Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bunny Mellon: Chic Chaises

A detail of Bunny Mellon's chairs,
Lot 1301, Sale N09247.
Sotheby's, New York.
The Devoted Classicist has long wanted to present a series of posts about great chairs and their stylish owners, so here goes, starting with a remarkable set of seven black-japanned, parcel-gilt decorated dining chairs from the 1760s together with one armchair of a later date.  Although quite familiar to those interested in the decorative arts, the chairs have been brought into the spotlight as Lot 1301 in the auction of the estate of Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, November 21 to 23, 2014, Sotheby's New York.

Bunny Mellon's set of 'loop' chairs.
Lot 1301, Sale NO9247.
Sotheby's, NY.
Estimated: $60,000 to $80,000.
Sold: $181,000 (with buyer's premium).
In the provenance listed in the catalog, Sotheby's failed to mention a former owner whose name would have added even more prestige: Nancy Lancaster one of the great decorators of the twentieth-century and business partner of John Fowler in the legendary firm Colefax & Fowler.

The chairs as they appeared in
Image via Emily Evans Eerdmans

As documented in an article by Shax Riegler in the January, 2009 issue of "The Magazine Antiques," the chairs were formerly owned by noted collector Frank Green, and illustrated in A HISTORY OF ENGLISH FURNITURE by Percy MacQuoid, first published in four volumes from 1904 to 1908.  (The chairs also appeared in the DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH FURNITURE, FROM THE MIDDLE AGES TO THE LATE GEORGIAN PERIOD.) 

A chair from the same set appears when
"Country Life" magazine publishes photos
of the home of founder Edward Burgess Hudson
at 15 Queen's Gate, London.
Image via Country Life Picture Library.
By the early 1920s, the chairs were owned by Edward Burgess Hudson, founder of "Country Life," the magazine where MacQuoid was employed as a columnist.  Hudson died in 1936 and sometime in the mid-1930s, the chairs were acquired by his London neighbors on Queen Anne's Gate, Ronald and Nancy Tree.

The Yellow Bedroom at Ditchley Park
showing one of the side chairs.
Watercolor by Alexandre Serebriakoff.
After their divorce, Mrs. Tree became better known as Nancy Lancaster after her next marriage, with the chairs remaining at their grand country house Ditchley Park.  Two wonderful sets of watercolors were commissioned from Alexandre Serebriakoff as a record of Nancy and Ronald's decorating, and the chairs can be seen in the Yellow Bedroom and the Writing Room.

The Writing Room at Ditchley Park
showing the antique armchair.
Watercolor by Alexandre Serebriakoff.
With the sale of Ditchley Park, the chairs went to the Manhattan townhouse of Ronald and his second wife Marietta Tree.  Presumably they remained in New York until the auction following Ronald Tree's death as they appear on the cover of the October, 1976 Sotheby Parke Bernet auction catalog.

Cover of the 1976 auction catalog
showing two of the side chairs.
Image via Emily Evans Eerdmans.
The "Antiques" article stated that the chairs were bought by the London antiques dealer Mallet and appeared in both MALLET'S GREAT ENGLISH FURNITURE and MALLET MILLENNIUM: FINE ANTIQUE FURNITURE AND WORKS OF ART.  In the 2009 article, Mallet's revealed that they had made the second arm chair and that the chairs were in a private American collection.

A Mellon arm chair, Lot 1301,
as it was displayed in the pre-sale exhibition.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Spitzmiller
The light graceful curves were made feasible through an innovative use of laminated beechwood.  The lacquered (or japanned) chinoiserie finish adds to the fanciful design but also conceals the layered construction.  However, the go-to craftsman for remarkable new ceramic lamps, Christopher Spitzmiller, said the chairs had a bit of "give" to the touch, making them more of an art object rather than chairs that were actually sat in for regular use.  Also noteworthy is the dipped or "saddle" seat, a characteristic found in other examples of the mid-1760s.

Views of the pre-sale exhibition at Sotheby's
showing the display of the eight chairs of Lot 1301.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Spitzmiller.
There is another chapter to come in the story of these chairs, of course, now that there is a new owner.  But, in addition, these chairs inspired a 20th century interpretation popularized by Frances Adler Elkins.  That will be another post of The Devoted Classicist.

