Carlos de Beistegui, at once a hidalgo and an Old Etonian, expressed his pride of race by his perfect yet distant manners and his exact knowledge of the rules of precedence, and kept it in good trim through his liking for the company of royalty and pretty women. Perhaps he tried to emulate Louis XIV by always choosing his favourites from the best society; at any rate, they surrounded him until the end of his life with a patient and elegant court, which moved with him from his house in the Faubourg Saint-Germain to the Chateau de Groussay outside Paris and his palazzo in Venice, in each of which places he gave brilliant and perfectly organized receptions that people did not attend simply to have fun. If he went to stay with friends in the stately homes of Scotland and Ireland, or in Austrian or Roman palaces, or travelled in Brazil or Egypt, he was always accompanied by a large retinue of lady friends, maids, doctors and secretaries. During his last years, after he had suffered a stroke, he could behave rather despotically, but at least he refrained from burdening himself with a Mme. de Maintenon.
Cecil Beaton wrote in his diary: "Beistegui is utterly ruthless. Such qualities as sympathy, pity or even gratitude are sadly lacking. He has become the most self-engrossed and pleasure-seeking person I have met."
Don Carlos was not without a certain insolent sense of humor. Once, when he was a guest in the house of a lady whose taste was not equal to her wealth, he went from room to room looking at everything, but failing to utter any of the compliments eagerly awaited by the hostess. Finally, touching the braided edge of a curtain with his forefinger, he remarked: “That ... is very nice” and, being well-bred, he bestowed on the curtain all the praise he had been unable to lavish on the furniture.
He may have been a megalomaniac but, like the great English eccentrics and certain eighteenth-century German princes who were able to surround themselves with a setting corresponding to their imagination, he showed simplicity in his splendor. Each new residence became the scene of different social rites, in which nothing was left to chance. Each kept him busy for a number of years and allowed him to keep boredom at bay. When a particular place had reached a point at which nothing more could be added without destroying the harmonious balance of the whole, it ceased to please and another had to be found to receive the careful treatment that would make it worthy of its master.
The first of these much talked-about residences was one which he occupied in the Thirties on the top twofloors of a building near the top of the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. He had asked Le Corbusier to design the internal structure around a metal spiral staircase. With its enormous windows and flat surfaces, it was absolutely modern in its day. But M. de Beistegui quickly wearied of square-shaped furniture, beige colouring and empty surfaces and so, into a setting which had been purified to the point of tedium, he introduced the most eccentric productions of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Let me quote from Cecil Beaton's The Glass of Fashion, in which the English photographer describes the effect produced upon him by this apartment a few years before the war: "His rooftop apartment in the Champs-Elysees was a dazzling hodgepodge of Napoleon Trois, Le Corbusier modernism, mechanism and Surrealism. Not since Louis of Bavaria had there been so many candelabra in one room; Catherine of Russia never had so many gold boxes on one table. Certainly never before had anyone seen the like of Beistegui's terrace. After mounting a white spiral staircase, the visitor pressed an electric button that caused a glass wall to roll back. Thus was revealed a terrace that overlooked the traffic and lights of the Champs Elysees. It was furnished with Louis Quinze furniture that had been painted white and placed on a grass carpet open to the sky. In this fantastic apartment, mirrors, in all their narcissistic forms, were used for decoration; On the top of the long dining table, for festoons of stylized drapery shrouding windows or doorways. A giant statue of a Negress with shoots of ostrich feathers on her turbaned head stood like a Saxe figurine between a phalanx of crystal girandoles. A baroque rocking horse, harnessed with precious jewels, pranced among obelisks of porphyry."
When one looks back now at the illustrations in the 1930 Vogue, one is staggered by the arrangement of the baroque elements on smooth surfaces next to the huge windows and by the metal staircase winding round a twisted crystal column.
It was at this period that M. de Beistegui appeared as Charles Swann at the "1900 Ball" given by Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge. The "Cagliostro Ball" given by the Marchesa Casati was also significant of the return to the baroque, since society was looking for a kind of brilliance not to be found in a chaste decorative style. And Don Carlos was the first person to dare to go in for bravura effects in decoration.
The fact that he turned his back on the avant-garde after being one of the first persons in high society to encourage it (together with the Vicomte de Noailles who had a villa built at Hyeres by Mallet-Stevens) surprised those people who were at last making up their minds to support it. His answer was: "I like what is unique. Modern furniture can only be mass-produced; all the items in a modern decorative scheme are thought of in terms of their collective utilization; I am therefore reverting to old-style decoration and to craftsmen who can make me precisely what I want, and for me alone."
