22 May 2015

Clandon Park Revisited

The Hunting Room at Clandon Park, Surrey

Editor's Note: A blazing fire struck Clandon Park weeks ago, reducing the house to a shell.  While the National Trust is still assessing the damage, the good news is that a large amount of the collection was saved and that perhaps a restoration of the house, along the lines of Uppark, might be possible.  What is lost forever however is the John Fowler overlay of interpretation and decoration the house received in the late 50s and 60s.  In memoriam, we are reposting this 2009 ode to the house by Toby Worthington.

THE FOWLER TOUCH: In which guest blogger Toby Worthington shares his first impressions of Clandon Park, Surrey, and a Favorite Room

Travel does not entirely suit me. Preferring the comfort of my own bed and the meals that emerge from my own kitchen, I am content to sit in a comfortable armchair surrounded by piles of books on English houses. One of those books, indeed the best of the lot, was John Cornforth's The Inspiration of the Past; and on one occasion when I was poring over the author's evocative passages about the restoration of Clandon Park, my companion stirred me out of a trance with the simple question:"Why not see it for yourself?" That was twenty years ago and the journey was, I realize now, something of a pilgrimage that led to a close inspection of the finest example of John Fowler's work for the National Trust.

Built by the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni for the 2nd Earl of Onslow in the 1720s, Clandon Park is a house that has been described, variously, as gaunt, forbidding, and unwelcoming~no doubt because, by the late 1960s, most of its contents had been dispersed; what funds there were had been spent on essential structural repairs, so that as a result, there was little to show for this in the appearance of the interiors.

A fairy godmother appeared, not a moment too soon, in the form of a bequest, along with a substantial endowment, from Mrs David Gubbay (born Hannah Ezra, her mother was a Sassoon), and though her unrivaled collection of porcelain birds and satinwood furniture would seem at odds with the robust architecture of the house, those discrepancies of scale and weight would produce, in the skilled hands of John Fowler, one the most appealing rooms in all of Clandon Park, the Hunting Room. More of that anon; but first, a brisk tour of other parts of the house.




CEILING OF GREAT HALL, attributed to the plasterers Artari and Bugutti.

THE PALLADIO ROOM, in which the bold 1730 ceiling and the 1780 Revillon wallpaper were linked by color.

with Mr Fowler's coloring~an object lesson in how to paint architectural ornament

The overmantel, formerly whitewashed, was marbled to restore integrity to the chimney wall.

DOOR SURROUND IN THE SALOON Another lesson in architectural painting.


A room at the south east corner of the house, of a relative intimacy, the Hunting Room seems to
me a demonstration of John Fowler's well-mannered( but never boring) approach to assembling materials, furnishings, pattern and colour in a way that is endlessly satisfying. As mentioned earlier, Mrs Gubbay had a penchant for Chinese porcelain birds, and over the years bought a number of fine rococo brackets on which to display them in an authentic 18th century way.

The room takes its name from a set of understated tapestries that were installed against an equally understated background of Mr Fowler's much loved diamond cloth dyed in tobacco brown and outlined, surprisingly, in a braid of sharp green grosgrain.

Typical of John Fowler's approach, the woodwork is dragged in 3 shades of stony white and the skirting boards follow the universal Palladian system of being painted off-black.

with its elegant chandelier bag.

now in the Morning Room. Note pancake squab cushion.

Festooned chintz at the windows in the Hunting Room.

For reasons of appearance as well as economy, John Fowler introduced festoon curtains made of
printed cotton in the brown and white Seaweed pattern, edged in bittersweet chocolate brown chintz and decked out in maltese bows at the headings. It was at this stage that I began to understand the brilliant counterpoint of elements both humble and grand~indeed, that was the secret of Mr Fowler's magic touch~but my musings were interrupted by an opinionated woman who was stationed in the room as guide on that particular afternoon. She gave those charming curtains a withering glance.

"All wrong, those curtains. Very Laura Ashley." A remark which seemed to me at the time, to be putting the cart before the horse. But nothing could deflate me on that occasion. From that point on, a sense of calm came over me regarding my own work~all doubts put temporarily to rest in the presence of this, the "real thing" that was before me at nearly arm's length, to study, analyze, and savor. No more guessing, or being teased by photographs in books or magazines.

