The Prints of England.

September 17, 2013

The English political magazine Vanity Fair published over 2,000 lithographic caricatures between 1868 and 1914, the bulk of which documented the Empire’s social, sporting and governmental notables. The subjects were as often the fodder of snide editorial asides, though a sympathetic establishmentarian stance pervaded. As the magazine’s title indicated, the caricatures tore into the assorted vanities of their targets – though in the good-natured way of an inside joke. They appeared weekly and became the journal’s distinguishing feature.

Originally assailants of royalty and politicos only, the caricaturists soon enlarged their focus to include actors, artists, sporting types, judges, men about town, and the assorted ornaments and oddments of the imperial military. Victims learned to appreciate that lampooning came as recognition for some accomplishment (laudable or less so) and took it in stride, like the subjects of friars’ roasts. Few protested. Thomas Gibson Bowles, founder, explained his magazine’s purpose in response to a critical Daily News article: “There are grim faces made more grim, grotesque features made more grotesque, and dull people made duller… but there is nothing that has been treated with a set purpose to make it something that was not already originally in a lesser degree.” Bowles himself provided biographical accompaniment to the art under the pen name Jehu Junior.

Two of the more popular caricaturists proved to be Carlo Pellegrini and Leslie Ward, each also thankfully prolific. Their work was published under the pseudonyms Ape and Spy – Ape considered the wittier and more insightful of the two, Spy drier and more aloof, often studying subjects clandestinely for hours. Judges presiding over court were especially vulnerable.

Each man sketched in public, then returned to the magazine’s studios to create final drafts in water color. Lithographers printed the product by way of the innovative transfer paper, the invention of which was critical to the enterprise. Lithography eliminated the necessity of drawing backwards to account for the reversal of printing presses. Their prints remain highly collectible today, as both bits of anecdotal history and political art.

The Big Fire.

July 30, 2013

From Racquet Club: A Youthful Hundred: “The Big Fire, or: Who’s That in the Negligee?”

The busy, hot St. Louis summer of 1957 reached its peak in early August. The Racquet Club slowed down with the rest of the city, as members vacationed in cooler climes, and the squash players, who typically liked cold courts to keep the ball from getting too lively, suffered with summer’s usual stifling conditions. Saturday, August 3, had been a typical, lazy, midsummer weekend day of no particular note. That evening, out at Sportsman’s Park, the Cardinals, led as always by Stan Musial, had vanquished the Phillies 3-1. Around 3:30 a.m., Larry Callan, a cabbie driving by the Club on North Kingshighway, noticed flames coming from the windows of the second floor above the Card Room, in the area of one of the squash courts. He immediately pulled over to the corner of North Kingshighway and Westminster and pulled the alarm on box 1725.

Three other alarms were called in by fire personnel as they arrived over the next thirty minutes.

At 3:30 a.m., the Club had, of course, long been closed for the evening, its only inhabitants being a few boarders and one or two employees asleep upstairs. One of these folks became aware of flames tearing through the second-floor squash area, roused the others, and led a contingent of a half-dozen sleep-addled Racquet Clubbers, in various states of nighttime dishabille, from the upper floors, down three flights, through the Library and foyer, and to the sidewalk outside. By the time they had assembled in the front of the building, sirens were filling the warm night air, and hook-and-ladders were pulling up to the curb.

Suddenly one member — it is unknown who — roused the cobwebs sufficiently enough to gain his bearings and with them, his sense of decorum.

Looking at the flames jumping out of the second-floor windows, it was obvious the fire would prove to be costly and damaging. On the other hand, it was a big building, the fire was at the moment isolated in one area, and the fire trucks were already on-site. The danger would obviously be fully contained in short order. Given all this, he stepped in front of the helmeted firemen in their heavy gear, axes in hand, jumping off the trucks and preparing to storm in though the front door. The service entrance, he informed them, was down the alley, and the Club would appreciate it they would kindly redirect their efforts by using that door.

The somewhat surprised firefighters stopped dead in their tracks, looked at one another, shrugged, and ran down the alley for the service entrance.

In a few hours the fire was out, although, unfortunately, two firemen were hospitalized. Almost certainly the bar had been temporarily relocated to the sidewalk out front. (It is hard to imagine the members fighting fire without firewater.) But most importantly, decorum had been maintained, protocol followed, even in the midst of the conflagration. The front door had remained a members-only passage throughout the crisis.

