Friday, November 28, 2014

Frances Elkins: Chic Chaises

The 'loop' chair attributed to Frances Elkins.
Two pairs sold at auction in 2009 for $5,938 each pair.
Sotheby's photo via The Magazine Antiques.
As mentioned in the previous post of The Devoted Classicist, here, the "loop" chairs from the collection of Bunny Mellon purchased from Mallet had provided inspiration for the noted twentieth-century decorator Frances Elkins to design her own version.  
Frances Elkins' inspiration:
the 1760s chairs as they appeared in
Image via The Magazine Antiques.
Francis Elkins was the sister of noted architect David Adler, but a noted interior decorator in her own right.  Although she completed stylish projects on her own, Elkins' most recognized commissions might be those fifteen collaborations with her brother where the architecture and interior design blended with ideal harmony. 

Frances Elkins' chairs in the Living Room
of Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Wheeler, Lake Forest, Illinois.
Ezra Stoller photo, 1934, via The Magazine Antiques.
The work of Frances Elkins came to be appreciated by a new generation with the monograph of David Adler that was published in 1970.  The Living Porch of the Muttontown, Long Island, New York home of Evelyn Marshall Field was published in the August, 1936 issue of "Vogue."  But it was not until Stephen Salny's much-admired book FRANCES ELKINS: INTERIOR DESIGN was published in 2005 that revived interest really took off.

Garden versions of the 'loop' chair in iron.
" . . from a home on Green Bay Road, Lake Forest, IL."
Formerly offered (sold) by Antiques on Old Plank Road.
Image via 1st Dibs.
Descriptions of the early versions of the chairs made for Elkins state they had a dipped or saddle seat like the antique models she undoubtedly had seen published in A HISTORY OFENGLISH FURNITURE . . or DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH FURNITURE . .  (These were the chairs that eventually ended up in the collection of Bunny Mellon, sold at auction last week).  Elkins' early versions also had a caned seat, also adding to visual lightness.  Later versions of the chair have been made, and continue to made today by various sources with adaptations to make them feasible for a more standardized fabrication and more sturdy for everyday use.

The late Albert Hadley's Dining/Sitting Room
in Naples, FL, photographed by Fernando Benoechea.
"Albert Hadley in Naples, Florida"
More can be read about Frances Elkins' chair, dubbed the "It" chair by "The Magazine Antiques," in a January, 2009, article by Shax Reigler and another in February, 2009; the second article mentions that the antique chairs from the collection of Mr. & Mrs. Ronald Tree were copied by Frederick Victoria & Son.  Also, an essay on the subject appeared in the blog of  Emily Evans Eerdmans.

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.