And Furthermore
The Devoted Classicist has been a fan of the late Rachel "Bunny" Mellon since her contributions to the gardens at the White House.  Starting with the Rose Garden in 1961 and then the East Garden, dedicated as the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden in 1965, the heiress (Listerine) who married into an even larger fortune attracted attention in the community of those appreciating the mix of the formal and informal in residential garden design.  In the early 1990s, an Attingham classmate who was a foundation employee working from the Brick House gave me some insight into the then-relatively-private Mellons and their 4,000 acre estate (now about 2,000 acres listed for sale with 40 structures for $70 million) Oak Spring Farm near Upperville, Virginia. 

Auction catalogs can be an invaluable resource for studying (both fine and) the decorative arts.  However, interior views shown in catalogs are routinely rearranged to give a better representation of the lots offered; too seldom are they an accurate record of the original setting.  Nor can the descriptions be counted on as 100% accurate, even in the most prestigious and expensive catalogs.

Despite declarations from self-appointed tastemakers and arbiters of style/design that traditional decoration is passé, there has been a media frenzy surrounding Interiors, the three day auction of the furnishings from the estate of the late Mrs. Mellon with proceeds to benefit the Gerard B. Lambert Foundation, a horticultural foundation which will continue to operate the library at Oak Spring.  While it is true that spare, neutral, do-it-yourself schemes still remain the most popular trend in interior design, clearly there is still interest in antiques and decoration among those in-the-know.  This successful sale is a reminder that one should follow one's own taste and not what is the so-called current fashion.


  1. Dearest John, so wonderful you've stepped forward from a long rest...YES, auction houses DO make many mistakes. I can attest on a certain lot within this sale as well, but will keep my suspicion to myself as I did purchase the lot thus with knowledge armed. I agree that with your assessment that scholarly research is something certainly lacking in house even at Sothebys. What a delight to see these chairs so long associated to those in the know with Frances Elkins, have their moment in the Sun as the originals.
    It may have helped as well with those fabulous Message Boards, in knowing George Oakes was the Head Designer of Colfax and Fowler for over 30 years...not just a masterful Tromp l' Oeil artist ala Liotard!

    1. T.S., other obligations have kept me from posting as TDC, but I sincerely appreciate your welcoming me back with your comment. You can be assured that I had already noted those George Oakes pieces and will include them in a future post on that master. Thank you.

    2. Naysayer in NYTIMES...quote, "there are only 5 pieces out the 2000 of interest to me"...I believe the Death of Old Wave elegance in America was pronounced with absolute scholars imprimatur. Wonder what pieces that person was coveting, perhaps the miniature VERDURA paintings as I'm sure that person is an esteemed dealer. I recall an auction many years ago, where I was there to bid on a deceased friends 19thC Meissen Nodder of the largest size. Of course, THE dealer from THE reputable street went to the auctioneer claiming it wasn't Meissen at all but in the manner of. Well, long story short, he auctioneer did disclose this ESTEEMED persons opinion, and of course you can imagine the heavy bidding against me with you know who desiring the piece most sincerely. Meissen Nodder looks nice tonight...

    3. Say hello to the Nodder for me!

  2. These chairs inspired a 20th century interpretation as seen in the design work of Frances Elkin. But do we know who designed the loop chair originally?

    1. H., as far as I know, neither the designer/maker nor the original owner is known. Thank you for commenting.

  3. LORD HAVE MERCY UPON MY SOUL! (my granny would have said about this sale!!)

    It has fed my soul that TASTE is back!!!
    (am I the eternal optimist? Incorrectly?)

    These chairs....and ; absolutely everything went for wild and crazy prices! (I was dying to bid on lots of things....but I actually asked my husband if I could bid 1500 dollars on #1491 (est. $500-800); which sold for $24,000.00!!!

    I knew better than to go near the linens!

    It warms the cockles of my heart that these understated elegant things......sold at such enormous prices!

    I hope they will find their ways back into lovely and comfortable houses....just like Mrs. Mellon's!!

  4. oh; by the way.....I would not sell my catalogues from the Mrs. Mellon's "interiors" auction......for anything. Honestly. Treasures, they are. Complete treasures!!!

    Gardens, lovely understated taste, surrounding oneself with beloved items.....completely enchanting.
    This woman was completely a woman apart. Her taste singular and unusual. Bravo!
    That the monies raised went to her foundation in honor of her father is more moving. Lovely. All of it!!

    1. P.B., yes it is heartening to learn that there is still an appreciation for patina and decorative furnishings. Thank you for commenting.

