May 19, 2013

a study in styles

When it comes to decoration, today's looks are almost as eclectic as the recent chaotic look in fashion. People choose from many styles, from traditional right up to the latest Retro or modern Minimal.  And every style has always drawn some element from an earlier source.  Clearly such multiplicities of styles require a vastly different kind of ornament to set off their particular characteristics. Some trend-setters, like Carlos de Beistegui and Emilio Terry-were so far ahead of the people emulating the avant-garde that they returned to the elegance and style of…

…the age of reason. 

  The end of 1969 saw the deaths of two personalities who had defended the last strongholds of that luxury which is now so endangered by democratic levelling and, even more so, by the unimaginativeness of the rich; Both these great eccentrics, with a total disregard for average opinion, or for changes in styles of living, and without trying to hide their great wealth, which on the contrary they devoted to schemes the like of which will never be seen again, lived as if they were trying to justify Henry James' remark: "By the rich I mean those who have the means to satisfy the needs of the imagination."

  Both of them came from Spanish America but had been brought up in France and belonged to families which, having no bad conscience about wealth, could devote them- selves to elegant living. Carlos de Beistegui was a Mexican and Emilio Terry a Cuban. From childhood onwards, both of them had heard about the palace that was being built by Boni de Castellane and about the receptions given there. Boni, an aristocrat who had married the heiress to the Gould fortune, was the outstanding example of what can be achieved by a combination of money and taste. His wife's family criticized him for being extravagant, but his descendants are now a hundred times better off because of the furniture he bought than if he had held on to the shares in the family railroad. The imitation Trianon in pink marble which he built in the Avenue du Bois, and where he was host to all the kings and beauties of his day, was demolished. His wife, unfortunately, was jealous: "Anna will never know how much I have loved her for her money," he said with rather touching frankness, for Anna Gould was not pretty. He would ask the ladies to match their dresses with the color of the servants' livery, and would borrow the Bois de Boulogne if his own garden was too small for the number of guests he was expecting.

  Beistegui and Terry were also inspired by Comte Etienne de Beaumont, who was less ostentatious but more discriminating and whimsical. He hung the curtain that Picasso had painted for Parade against the Louis Seize panelling in his house on the Boulevard des Invalides, gave his patronage to ballets and exhibitions between the two wars, and thus established a link between high society and the avant-garde. His famous fancy dress balls, with entrances arranged by Picasso or Cocteau, had such an influence that he was able to say: "I only give my balls for the sake of the people who are not invited to them."

  Another model of theirs, and a close friend, was the Chilean, Mme. Errasuriz, one of the first people to understand Picasso. She also brought on Jean-Michel Frank, the best decorator of the Thirties, who incorporated the most modern art into traditionally elegant settings. The Marchesa Casati can also be quoted as someone who set them an example of outrageousness.

  The Marchesa, who had been in turn the favorite model of Boldini and Van Dongen, had-to quote the expression invented by the futurist Marinetti-"the satisfied look of a panther which has just swallowed the bars of its cage." She actually appeared at a ball that she gave on the Piazza San Marco leading a black panther on a pearl chain. Arturo Lopez, who was a few years younger than Beistegui and Terry but who died earlier, was the same kind of person, that is, the type whose imagination makes money come alive. In his case, the passion for luxury sometimes successfully transgressed the rules of taste. He could have taken as his motto the remark made by an Indian chief at a White House banquet: "A little too much is just enough for me."

  The Vicomtesse de Noailles, who also died in 1969, had the gift of arranging for herself a life which might seem imaginary, but which was marked by a passion for novelty and a fancifulness which disarmed the other members of high society and put her beyond the scope of this post, devoted to two characters who, to all intents and purposes, lived in the past.

  In the case of these two, what one admired first was their taste, and then the beautiful things which contributed to the creation of a harmonious impression, their inventiveness in the juxtaposition of colors that had been previously thought irreconcilable, and their knowledge of the different styles which they were able to reconstitute or intermingle without either risking boredom or producing shock.

  These were the only resemblances between M. de Beistegui and M. Terry because, although they had been close friends from childhood and frequently collaborated in matters pertaining to decor, their inclinations and aims were very different.

Let me-in the following two posts present a look-starting with de Beistegui, the more famous of the two…