Wednesday, April 28, 2010

That's Pompey With an "E"

There's something I think I need to clear up here, and that's the correct pronunciation for the name of my most-beloved pug, Pompey, who was named after the noble Roman general, Pompey the Great.

Pompey, photographed by Boy Fenwick

Since I began writing this blog I've had the pleasure of meeting a number of my readers, several of whom have been under the impression that the name of said pug is pronounced the same as Pompeii, the Roman city that had the misfortune to be buried under a flow of molten ashes when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.   Actually, it is not.

 The Forum, Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the Distance
Christian Kobke, 1841
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Pompey, if parsed out in dictionary format, would be Pŏm′pē.  In other words, it rhymes with donkey, and not Pompeii.  The emphasis is on the first syllable "pom", and "pey" is pronounced "pee" (which he does at least several times a day).

Landscape with Donkey
Eugene Joseph Verboeckhoven, 1846
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Just in case you wanted to know . . .

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Winning Bid: Our New Candelabra

This past Friday Boy and I left the City in time to drive up to Darlington so we could attend an evening auction in a nearby town.  We came to bid on a pair of Charles X-style gilt bronze candelabra, of monumental scale, and we succeeded in winning them.  Even though we wound up paying more than the high end of the estimate, we still acquired them at far less than what we would have had to pay for them once they had swum upstream into the shops of the dealers we were bidding against.

The candelabra, still with their auction house inventory tags

Now, before you blanch and conclude that Reggie has lost his mind and is living out a Liberace fantasy, consider the inspiration: the dining room at Boscobel Restoration, an historic house museum overlooking the Hudson River in Garrison, New York.  As can be seen in the following photographs, on Boscobel's table sits a pair of crystal candelabra that States Morris Dyckman, the builder of the house, purchased in London in 1804 for the room.  Like Boscobel, our dining room at Darlington House does not have a chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

The Dining Room at Boscobel, as featured in
Federal Furniture and Decorative Arts at Boscobel, by Berry Tracy
Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, New York

The Boscobel candelabra, also from
Federal Furniture and Decorative Arts at Boscobel

Well, I suppose there may be just a little bit of a Duke of Wellington inspiration, too . . .

The Waterloo Gallery at Apsley House
The Wellington Museum, London
Image courtesy of English Heritage

Once we got the candelabra to Darlington House, we saw that they were filthy dirty, as they like to say in the trade.  A cleaning was in order.

Clearly not of the first period (Charles X reigned briefly from 1824 to 1830), we suspect that our candelabra were likely made anywhere between 1880 and 1920.  They are exceptionally well-made, with surface finishes done in fire gilding and verd antique.

The candelabra are constructed of many different pieces, held together by a single rod that screws into the finial and the base.  It comes apart easily for cleaning.

I first removed the sticky residue from the auction house's labels with Goo Gone, and then cleaned the bronze using a tooth brush dipped in a solution of fifty percent ammonia and fifty percent water, plus a little dishwashing liquid.

Once the metal was cleaned of its grime, I applied a thin coat of paste wax to the surface, and then buffed it.

Here is a comparison of a cleaned candelabra next to a dirty one.  Notice how bright the gilt decorations are in the one on the left, and how its base gleams after being waxed.

And here the freshly cleaned and waxed candelabra sit on our dining room table at Darlington House.  You can get an idea of their monumental scale by comparing them to the articles on the table.  The flames of the candles shown in the photograph are a full thirty-five inches above the surface of the table.

So, for those of you who do not have a chandelier in your dining room, as we do not at Darlington House, I encourage you to consider tall candelabra.  It's almost like chandeliers on stands.

All photos by Boy Fenwick, unless noted

Friday, April 23, 2010

Reggie Out & About: The Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Preview at Sotheby's

This morning as I was tying my tie and preparing to go to the Investment Bank where I work, Boy asked me if I would like to join him beforehand at Sotheby's opening preview of the contents of the London residence of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman.  I responded, "You bet I would!"  So I emailed my office on my BlackBerry that I had an "appointment" in the morning and would be in around eleven.  Little did they know that my so-called appointment was to attend the Wrightsman preview . . .