  5. I've lusted after this set since forever. Wonderful mix of style and provenance.

    1. T.D.E.D., I had originally just assumed they were Regency period when I first saw them in the Ditchley watercolors. They must have really been at the height of style when they were made in the mid-1760s. Isn't it good to know some things endure?

  6. A wonderful article, beautifully illustrated. I do wonder how much the interior frenzy is attached to the personality and how much enthusiasm would be generated for the articles alone as handsome and precious as they are. There does seem to be more and more trading on the basis of celebrities...through facility? But then, part of the added lure of antiques has always been who it was made for, by whom, and in what circumstances. I do like your expression in-the-now and what it implies.

    1. G., unfortunately, "in-the-now" was a typo that was intended as "in-the-know." But do feel free to use the former! Thank you for commenting.

    2. However it happened - it works and I'm taking it up!

  7. Dear John,
    I really enjoy the erudition of your posts! So happy to see you are back at it!
    Yes, I agree, about the taste - would we strip the White House just because it's not "modern" ? Ha!

    1. D.F., don't get me started on White House decoration! (We'll save that for another time). Thanks for commenting.

  8. Splendid article - I was wondering whether the date of the Bunny Mellon sale should be 2014 rather than 1994? Or was there an earlier sale twenty years ago?

    1. A.F., unfortunately, another typo. Hopefully all is now corrected and I apologize for the confusion. Many thanks.

  9. No doubt the so called media frenzy over Mrs Mellon's collection would have surprised her greatly, private person that she was for most of her life. But whether her taste becomes somewhat suspect, merely owing to the minor cult that has grown up around her, well--- that is something I am not buying. A cursory or better still, leisurely look at the online catalogue reveals for the most part a discerning point of view, whether the subject is jewelry, pictures or furniture. There is for example a painted Regency cabinet, with its small drawer compartments lined out with trompe l'oeil "mouldings" all across the face of it, a piece utterly unpretentious which possesses nonetheless a quiet authority. I would not call that piece in any way ordinary or commonplace or predictable, just as I feel that these extraordinary Loop Chairs are in a class by themselves.

    1. T.W., I could not agree more. Not that everyone has to love the same thing, but the success of the sale squashes the predictions of the doubters who decried that all Bunny Mellon admired was now out of style. There is still some life in country French and English furniture after all.

      Note to Devoted Readers: Toby is referring to Lot 1298, a great Personality Piece is there ever was one.

    2. LOVE love love that piece! (1298) estimate 1,000 to 1,500! (sold at 2,000!)

      At least it is big!!

      I was dying for...hiding under the way over estimates...(HA!!)

      $1500.00 for lot 1491; est 500 - 800. Sold for 30,000! (I was wrong before.)

      Not one thing in this sale, in my opinion; is (or ever has been )"out of style"!!!

      Lovely sale....all my friends are empty handed...I will treasure these catalogues forever...and refer to them often..

      Toby speaks the truth! Nothing pretentious! "Discerning" is the operative word. Most of all; she surrounded herself and her husband with and beauty! Without any pretensions! I have heard it was a great relief to him.....and he adored the "nests" she created!!

      Bunny was a gift to the world!

    3. Devoted Readers have no doubt figured out there was a typo in P.B.'s remark about the cabinet; instead of $2,000 it sold for $20,000 (Lot 1298 including buyer's premium).

    4. I am so sorry! I really haven't found a bargain yet!

      Typos!!! DRAT!!!

  10. Yes and those "in the know" have spoken. Despite the strange articles in the Times and elsewhere those who love fine and unusual things turned out to bid. Mrs. Mellon was a connoisseur and she knew what she liked. It's good news that there are people who are appreciative. Great article about the amazing chairs that unfortunately can't be sat in. There goes my fantasy about being seated in one around someones dining room table!

    1. R., thanks for commenting. And in case the new owner reads this: I would be happy to stand during dinner and let the empty chairs line the walls, in case you would like to extend an invitation.

    2. Oh I so hope you are invited! Had I purchased them; you would be first on my list!!!

      Really....can't they be fixed? I suspect....yes; but somehow. the antique value would be affected......oh! Let's fix them, sit in them and get on with it!!

      What the hell??? Can you imagine what Bunny would say???

  11. Wonderful post. Thank you. It's fascinating to compare the very distinctive personal style of Mrs. Onassis's two mentors, Mrs. Wrightsman and Mrs. Mellon. Working with similar resources and a shared Francophilia, very different results. One urban and grand, the other rural and understated (even in the New York townhouse).