His other Parisian residence was a house in the Louis Quinze style on the Esplanade des Invalides. In the Faubourg Saint-Germain, M. de Beistegui created a setting worthy of a ducal household. It had an imposingantechamber; there were portraits of members of an illustrious family, gilded bronzes, royal busts on Boulle stands, twelve polychrome marble Caesars, heraldic tapestries and Savonnerie carpets. The warm colours of the damask and velvet wall-coverings were further emphasized by a dark green sofa. If Visconti had been commissioned to make a film of one of Balzac's novels about the aristocracy-La Duchesse de Langeais, for instance-he would not have made a better choice of even the smallest details, since all of them were perfect, as they would be in the case of an elegantly dressed woman.
The great period of this house coincided with Dior's first collections because Dior too, after a lapse of so many years, had rediscovered a feeling for splendor.
Impressive brocaded gowns, evening capes and sequined bodices were the fashion at M. de Beistegui's court, where he was undoubtedly king and the queens were Mrs. Fellowes, Lady Diana Cooper and a number of South American ladies. The outstanding figure was Daisy Fellowes, who was as hard and brilliant as a diamond, and was always shown Dior's collections forty-eight hours before anyone else.
This court reached its apotheosis in the famous Venetian ball of the summer of 1951. Cocteau and Beaton, Dali and Dior, royalty and couturiers (it had not yet become the fashion to invite hairdressers) showedthemselves to be worthy of the prepared setting. M. de Beistegui had recently bought and refurbished a palazzo, adorned with Tiepolo's frescoes based on the Cleopatra story. Lady Diana Cooper was Cleopatra, Baron de Cabrol Antony and Mrs. Fellowes America as seen by Tiepolo. Only Beistegui could have undertaken to restore this residence, to the splendor that the painting warranted, and the task occupied him for about twelve years.
Excerpt from 'Wait For me!' Memoires of the youngest Mitford Sister, Deborah Devonshire:
The ball was an unforgettable theatrical performance with entrees of men and women in exquisite costumes. M. de Beistegui, in a vast wig of cascading golden curls and a lavishly embroidered brocade coat . . .
Daisy Fellowes regularly voted the best dressed woman in France and America, portrayed the Queen of Africa from the Tiepolo frescoes in Würzburg. She wore a dress trimmed with leopard print, the first time we had seen such a thing (still fashionable today, sixty years on), and was attended by four young men painted the color of mahogany. So many women threatened to be Cleopatra that the host decided to settle it himself and named Diana Cooper for the roll."
He bought huge pieces of furniture, cabinets, consoles supported by figure of Hercules that had been made for Roman palaces, vast canvases that had adorned English castles, the kind of epic vases that emperors used to send each other, sequences of tapestries that had, rustled on the walls of French chateaus and candelabra that must have illuminate, the Congress of Vienna. The doges, admirals, marshals, cardinals, lords and grand duchesses who figure in the portraits would have felt perfectly at home, in the Palazzo Labia, if they had stepped down from their armoried frames. It was a very European residence, a superb assembly of furniture.
Yet this historic setting was not at all like a museum. It included everything from Baroque to Empire, since M. de Beistegui's great principle was that styles should be mixed, because he considered faultless reconstitutions lacking in warmth. As it happened, the Venetian armchairs, as gilded as a high altar, were a perfect match for the English portraits the big pink and blue Chinese vases stood out against the dark greenery of the tapestries and the Empire bronzes were exactly right on the ebony cabinets. It was a setting created by someone who was an artist rather than a historian.
Quite often, before he had found the ideal object, M. de Beistegui would make do with second-rate ones, the mass and color which corresponded to his intentions; he was no despiser of copies. His carpets were woven for him in Madrid, according to Savonnerie designs. He liked comfortable, tapestry-upholstered chairs in the most formal rooms, and their color always determined the overall tone of the picture that the finished room was meant to present. He had also bought, and had repaired, quantities of antique curtains, tablecloths and door-curtains embroidered with coats of arms, all of which gave added verisimilitude.
He had a number of very good pictures but their quality was more or less accidental, since they were there because they happened to fit in. His preference was for inventing huge trompe-l’oel effects with the help of antique elements, like the homage to the Venetian admirals in the entrance hall of the Palazzo. He liked false vistas, which prolonged the pattern of a drawing room with gardens and pavilions, and mirrors which diversified dimensions. Often, the decoration of a salon would be dictated by a sequence of tapestries. The famous Story of Scipio series, after Giulio Romano, demanded Italian armchairs in embossed, plum colored velvet, while Aubusson tapestries in the Chinese style required a green background and leather armchairs. The flowered curtains surmounted by gilded wood pelmets, a very appropriate setting for a series of Chinese vases, made the doorways look rather like theatre curtains opening out to reveal some marvelous stage set.