Lest some feel this too rigid an adherence to regulations, it must be remembered that the rules were in fact relaxed: the firemen were not required to wear ties as they went about their duties, even though the dress code required it of everyone in the public areas of the Club.

The cause of the blaze, which appeared to originate in a storeroom, was never identified. In terms of damage, the squash court was fully charred and burned, the Card Room was gutted and damaged by water, and the Oak Bar incurred smoke damage. Final costs for replastering the walls and ceiling downstairs, repanelling the walls, sanding and refinishing the floors, and tending to wiring and ductwork issues exceeded $20,000. Fortunately the painting of Judge Taylor at the east end of the room and the mural over the fireplace were undamaged. No efforts were made to repair the squash court, however, and it would remain a sealed-off ruin for more than twenty years.

There was, as it turned out, fallout beyond the physical damage. Apparently, one of those so rudely rousted by the flames from the fourth floor, and left standing on the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., turned out to be a woman — and not an employee. No acceptable explanation for her presence was ever offered. Women, of course, were not allowed on the premises, day or night. In addition, business was frowned upon, so even were she a consultant of some variety, as is likely, she would still have been outside the protocols established for Club activities. There is no record of a sanction of any individual who may have been serving as her host for the evening. Larry Callan received 125 from the Board for his Club-saving effort, and the Fire Chief received a letter “to show our gratitude for the efficient way his fireman put out the fire.”

One Observation.

July 20, 2013

In the wake of the conclusion of the George Zimmerman trial, in which Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of any wrongdoing in the death of Trayvon Martin, a number of pundits and personalities of all types have decried the racial element of the process. Because Mr. Zimmerman is white, they allege, he was set free after killing a young black man. Never mind that Mr. Zimmerman is actually Hispanic; they believe his ethnicity was a decisive factor in his vindication.

Those same voices appear now raised in opposition to the acquitting jury’s verdict – that is, in de facto accusations of racism against a majority of those jurors. No such voice has produced a viable scrap of evidence Mr. Zimmerman acted in any way other than that necessary to defend himself when confronted with deadly force. Despite that absence of evidence, they appear dead-set on believing that Mr. Zimmerman was set free because of his race, not because of the lack of any evidence contrary to his explanation. The logical corollary of the fact these commentators believe Mr. Zimmerman was wrongfully set free is that they also believe he should not have been set free, which in turn correlates with the fact they believe he was guilty of killing Mr. Martin without justification. They have yet to identify proof in support of that position, which leads to the conclusion that those same people who believe Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted because of his race now appear intent on assuming his guilt based on nothing more than that same race. The absurdity of the double standard is palpable.

Editor’s note: The post above reflects no opinion regarding the facts of the case; rather, it is simply critical of those who assume a defendant’s guilt (or innocence) on the basis of nothing more than race, regardless of the assumption or the race. It is as wrong to assume a man is guilty (or innocent) of a crime because he is white as it is to assume the same thing because he is black. The post above is critical of knee-jerk racial assumptions.

A World Unto Itself.

July 2, 2013

I spend an inordinate amount of time decorating. An inordinate amount of money, too – especially in comparison to purchases which could have some more readily identifiable bearing on my quality of life. For instance: food. Or: internet service. Or even: gasoline. The net dividend of most paychecks (what isn’t vacuumed up by the student loan shylocks) is most often left in the polished brass coffers of little antique shops. Why there? Because that’s where they sell walnut writing desks and little crystal inkwells. Antique shops offer the worst sort of potential for impulse buying: a beat-to-hell Persian rug? An etching of Napoleon on the march? Ring ‘em up.

The efficiency with which I finance the college careers of antique merchants’ children recently led a friend to ask: why? Why spend so much time and treasure making a place that – since I live alone – few people ever see look like an English country house? Wouldn’t the money be better penned up in a savings account or invested somehow?

The answer is two-fold: first, my apartment is well-insured and in a very old building. When and if it ever goes up in flames or (more likely) simply subsides into the earth, I’ll make a bundle. Second, no. The money would decidedly not be better saved than spent. Here is why:

The world is, even at best, disquieting. Buses are loud. People are discourteous and care about ridiculous things called Kardashians. Buildings are ugly and everything is beginning to look prefabricated and shoddy. English is butchered daily by almost everybody – and not in small, forgivable ways, but on a tremendous and violent scale: most Americans treat their country’s national language like Hitler treated Poland. The political left and right have gone insane in equal measure. Fashion is garish. In general, the lowest common denominator prevails.