The details of a house have an altogether different impact when witnessed, like a meal actually tasted as opposed to the printed recipe. In this instance, what might have been a house of icy grandeur was transformed into something that met the highest aesthetic standards while putting the visitor completely at ease. As James Lees-Milne said at John Fowler's funeral, "No art scholar whose learning had been instilled into him by professors, but one of nature's enthusiasts whose immense knowledge had been picked up by the wayside, John was the least academic of men. Yet nothing was allowed to stand in the way of getting a thing right."

Top photo courtesy of National Trust; all other photos courtesy of Toby Worthington

17 April 2015

Ssss is the Word

This past Wednesday, the annual Lenox Hill Neighborhood House Gala was held at Cipriani and the tabletop displays were more dazzling than ever.  This year's theme was the Garden of Eden and one table even came with its own live Adam and Eve alluringly bedecked in strategic foliage.

It was a thrill to participate in designer Harry Heissmann's dramatic Sssss table featuring Eerdmans Fine Arts' (and previously Elton John's) 1970s brass Cobra sculpture by Alain Chervet as its centerpiece.

An illustration of the table's concept by Robert de Michiell

 Harry nestled the snake under a "fantasy weeping willow with wisteria fashioned from upside-down snapdragons" by Emily Thompson Flowers (our favorite florist whose creations adorned the White House one holiday) on a bed of moss.

Artist Mark Gagnon created bedazzled serpent chargers out of papier mache.   The entire mise en scene was arranged on the exuberantly patterned tablecloth made from Tony Duquette for Jim Thompson's Gemstone.   As Harry calls it, it is a table for friends made by friends.

Click here to Sarah Sarna to see more tables...

30 March 2015

April 1st - The Wait is (almost) Over

After six intense years, I am thrilled to announce that the Wendell Castle Catalogue Raisonne is finally (almost) out.  Please join me this Wednesday, April 1st, at the Friedman Benda gallery to celebrate the latest work of furniture revolutionary Wendell Castle and a sneak peak at the first 50 copies of the catalogue.

Words can't express what a monumental project this was - not the least because of the artist's zeal for experimentation and prodigious output of nearly 2000 unique works.  At 82, Castle still goes to his studio daily and is arguably creating his best work ever.  The artist has famously said, "The dog that stays on the porch doesn't get the bone" and indeed his choice to constantly challenge himself with new techniques, forms, and materials instead of playing it safe and reproducing an acclaimed chair or table is quite extraordinary and inspiring.  

Castle seen stack-laminating, his pioneering technique which allowed him to sculpt gravity defying form.

The catalogue documents each work made by the artist since the 1950s and is presented in an elegant behemoth published (officially in June) by The Artist Book Foundation.  (The publisher deserves a Nobel prize for fitting in so much information so attractively.)  Traveling with me to Morocco, London, Paris, San Francisco, and of course Rochester over the past several years, this book is without doubt the most rigorous and demanding project I've ever worked on.

Please do come this Wednesday to fete Wendell, an American master, and raise a glass to the tremendous patience, hard-work, and eyesight devoted to this book by my incredible colleagues (Alice, Tricia, Marc, Leslie, Marisa, Carole, Miri, Kimberley, Hannah, Roy, and many many more).  And if you have a Castle piece we might not know about despite our best Nancy Drew efforts, please email me at castlecatalogue at gmail dot com

Wendell Castle: Gathering Momentum
Opening Exhibition, April 1, 6 to 8pm
Friedman Benda
515 W 26th St

04 December 2014

Harry Heissmann on Christmas... Tree Stands

Editor's Note: I am delighted to invite you all to a selling exhibition of Harry's famous collection of vintage and antique Christmas tree stands, opening December 11 through December 23.  They will be displayed in the most gemutlich of settings, the Philip Colleck historic townhouse on East 58th Street.  This is one of Eerdmans Fine Art's first ventures - I so hope to see you there!