The living quarters were just as delightful as the reception rooms were sumptuous; there were little apartments under the eaves opening onto balconies with azulejos and furnished either in the Venetian manner with painted furniture or in the colonial style with brass and mahogany. The bedrooms were decorated with engravings, primitive paintings and tapestry carpets. Each of them could provide a starting-point for some imaginary existence, so carefully was everything chosen, even down to the smallest item. There was not the slightest flaw in the daydreams that Don Carlos offered his guests. They could find their way down to the canals by secret staircases and go in search of the Venice of tempi passati. It would have been exciting, but hardly surprising, to hear Lord Byron or D'Annunzio being announced as guests at dinner: "Writers! Charlie had better look out." The opposite of the Palazzo Labia is Peggy Guggenheim's residence, the Palazzo Non Finito.
The Palazzo Labia was soon the Palazzo Troppo Finito. When the last bathroom of the last bedroom had been completed, when the walI-lights had at last been found for the smallest sitting room, when there was nota single corner in the immense mansion which had yet to be organized, or a single wall whose harmony would not have been destroyed by one more picture, M. de Beistegui gave up going to Venice. He offered the furnished Palazzo on generous terms to the town of Venice; but the municipality, an unworthy successor of the Most Serene Republic, being wholly concerned with turning the town into an industrial center, refused to accept the Palazzo Labia on the grounds that it would be expensive to pay for caretakers and that there were already enough museums in Venice. And so the marvelous setting was broken up, and the restored but empty shell was left to be occupied by the Italian broadcasting organization.
Today, there is only one place in Europe which can give some idea of what M. de Beistegui achieved in the Palazzo Labbia; it is the Schloss Fasanerie, near Fulda, in Germany, where H.R.H. the Landgrave of Hesse has assembled treasures from all the residences belonging to his family. It shows the same feeling for historical truth, combined with infallible taste in the arrangement of objects and the matching of colors, but in this case they are all masterpieces, not elements of trompe. Other inklings can be gleaned from places where the setting has not been restored but preserved, as at Pommersfelden, near Bamberg, in Germany, the house of Count Schoenborn, the Palazzo Colonna, several English country houses, and Apsley House in London, which has been admirably arranged by the Duke of Wellington, another outstanding interior designer.
Just before the outbreak of war, M. de Beistegui bought, at Monfort l'Amaury, to the South of Paris, a château built after the Restoration by the Duchesse de Tourzel, who had been the governess in charge of the royal children before the Revolution. In spite of the difficulties, M. de Beistegui succeeded in the next four years in creating one of the most elegant houses in Europe. During the German occupation, those who were invited to Groussay found themselves in another world. A coach would be waiting for them at the station; they would find a copious tea in a well-heated drawing room; a bath would be ready in their bathroom. And the talk would be of furniture and gardens (the kitchen garden supplied the needs of the chateau and the guests). The architecture was simple, the park very fine and the windows looked out onto woods. This time, Don Carlos, who always respected the spirit of a given place, created a family chateau packed with imitation souvenirs. There were miniatures, and even photographs grouped together under greenery as at Sandringham, corridors lined with engravings of forgotten characters, drawing rooms decorated with Restoration portraits and tables covered with albums.
At the beginning, the chateau was meant as a country residence corresponding to the house in Paris, but when the work in Venice came to an end and the less extravagant pieces of furniture from the Palazzo Labia arrived in France, M. de Beistegui concentrated his attention on Groussay and turned the family château, more accurately the park, into the last eighteenth-century ensemble and a worthy rival to Schwetzingen, Twickenham or Pavlovsk. Whereas Arturo Lopez was making his Trianon in Neuilly into a storehouse of eighteenth-century styles, with an occasional more exotic note better suited to La Perichole than to Mme. de Pompadour, M. de Beistegui was turning Groussay into a shrine of good breeding, marked by that style which owes more to taste than to the quality of the objects concerned and which, even when the objects are of a very high quality, does not emphasize them, just as politeness would have led the host to make the guests the temporary equals of La Pompadour herself.
In some houses the setting is designed to show off some unique picture or pieces of furniture but, in M. de Beistegui's residences, on the contrary, the setting was intended as a means of enhancing the uniqueness of the owner. This was also true of the Vicomte de Noaille's residences, but it was not the case with Arturo Lopez's house or with certain Rothschild residences. In Venice one had the impression that the furniture had been inherited directly from princes of the Holy Roman Empire or from English dukes, but at Groussay it was as if the descendants of Mme. de Tourzel, an aristocrat connected with all the families of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, had assembled a mass of objects polished by generations of faithful retainers.
