05 November 2012

Dining with Mr. du Pont

A 1956 dinner party at Winterthur

Winterthur (the thur pronounced with a hard T!) is a house museum I never tire of visiting.  While its collection of American decorative arts is top notch, it is the house as a whole - a spectacular, precious document of a certain rarefied way of 20th century life that has all but evaporated - that I find so compelling.  The museum takes pains to maintain the seasonal changes, from curtains to slip-covers, that were in place during the day of its owner Henry Francis du Pont and lucky us - for the result is the feeling that time has stood still and we are back in there halcyon days.  

du Pont took entertaining seriously and an evening's arrangements were rigorously planned with military precision.  His daughter Ruth Lord recalled in Henry F. du Pont and Wintherthur, "In the huge china closet, whose shelves were loaded with stacks of dishes, a footman would climb a ladder and perilously hand down several centerpieces and matching plates. My father and the butler would then decide on the combination of china, glass, and linen that would best complement the flowers . . . Guests were not permitted to see the room before 8:30, when-with the butler's announcement of dinner-the curtain went up."

I got a special glimpse of du Pont's artistry at Winterthur's annual Chic it Up symposium this fall.  Besides special lectures by speakers who are both erudite and engrossing, there are a selection of workshops which take you behind the scenes of the collection.  (Let me tell you, you haven't lived until you've gone into the curtain room where all the off-season curtains are stored - unless you too have a set for each season for your 100+ room house.)

Meredith Graves, the coordinator of the museum's flower program, gave us some insights into du Pont's own taste and how the house today continues the tradition of fresh arrangements in many of the rooms. (At Christmas time, Meredith and her team decorate a soaring Yuletide tree with masses of flowers used throughout the year which have been dried and preserved in the meantime.)

As many from Edouard Vuillard to John Fowler would agree, du Pont remarked that "... color is the thing that really counts more than any other" and it was around this guiding inspiration that his table schemes evolved, starting with flowers collected from du Pont's own gardens and hothouses on the property.  Maurice Gilliand, the Winterthur butler from 1944 to 1951, noted, "On the estate, Mr. du Pont was known as the Head Gardener, in his house he was known as the Head Butler."  With his tables, he combined both roles.  

Because of the custom of speaking only to your dinner partner on one's left during one course and then on the right during another, low squat arrangements weren't necessary.  Depending on the size of the dinner party, a number of cascading bouquets paraded down the table's center at eye level.  In fact, creating a wall of sorts down the middle created intimacy.  The museum has a record of many of these arrangements as du Pont meticulously documented his favorite table settings.

Close up of table setting showing assortment of table glass, including finger bowls*

No detail or effort was spared - one imagines that du Pont took as much pleasure in the planning and plotting as his guests did in the unveiling.  Maggie Lidz, Winterthur's historian, discovered that du Pont commissioned artist Marshall Fry to hand-dye and crochet the table linens to complement the china.  Maggie notes, "Du Pont was so fond of them, he worried about their fate after his death. He instructed his executors, "The colored mats and napkins are not to be sent to a public laundry. With careful washing they have kept their colors for many years. I do not want them spoiled. They were made by Marshall Fry of Southampton and are in themselves well worth preserving."

This year's Delaware Antiques Show (running November 9 - 11) will present a special loan exhibition dedicated to du Pont's firecracker table displays.  On Sunday, the 11th, Maggie will lecture on his legendary entertaining.  For details on this and other lectures at the show, click here.

All photos courtesy of Winterthur.  With many thanks to Maggie Lidz for her help in compiling this post.  I also heartily recommend her book The du Ponts: Houses and Gardens in the Brandywine.* 

Click here to read Maggie's post about the "dotty" glassware

01 November 2012

All About Louis

“So which is your favorite Louis”? Monsieur X leaned over and inquired.  The entire dinner table went quiet.  Even after a two year sojourn in Paris, I still didn’t have a grip on the Louies, but instead of coming clean I blurted out the first one that came to mind: “Louis XIV”.  “Vraiment?” he replied with the faintest look of horror.  It was only months later I understood his puzzlement. 

Although I soon was taught to abhor labeling furniture by the reign in which something was made (as interiors weren’t jettisoned the moment a ruler died), 18th century France does seem to be the exception.  During this time, style and luxury became the country’s greatest export and were hand-in-hand with its national identity.

Louis XIV (reign 1643 – 1715)

Louis XIV showing off his dancing legs

Versailles' power corridor: The Hall of Mirrors

It was the Sun King himself who awed the world with the magnificence of his palace Versailles.  Courtiers were kept in line with pomp and ceremony and the decorative arts reflected the mighty power of its sovereign in their somber splendor.  Today the stiff opulence of this style is better suited to a Wall Street titan’s duplex or in a museum than most mere mortals’ domiciles.

A Louis XIV room in miniature from the Julia Thorne rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago

A Louis XIV bureau Mazarin in a setting by Valerian Rybar

Louis XV (1723 – 1774)

Louis XV, Quatroze’s great-grandson – lower heels, lower hair

The Dauphine’s apartment at Versailles

 The Louis XV sitting room at the musee Nissim de Camondo

Louis XV by contrast is about intimacy and comfort reflected in curved backs, cabriole legs, and smaller proportions.  It is my friend Maureen Footer’s favorite and the showroom pictured above features a few of her own Louis XV pieces. 

An interior, circa 1915, painted by Walter Gay  illustrates Louis XV curves

Louis XV chairs in an Elsie de Wolfe treillaged room

 A showhouse room by Maureen Footer

Louis XV-style chairs in this living-dining room by Jonathan Berger

Louis XVI (reign 1774 - 1792)

Louis XVI who perhaps spent too much time hunting and making locks

 Louis XVI salon at the chateau de Champ de Bataille

 If I could be beamed back in time, my answer now to Monsieur X would be Louis Seize.  Straight lines, precision of form, and Classical ornament – strigillation, anyone? – send my pulse racing.  Excavations of the ancient Roman cities Herculaneum and Pompeii fueled a new fascination with antiquity in the second half of the 18th century.  Neoclassicism was not just a passing fad – it continued to dominate design through Napoleon’s reign, and was returned to a century later in Art Deco and beyond with great aplomb as you can see in the following and in my tome Regency Redux...

 Pauline de Rothschild’s sitting room at Albany, decorated by John Fowler

 A verre eglomise paneled entrance hall by Michael Simon

 Paris salon infused with the neoclassical spirit by Jean-Louis Deniot

 Neoclassical seat furniture in the apartment of interior designer Bill Brockschmidt and architect Richard Dragisic

And which Louis are you?