Step into my home. Things are quiet and gentle. There are old rugs on the floors, which are wood and polished. Sit in any cozy chair and there is a table within arm’s reach where you can set a drink. There are brass and glass ashtrays, but only for cigars. Or, if you want, a rack of pipes is in the library – next to the old Vanity Fair caricatures and some engravings of sailboats. The light is natural, from big windows, or else soft and dusky, from thickly shaded lamps. Look anywhere and you will see neatly stacked books about nearly anything. Hunting scenes are on the walls and blankets are across the backs of chairs. A number of small bars (in the kitchen, the dining room and the library) are convenient and well-provisioned. There is ice in the freezer and tumblers in the cabinet.

No matter what the world demands in the way of tolerating vulgarity, your home – house, apartment, condominium, cabin – is your own. In it, you can create a world to your own specifications, the world you would prefer. My own tastes are clubby and subdued. Yours might be modern and sleek. In either case, the pleasure and reassurance of being able, at the end of any day, to slip into a world of your own taste is priceless.


The Decoration of Houses.

February 16, 2013

Lifted from February’s Architectural Digest:

Hundreds of interior design books are published every year, from nitty-gritty how-to guides to lavish volumes that are the publishing world’s answer to lifetime achievement awards. But they all owe their existence to a pioneering guide that was all the rage in 1897: The Decoration of Houses, written by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr.

Wharton, at the time, was a 30-something Manhattan society matron with a keen interest in architecture and interior design, rather than the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist she would become. Codman was a blue-blooded architect, one year her junior, with whom Wharton and her husband were remodeling a summer place in Newport, Rhode Island. Poor taste and vulgarity of all kinds reigned in that New England resort town, thanks to an influx of Vanderbilts and other newly moneyed clans anxious to put their lucre to conspicuous use, so much so that Wharton and Codman decided to write a book about how to build and decorate houses with nobility, grace, and timelessness. It would, they hoped, lead its readers out of what Wharton called (pace the Vanderbilts) a “Thermopylae of bad taste” and into an aesthetic Promised Land.

Today, however, not many people read the 198–page book. But last week I was delighted to participate in a panel discussion about it at the New York School of Interior Design. The talk was sponsored by The Mount, a historic house museum in Lenox, Massachusetts, that was once Wharton’s country residence and, like the book, was another Wharton-Codman collaboration, at least at first. (The persnickety pair’s relationship eventually proved combustible, so the architect ended up losing the job to a less-volatile competitor.) Architectural historian, University of Virginia professor, and Wharton expert Richard Guy Wilson was the moderator, and my co-panelists were the interior designer Charlotte Moss and writer/decorator Pauline C. Metcalf.

The subject of the talk was whether The Decoration of Houses, now nearly 120 years old, still had any relevancy in the Age of IKEA. The general conclusion was a qualified “yes.” Wharton and Codman’s book does have drawbacks, we all agreed. Its tone can be superior and schoolmarmish. Its photographs are black-and-white, which many people today cannot abide in a book about interior design. Its examples of good taste are invariably the ballrooms, antechambers, staircases, and other grandiose spaces in European palaces and villas—not exactly what today’s average homeowner finds particularly inspirational. Perhaps most damning, The Decoration of Houses is devoid of how-to projects and idiotproof color schemes. So why do Moss, Metcalf, Wilson, and I revere this relic of late-Victorian days? (Which, it was quickly pointed out, is still in print.) Well, because practicality and common sense are never out of fashion.

The Decoration of Houses is like the King James Version of the Bible. Thousands of interior design books have come and gone since, but most, I would argue, merely repackage Wharton and Codman’s lessons in brighter colors and snappier prose. Today we all know, to a degree, that pleasingly proportioned rooms inspire, almost magically, a sense of calm. That it is best, when on a budget, to invest in comfortable chairs and sofas rather than flashy knickknacks. That we should build and decorate houses based on our individual needs rather than popular trends. (Not for nothing was Wharton born a Jones, a New York society family whose indulgences, architectural and otherwise, reportedly led to the coining of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.”)