We arrived just as the preview opened (its first day) and were joined by Boy's charming and lovely assistant, Clarissa Montgomery.  We were delighted to have the exhibition rooms largely to ourselves.  Sotheby's has done a marvelous job of displaying the contents of Mrs. Wrightsman's London residence, which occupy the better part of the tenth floor, the floor reserved for the very best they have to offer.  To say the collection on display was gorgeous is a paltry understatement--better yet, it's jaw-dropping.  Almost every piece is exquisite, sublime, and sumptuous--and the perfect realization of the uber-refined taste of one of the greatest of the lady tastemakers of the twentieth century (and one of the last of them still living).

Sotheby's has organized the exhibition by rooms, and they have mounted huge photographs of the actual interiors, beginning with the drawing room, followed by the dining room, library, sitting room, and various bedrooms.  The above photograph is of the drawing room, the first "room" one sees upon entering the preview.

Of course we brought Pompey with us to the preview, since he is--as I have written previously--the mascot of Boy's office and travels with him everywhere.  Above is a photograph of Pompey on the lap of Clarissa, who is sitting in a chair from Mrs. Wrightsman's library.  I am not sure which of the two of them is happier in such surroundings!

One of the lots that we were looking forward to seeing at the preview was of a pair of diminutive Louis XV giltwood dog kennels forming tabourets, circa 1765, lot number 121.  They sat in Mrs. Wrightsman's drawing room and carry a breathtaking estimate of $25,000 to $35,000.

Not surprisingly, Pompey made a beeline for the kennels.  Here he is, staking out his claim on one of them.  He's no fool, that little pug.

Of course he had to give it a test drive.  However, upon reflection, we all agreed that--even at a mere fourteen pounds or so--Pompey is a bit large for the kennel, which is more appropriately sized for a smaller lapdog, such as a tiny poodle or Yorkshire terrier.

So--much to my relief, given the estimate--we decided to "pass" on the kennels. 

All I can say is, "Whew!"

I enthusiastically encourage my readers to view the Sotheby's preview of the London Residence of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, either in person or on Sotheby's website.  The quality of the offerings and their provenance elevate it into the tastemaker auction sales pantheon of the Windsors, Jacqueline Onassis, Bill Blass, Givenchy, Charles de Beistegui, the Whitneys, and the more recent Safra sale.

Property from the Collection of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman
The London Residence
Sotheby's New York
1334 York Avenue
New York, NY 10021
Exhibition: Friday 23 April to Tuesday 27 April
Sale: Wednesday 28 April

All photos by Boy Fenwick, by BlackBerry and otherwise

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Pursuit of Authenticity

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that Boy and I share an obsession for architecture, art, and design.  Not only are we students of it in our day-to-day leisure hours, but we also spend many of our weekends and vacations visiting historic houses, museums, and sights, soaking it all in.  We, as a nation, are fortunate indeed to have many philanthropic organizations dedicated to preserving and displaying our country's architectural and artistic treasures, and promoting our appreciation of them by making them available to us to visit.

Boy and I are happiest when exploring a new (to us at least) city, museum, historic house, area, or bi-way, and where we come across something--whether exalted or quotidian--that is a complete realization of what it is or can be, and where it hasn't become degraded or cheapened beyond recognition from what it once was.

When traveling, we are interesting in learning the whys, hows, and wherefores of what and where we are visiting, its history, and the people who made it, or--in some cases--the visionaries who preserved it.  We are curious to learn what makes what we are looking at unique or special.  We are not, however, focused only on exploring the fanciest or most elevated examples of what is available to see or experience; we take great pleasure in simplicity, too.


We are particularly gratified when we come across something in our travels that is the very essence of its type, regardless of provenance or age, and that is not an imitation of or "in the style" of something else, but rather the real deal.  And that doesn't just apply to the fine and decorative arts, but includes ancillary arts, too, such as culinary, domestic, or performed.

Just as we enjoy seeing the kitchens and support buildings of the grand historic houses we visit, we are as pleased to sit at a picnic table and tuck in to a luncheon at a justifiably famous old-style seafood shack as we are to slip in to a banquette to dine in what is considered to be the best restaurant in town (sometimes infinitely more so).

What I find noteworthy, and what makes such forays worthwhile for me, is when I come across a place or experience that is resolutely and quintessentially what it is, whether highbrow or low.  In other words, when it is truly authentic.

