The Saloon at Avenue House in 1934
photo courtesy of Country Life
While many of the rooms shown in Mr. Cornforth's book are beautiful, the image of the Saloon took my breath away when I first saw it and still gives me a frisson of excitement whenever I come across it to this day. Sir Albert was a true connoisseur and collected many of the furnishings for the Saloon specifically for the room, as opposed to bringing them from other houses that he already owned. So there is a uniformity of taste and style, rigor perhaps, to the Saloon that is not seen in rooms where the assembled furnishings are more diverse or "eclectic", a word much overused in decorating circles in our day.
According to Mr. Cornforth's book, Sir Albert acquired Avenue House in 1919 and spent the better part of twenty years furnishing it. And furnishing it he did, exquisitely, with supreme taste and restraint--the true hallmarks of elegance. While the photographed interior is lovely to look at (the quality of Country Life's mid-twentieth-century photography is mesmerizing), the black-and-white image does not convey the room's color scheme, which, according to Country Life, was as follows: "A greenish grey carpet covers the floor, and grey, too is the colour of the walls, in contrast to which is the purple taffeta, with old-gold filigree used for the window hangings, and the yellow chenille of old French pattern used for some of the chair coverings..." How I would love to see color images of this room.
So what is it about the Saloon at Avenue House that so vividly speaks to me?
- It is finely proportioned, with high ceilings, handsome plasterwork, and large windows;
- In it hangs a lovely, appropriately scaled chandelier;
- The furnishings are from a narrow band of time, drawn from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so they are not slavishly in only one style or period; they include a mix of Regency and earlier furnishings;
- There is plenty of airspace and breathing room. Sir Albert had the luxury of space to furnish the Saloon sparely and appropriately for a drawing room devoted to entertaining and congenial pursuits;
- The furnishings and architecture are arranged symmetrically and with balance;
- The furniture is attennuated and leggy, which gives the room a light appearance--all "en pointe;"
- The seating is easily movable, to provide for intimate groupings and diverse purposes, the signature of a successful drawing room. There are no stationary to-the-floor upholstered club chairs or Lawson sofas to lower the room's sight lines or confine the occupants to one place. This is appealling to me because we have also furnished our (much smaller and far less grand) drawing room at Darlington House in a similar manner, with no fully upholstered seating. While I don't object to entirely upholstered chairs and sofas, I prefer them in more intimate rooms devoted to cozier pursuits;
- Most of the furniture is painted, rather than stained and varnished. Painted furniture is most pleasing in drawing rooms, I believe, as it is pretty and less serious-looking than brown wood furniture, which is more appropriate in dining rooms and libraries. Much of the seating in our drawing room at Darlington is also painted, but--unlike the Saloon at Avenue House--ours is mostly Louis XVI, with only a smattering of Sir Albert's English Regency;
- There are large, plate-glass mirrors over the fireplace and between the windows. I have a weakness for mirrors in rooms, and large ones in particular when the room's proportions allow for them. Mirrors, when used such as Sir Albert does, lend a light and fresh appearance to the rooms in which they hang;
- The floor is covered with a large, single-color, velvet carpet, providing a unifying and visually serene base for the furniture. I think that there is a tendency today to believe carpets should have some pattern in them, to create "visual interest" (another much over-used expression) in rooms and to avoid the dreaded broadloom "wall-to-wall" carpet look of the 1960s and 70s. It is noteworthy that our forebears had other views, as pieced carpets such as Sir Albert's were quite expensive and luxurious in their day, bearing little resemblance, when examined closely, to the more modern and degraded versions for sale in today's big-box retailers;
- The curtains are plain and unfussified, with neither swags nor jabots. My only complaint with them is that I wish the valances had been placed a foot higher on the wall, above the windows, rather than hanging down over them. As in Canon Valpy's drawing room, my first and previous "Reggie's Rooms" subject, Sir Albert's curtains lack any extraneous upholsterer's tricks, relying on the beauty of their materials rather than bows or gimgracks.
The Saloon at Avenue House in 1922
photo courtesy of Country Life
But it was nearly 10 years later when I first came across this earlier photograph of the same room that I truly came to appreciate what Sir Albert had wrought at Avenue House. And how fortunate we are that Country Life chronicled the Saloon's transformation from an under-furnished, almost raw, and obviously only-recently-moved-into space into the beautiful swan that it became over the twelve years of Sir Albert's careful attention. It is in examining, comparing, and studying these two photographs that we come to fully appreciate Sir Albert's academically grounded genius. (It also appears that the curtains faded considerably in the period between when these photographs were taken.)
Almost all of the rooms we see today in books and magazines (and now on the blogs) are presented as fully realized and "done," giving no indication of the thought, effort, and consideration that went into creating them. Seeing a room's transformation over time, as we do here with the Saloon, is a rarity and a treat, and something of great interest to those of us who enjoy the pleasures (and dare I say "process") of interior decoration. What else would explain the enduring popularity of the "Before and After"--or, as Boy and I call them, the "During and Done"--issues of the often odious Architectural Digest magazine?
I believe that the Saloon at Avenue House is a room that merits careful study and has much to teach us today regarding placement, proportion, symmetry, and purpose. It is one of my most-admired interiors and has been one of the inspirations for the furnishing of our more modest drawing room at Darlington House.