Such advice, and so much more in Wharton and Codman’s pages, seems so basic, so obvious. But it wasn’t in 1897, when many wealthy individuals, the target of the barbed arrow that is The Decoration of Houses, were doing all they could to build opulent houses glittering enough to do justice to the Gilded Age. Wharton and Codman wanted to educate the rich, to challenge them to build beautiful, practical, and pleasing residences whose details, from meaningful moldings to efficient floor plans to well-made, well-mannered furniture, would trickle down into every neighborhood in America in one form or another.

They were, of course, being irrationally optimistic—our time is as plagued with domestic horrors as was the 1890s. That said, sound advice has timeless value, which is why the book’s commandments, suggestions, and observations remain insightful and inspiring, whether your taste is ancien régime or ultramodern. After all, as Wharton and Codman wrote in their introduction, “Architecture and decoration, having wandered since 1800 in a labyrinth of dubious eclecticism, can be set right only by a close study of the best models.” Who would disagree with that?

The Semantics of Semi-automatics.

January 25, 2013

In the wake of a spate of mass shootings, national interest has been understandably reawakened in an assault weapon ban, or at least regulation. Putting momentarily aside the fact that people who ignore statutory prohibitions of murder are unlikely to follow any ban, or the fact that some of the “assault” weapons proposed for banning are semi-automatic rifles which fire at roughly the same rate as Wyatt Earp’s 1872 Colt Peacemaker (and, in many cases, with considerably less velocity), the fact remains there exists no precise definition of an assault weapon. This situation is well-suited to emotional reaction which defies logic in its clamor for a ban of what would amount to almost every gun there is. It is equally suited to the popular predilection toward leaping without looking.

The heart of the trouble is that the voices raised loudest in support of assault weapon bans belong to folks who don’t know the first thing about guns, people who would ban anything made of black plastic. Like most well-intentioned but ill-informed pundits, those favoring the enactment of a ban prior to a definition of banned items give thought to form first, function later, and would see the creation of dangerously over-broad laws – and, as a matter of history, over-broad laws are ripe for abuse. America’s 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (part of that year’s Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. 921) specified only semi-automatic weapons, which category includes most shotguns used in duck hunting (and would also outlaw Earp’s Colt, which fired a bullet per trigger pull).

Josh Sugarmann, author of 1988′s Assault Weapons and Accessories in America, described the trouble accurately: “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons – anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun – can only increase the chance for public support for restrictions on these weapons.” Mr. Sugarmann was, notably, an early gun control activist, a role to which he did credit in citing as a source of support for assault weapon bans “the public’s confusion.”

That confusion is dangerous. It smooths the way for a ban on guns meant for anything but assault, born of ignorance and fear. Are there dangerous weapons manufactured with which the public at large has no business? Certainly. Fully automatic weapons have no place in the home; nor do magazines which accommodate in excess of ten rounds, silencers or sawed-off barrels. But to ban weapons because of their appearance, rather than their function, is like a fear of mean-looking dogs… simultaneously understandable and illogical. Banning an entire category of personal property with no thought to definitive distinctions within that category is less understandable.

Note: Your editorial staff’s opposition to over-broad assault weapon bans is less the result of any affection for guns – though we own a few – and more the product of distaste for (and fear of) government by reckless emotion.

Mrs. Astor Collects.

January 14, 2013

Brooke Astor on collections and collecting, as published in Architectural Digest, 1982:

Taste is a very elusive thing. The person who dresses with style and taste may have a banal or even hideous house. The one who collects magnificent pictures may have no idea how to hang them. Some people have good taste in everything but food; in the most delightful surroundings, they may serve you a half-cooked meal. And worst of all, some of the nicest people have dreadful friends.

I have found that my taste changes with the years. I used to love 18th-century English furniture—mahogany sideboards and large breakfront bookcases; paneled rooms with sporting prints on the walls. Then, by way of a divorce, I moved away from the English furniture and the house, into an apartment, where I had French furniture—small, pretty chairs, which were easy to draw up for conversation, and small round tables. Now I like a mixture. I want pure comfort, with some good wood pieces and low Chinese tables—and mirrors in every room. My mother used to say, “Mirrors in a room, water in a landscape, eyes in a face—those are what give character.” My mirrors are a mixture of French and English, all in old gilt, and they are there to reflect the room and to give it spirit.