The bedrooms had a Second Empire atmosphere, simplified through English influence. It was easy to imagine that they were about to be occupied by the gentlemen in James Tissot's famous picture, Le Balcon du Cercle de la Rue Royale, who were for the young Proust the acme of elegance. And in the reception rooms, one had the feeling that Mme. de Pourtales, the Gallifets or the Metternichs, or even the Prince of Wales, might arrive at any moment. At Groussay, it was decided what was "in" and what was "out."
Life there was not simply weekending but the existence appropriate to a stately home, the sort of existence that has supplied novelists from Lados to Henry James with so much material. The guests would call on each other in their different apartments. There were rooms appropriate to any circumstances that might occur. If there were more than twelve guests at a meal, it was served in a very large dining room. There was also a sort of oval, mahogany-furnished English dining room, or rather breakfast room, where the round table could seat no more than six; and, when faithful friends came to visit the invalid monarch on weekdays, four people would dine in the gallery above the entrance hall, each at a small individual table.
Gradually, as M. de Beistegui spent more time in the country, his fancy led him to recreate more curious atmospheres. He extended the chateau by means of wings which were designed by M. Terry. The west wing contained a theater capable of seating 200 spectators; it was one of the owner's most remarkable achievements, but unfortunately was very rarely used. Follies sprang up in the park. There was a Dutch inspired dining room with delft tiles in that blend of green and blue that he was particularly fond of. A visit to the Duke of Wellington's house at Stratfield Saye prompted him to create a "print room."
After a trip to Sweden he built a tent-shaped pavilion, a replica of the one at the Castle of Haga near Stockholm, in blue and white striped zinc lined with delft-style tiles and with Chinese-like vases made of painted sheet metal guarding the entrance.
These constructions were so many imaginative settings in which to lead a life that was thought of as a perpetual round of festivities, and they were not unlike the extravagant decors erected by the Menus Plaisirs-the people in charge of arranging balls and entertainments at Versailles. From Ireland he got the idea of obelisks and triumphal arches, similar to those which adorn Connolly Park near Dublin, but his arches were never built.
He was also impressed by the pavilions reflected in the rhododendron-bordered lake at Stourhead.
He built a Chinese pagoda on a small stream rather Victorian Chinese, as it happened, with china elephants.
There was a pyramid, a Palladian bridge and a column with a staircase winding up it.
M. de Laborde who, during Louis XVI's reign, built so many follies in his park at Mereville, would have felt quite at home at Groussay; so would Lord Burlington, who introduced Palladian architecture into England, and still more so the Prince de Ligne, whose book, Coup d'Ceil sur Bel-Ceil, was one of the bibles of the chateau.
The work was done by teams, under the often tyrannical direction of Don Carlos. Emilio Terry would submit sketches, Serebriakoff made careful models and watercolor drawings to show the effect that each construction would produce on the landscape, and gardeners and sculptors were called upon to give advice. With the years M. de Beistegui grew increasingly impatient and demanded that his builders, cabinetmakers and gardeners should work at an ever quicker rate. He would have liked to have a maze, rostral columns and a temple of love.
Up to the day of his death he drove himself about in a strange vehicle, a Fiat 500, which had no doors and was painted to look like wood. He supervised the work in progress like Louis XIV at Marly, imagining a vista, or deflecting the course of a stream, as if each new project would prolong his life. Someone who knew him well believes that his frantic urge to build was a reaction against a tendency to self-destruction resulting from the stroke he had suffered in 1960. He asked that the Palazzo and the house in Paris should be dismantled and, at Groussay, he destroyed certain features even in rooms that were entirely successful.
His death put an end to building. The Château passed to his brother, and then his nephew, who sold it in1999, realizing $26.5 million for the contents alone, many of which had come from the Palazzo Labia in Venice. In 2012, it was sold again and the owner is Rubis International managed by Bekhzod Akhmedov. The entire Château and park has been classified as a "Historic Monument" since 1993.
It should be frankly admitted that a luxurious mansion may be every bit as valuable as a cultural centre. M. de Beistegui was sourly, but accurately enough, reproached by some people for having spent a great deal of money without patronizing a single contemporary artist, since his attempt to recreate the past caused him deliberately to turn his back on the present. The answer is easy: the owner of Groussay, like all aristocrats, was conscious of being a fossilized remnant of the past, a representative of a race whose last survivors live in the precarious shelter of a few German or Italian palaces, and such an anachronistic being needed to recreate his natural environment artificially in order to continue to exist. In this environment, anything that might remind him of our world would seem like a deadly germ. Also, although he did not give employment to artists, he provided a livelihood for many artisans, upholsterers, stucco-moulders and cabinetmakers, who could only satisfy him by rediscovering the ancient processes of craftsmanship.