By Harry Heissmann

The days after Christmas, particularly January 6, which is when most people dispose of their Christmas tree, are sad days for me.  I’m not sure why I get so nostalgic, but the piles of dead trees, most of them dry and with lots of needles on the ground is just such a pitiful sight.

When I moved to the United States in 1995, I learned that many people put their tree on the sidewalk with the stand still attached, as they will just buy a new one with the tree for the next year.  This would of course not have happened in 19th Century Germany, when the novelty cast iron Christmas tree stands were very expensive and could only be bought by wealthy families. The first model the company Roedinghausen cast was offered in 1866. At the turn of the century a cast iron Christmas tree stand would cost the same amount you had to pay for a whole box of Christmas ornaments.  The stands became family heirlooms and would be kept in the attic or the basement to be used again and again. Today, recycling being so important, there are services offered to have your discarded tree transformed to mulch but few keep the stand – usually a red and green metal or plastic model of unspecific design.

To me it is most fascinating to imagine the families delighted by the tree stands and of course much more importantly – the actual Christmas tree.  The trees were mostly table top trees and times were apparently much different, as ornament was used on everything that was made, even on the Christmas tree stands.  

Their origin, however, is of course much simpler.  The earliest mention of a decorated Christmas tree is in a handwritten document from 1604. The decoration was of paper roses and ‘wafers’(?) and a wooden square is mentioned for the attachment. Maybe it was a hole in a square piece of wood or one of the wooden fences which became fashionable later on. But the earliest stands definitely were made from wood, such as the wooden ‘crosses’ even still around today.  Sometimes buckets were filled with wet sand and even ‘futterrueben’ were used in more rural areas in Austria or Northern Germany especially after the Second World War.

And to tempt you, a few of the stands which will be available online soon on Philip Colleck's 1stdibs page:

A large cast iron Christmas tree stand, made by ‘Holler’sche Carlshuette’, circa 1910.
This stand has wonderful ‘Jugendstil’ (german equivalent of Art Nouveau) floral leafy decoration,
the original screws and old paint, which has tarnished to a wonderful ‘verdigris’ patina.

A wonderful large cast iron Christmas tree stand, made by ‘Eisenwerk Roedinghausen’, circa 1950’s.

Rare cast iron Christmas tree stand, Germany circa 1920’s.
This stand features wonderful vignettes of ‘modes of transportation’, a car, a sailboat, a train and most importantly a blimp, or ‘Zeppelin’, as well as a toy soldier, a doll and a snowman, etc. Original paint, accented in gold and silver, original screws.

Wonderful ‘ round ‘ Christmas tree stand,Germany, circa 1920’s (very Hollywood Regency!)
This stand features Christmas trees and star decor, as well as star shaped screws, original paint in green and silver. It is marked underneath ‘KT’
Exhibition details:
11-23 December, Monday–Friday 11AM–4 PM
Philip Colleck, Ltd.
311 East 58th Street
New York, NY

All photos by Josh Gaddy.  

02 December 2014

The Bunny Effect

"I don't want to hear one more word about that sale," said my friend's partner upon hearing our topic of conversation.  Indeed the Bunny Mellon auction is STILL a subject of conversation - mainly what we didn't win - and has unleashed a passion in many of us for ceramic vegetables and painted fauteuils (a market on which Mrs. Mellon seemed to have a monopoly).

If you viewed the sale, you couldn't have missed the ginormous five-tier etagere arranged with all manner of porcelain cabbage, asparagus, and lettuce, faithfully replicating how it was in her Virginia house*, as seen above.

One of the many interesting things about Mrs. Mellon is that even though she could have lived in the most ducal surroundings, she preferred things rustic and light.  She wasn't afraid to paint a bronze Giacometti white or let it rust out in the garden, and she didn't think twice about whopping off the Chippendale Gothic cresting...

of that etagere, which she purchased from Colefax and Fowler, as seen in this 1964 photo that John Fowler sent Mario Buatta.

* Not the Georgian style red brick house her husband built with his first wife.  Apparently it was too formal and stiff for the 2nd Mrs. Mellon who used it instead as a walk-in closet.