There are two volumes on taste—The Economics of Taste, by Gerald Reitlinger—that I advise new collectors to read. Of particular importance is Reitlinger’s warning that you should not be so foolish as to throw away your grandfather’s stuffed bear, or your great-aunt’s ivory glove stretcher, because they may become the rage overnight and the bids will soar at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

Collecting is a personal matter, which is why museums with the most complete and unusual collections can be overpowering at times. The point of view of a museum is to show as much as possible, in a gallery, of whatever that gallery is meant for. A museum must look for the best, but, at the same time, offer a range of lesser art, in order to illustrate the evolution of the perfect example and to satisfy both casual visitor and scholar. To accomplish all this, the museum must be totally objective. A museum must judge with an eye from which a great deal of passion has gone. There is no place for frivolity or for slipping in an unworthy object just because it is amusing or has an odd charm of its own.

Unlike the museum, the private collector can run totally amok. He can put the most outré painting on his wall and place below it a fourth-century Greek sculpture and an Axminster rug. His is not necessarily a happy mixture, because to be a collector does not always mean to be endowed with good taste; it can be purely a case of a desire to possess.

I caution that there are three catches to collecting: The first is the changing of your own taste, which entails a good deal of weeding out—a rather difficult process if you are at all sentimental. I recall asking a friend of mine, a delightful lady in her middle 90s, who was incredibly full of life and charm, what the secret was that kept her so young and on her toes. She answered thoughtfully, “I think it is because I try to make one new young friend a year. It challenges my outlook.” I did not dare to ask what she did with her old friends. Did she slough one off each year? Second, must you send one of your treasures to a thrift shop or auction room every time you replace it with another, so that your collection will not outgrow your house, but will show the fruits of your choice to advantage—not squeezed together, making a hodgepodge? And, last of all, possessions are a responsibility. They need care, as does everything. They must not be allowed to collect dust. China and glass must be washed. Pictures must be cleaned and restretched periodically. Books must be taken off the shelves, their bindings oiled and then rubbed down with lamb’s wool. Bronze must be guarded against the bronze disease. Nothing can be beautiful forever, if uncared for.

I started collecting paintings of dogs about 15 years ago. Dogs have always been a part of my life; I don’t believe I could survive without them. Inspired by their ever-loyal friendship, I started to adorn my walls with pictures of them. I chose works from the 19th century, mostly English, with a few Spanish and French, and have stuck to that. Queen Victoria, who was as sentimentally addicted to dogs as I am, had every one of her pets painted and her courtiers quickly followed her example. Thanks to that prolific period of dog lovers, I now have 74 dog pictures in the front hall and on the staircase wall of my house in the country. I have never bought a costly dog painting—say, by Stubbs—but I have Landseers, Herrings, Ackermanns, and so on. I have pictures of dogs tearing up a newspaper with a picture of Gladstone on it; dogs obviously adoring their masters, and carrying notes or slippers or gray top hats in their mouths; dogs mourning their masters; dogs sleeping or playing; and others simply posing. The dogs are my only really large collection, and the staircase was the right place for them, although they now also fill the upstairs hall.

In my smaller collections, the important thing is arrangement. I like to arrange objects as I would arrange a bowl of flowers, making a mixture that is pleasing and that brings about the best in each flower or object. In my New York apartment, the rooms are not large; so the objects all had to be fairly small.

In my blue “morning room” (named for the morning sun) there are several arrangements, including one of my favorites: Against a blue-fabric-covered wall I have hung five large Meissen plates—the heart of a dinner service painted for Frederick the Great of Prussia, to be used in his hunting lodge. I hung them over a Hepplewhite satinwood cabinet, on whose top I placed objects to enhance the animals painted on the plates.

I have a collection of teapots, also. One group is on a Regency black-and-red stand, and the other is on what is meant to be a hanging shelf, but I have placed it on the floor. The teapots are mostly European, late 18th and early 19th century, with some Oriental ones thrown in.

In the hall leading to my bedroom, a Brazilian marble dog prances between English candlesticks atop a console, and in my bedroom two Chinese Chippendale-style étagères hold a collection of English porcelain dogs.

All these things are not particularly rare, but even at the risk of sounding smug, I do think they are attractive together. I, myself, when I happen to look at them at night on my way to bed, feel they have found a good home, and I like them where they are. Anyway, they make me happy, and I hope it will be many years before they find their way into the auction rooms. I hope that then they will be loved as much as I love them, because I believe that nothing exists that is unresponsive.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.