coloured upholstery, however, raised some eyebrows. As a Parke-Bernet employee noted at the 1959 sale, "People ask us if anybody sat on her chairs. They certainly did. But, after they were used a few times, she ordered them to be cleaned or recovered."

18th-century French commodes owned by Foy, which were among the furnishings of the bedroom shown above, 1959. Photograph from the Foy sale catalogue by Parke-Bernet.

05 February 2012

Well Said: Nancy Mitford

An 1824 portrait of architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Naples, Italy, by artist Franz-Ludwig Catel. The painting is in the collection of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Germany.

"I love the French window which marries a house to the firmament instead of dividing them like the stuffy sash."

So observed Nancy Mitford (1904—1973) in her 1961 essay "Portrait of a French Country House."