    Does anyone know anything about Mrs. Mellon's Paris house (where it was located and if photos have ever been published)?

    1. A.D.R., earlier this year, there were some summaries of the Mellon residences that mentioned there had been two apartments in Paris that had been sold several years previous when real estate was really being scaled back. Whether it was an apartment in a hotel particulier plus separate staff quarters (a typical arrangement), I have no idea. Listing photos may have existed at one time with the owner being anonymouse - usually the case - but, again, I really have no idea. But readers of this blog are very resourceful, so let's see if they come up with something.

      For more on Mrs. Onassis's influences, take a look at the previous post from the series on the White House Green Room:

    2. A devoted frenchieJuly 29, 2015 at 2:53 PM

      A copy of Bunny Mellon’s last will can be found online. At the time it was written Mrs Mellon visibly still owned 2 units at 15 rue de l’Université in Paris, 7th arrondissement, directing her executors to sell them after her death. We know it was sold before…

      At this address sits the “Hotel d’Aligre”, a listed XVIIth century mansion “entre cour et jardin” (“between yard and garden”, meaning the house is not directly overlooking the street, but is accessed from the street through a courtyard and is followed by a garden). I guess the 2 units were different floors of said Hotel as this type of big Parisian houses is nowadays often separated and sold as different apartments…

      I found an old photograph of the house on the online archives of the “Monuments Historiques”. IF (I'm not certain of anything) this is actually what the Mellons owned there, a direct link can be established with Hubert de Givenchy’s current Parisian Hotel : same type of house and same structure even if at first glance the Hotel d’Aligre may lack (the pic is old) the architectural grandeur of Hotel d’Orrouer. And the Mellon’s place was at (a few) stone’s throws from Givenchy’s residences : the former one, Hotel de Cavoye or the current one, Hotel d’Orrouer.

      A lot has been said about Mrs Mellon’s influence (and work) on Givenchy’s gardens. Maybe (Mellon and Givenchy met in the late 60’s, I don’t know when the Mellons bought their Parisian residence) the same can be said about Givenchy’s influence on the Mellon’s Parisian house pick… ? XVIIth century Parisian hotels were all quite similar, but still… It shows their friendship was really nurtured, among certainly more personal and affective matters, by a mutual appreciation and emulation of taste…

      Bravo for a great blog !

    3. Thank you, A.D.F., for this information. One summer when I taught at Parson's Paris, I lived on rue de L'Universite, but on the other side of the rue du Bac. It is a delightful part of Paris and very convenient to many antiques shops, etc.. with a number of handsome hotel particuliers and their gardens still surviving. Your comment is very appreciated.

  12. The chairs are very elegant and pleasing. I wonder why their seats were covered in different fabric - perhaps used in different rooms, or groupings.

    It is interesting how Sotheby's "in house scholarly research can be lacking", to parse The Swan's remarks. I too have rectified this for the details of an upcoming sale, which I hope will give the lot the fillip it deserves.

    1. "Interesting" is a polite way of putting it, Columnist.
      The Mellon catalogue tells us that these chairs were purchased by Ronald and Marietta Tree for Ditchley---at a time when Ronnie was married to Nancy Tree and when Marietta, not yet in the picture, would've been a lass of sixteen.
      On another page of the Interiors catalogue, we learn that George Oakes was "born 1940"--making him all of 15 when he began work on the Gothick Bedroom at Haseley Court! In fact George Oakes was born in 1927.

      Minor points, perhaps--yet as a result of being printed in a Sotheby's catalogue they become "fact".

  13. I feel a particular tenderness regarding the recent stories about Bunny Mellon's death and the Sotheby's sale of her collections. Growing up in Middleburg, wigh grandparents from Upperville, the Mellons, though not a close member of my parents' social circle, loomed large in our community and did occasionally overlap socially. My best friend lived in Delaplane and going to her family's farm took us by Rokeby's acres of manicured green pastures and centuries old stacked stone fences. As my friend's family hunted with the Piedmont Hunt we also occasionally rode on the Mellon's property.

    In any event, after reading your first post on the "loop" chairs, I was delighted to see the Serebriakoff watercolors in Robert Becker's biography of Nancy Lancaster, which I loved.

    Being from Virginia, I am so well acquainted with the aesthetic source of the designs of Lancaster, the Bunnys WIlliams and Mellon and others. My own interiors, though exponentially more modest, reflect my own personal thread of their lineage.


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