The reason I am pondering this subject of authenticity is that Boy and I recently spent a long weekend in New Orleans where we enjoyed a fascinating and stimulating three and a half days taking in as much of the city as we could see--that is when we weren't busy eating (and drinking) our way through it.  Neither of us had been to New Orleans for many years, and we knew relatively little about it, except that it has a reputation for incredible architecture, amazing food, devil-may-care nightlife, plagues and disasters, and an indominatable, unbreakable spirit.

And such a reputation is well-founded, we learned during our all-too-brief visit.  I was, frankly, astonished not only by the City's beauty, majesty, and level of preservation in the face of great calamity, but also by the integrity and authenticity of much of what I saw.  And it got me thinking about this topic as a worthwhile subject for this blog.

Over the next several weeks I plan on interspersing my regular postings with a number of essays about aspects of our trip to New Orleans that I found particularly compelling, and which I hope you, Gentle Reader, will also find of interest--particularly should you plan to visit the Crescent City at some point.

Tell me, is there something that you've come across recently that you consider particularly authentic, that resonated with you?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Perfect Plant Stand

Last weekend, while flipping through our copy of American Furniture, The Federal Period, by Charles Montgomery, I came across an image of a delicious and extremely rare plant stand, made circa 1810, and attributed to the workshop of Duncan Phyfe.  I had an immediate "I want that!" reaction when I saw the photograph, which I am showing below.  Not only did I appreciate the stand for its pleasing form, but I thought its function as a holder of potted plants was marvelous, and that it would be the ideal stand for my Peale-inspired potted geraniums.

Image from American Furniture, the Federal Period
by Charles Montgomery

We have four pieces of furniture at Darlington House that are attributed to the workshop of Duncan Phyfe, and that were made in the first two decades of the 19th century, the same period as this stand.  Neither Boy nor I have seen an example of such a plant stand in our many travels, which is not surprising, since according to Montgomery they are exceedingly rare.  If one were to come up at auction I would expect it to sell well into the five figures.

photo by Boy Fenwick

But that doesn't concern me all that much, because I know of a cabinetmaker who is capable of reproducing it for a reasonable price, moldings, patina, and all.  Whilst I certainly prefer to buy first-period whenever possible, sometimes it simply isn't.  I'm okay with buying a high-quality, bench-made reproduction when the original is so rare or costly as to be unattainable, particularly if the reproduction has some age on it.  And, besides, I'm not sure I really do want a period Phyfe plant stand.  That's because geraniums require watering and misting from time to time, and I can't be confident that every person charged with such a task at Darlington House would appreciate how careful they needed to be if the stand were as rare as a period one.

Tell me, do you ever allow yourself to buy good-quality reproductions, or do you always consider period examples as the only appropriate ones to own?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Peale, a Plant, and a Pot

There are certain paintings and works of art that I return to again and again, and where each time I do so I experience a thrill of discovery reminiscent of the first time my eyes were so fortunate as to have gazed upon them.  In other words, they resonate with me.  I plan to write about these works of art from time to time here on Reggie Darling.

Rubens Peale with a Geranium
Painted by Rembrandt Peale, 1801
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The first work I will discuss is the charming portrait of Rubens Peale with a Geranium, painted in 1801 by his brother, Rembrandt Peale.  I know that I am not alone in appreciating this painting, one of our Nation's treasures.  It is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art ("NGA") in Washington, D.C., an exquisite museum that the astonishingly philanthropic Mellon family gave to the people of America.  Reggie has visited the National Gallery many times and always seeks to return to it whenever he finds himself in Washington, D.C., a city he lived in as a boy.

Reggie's chest of drawers and mirror at Darlington House
(note postcards in mirror frame)
photo by Boy Fenwick

I am so fond of the painting of Rubens Peale with a Geranium that I have a postcard of it that I bought at the NGA tucked into the frame of the mirror that hangs above my chest of drawers at Darlington House.  I enjoy the close proximity of the image when I find myself in the room, going about my domestic business.

The portrait of Rubens Peale (1784-1865) was painted at the dawning of the nineteenth century by his brother Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860).   The sitter and painter were sons of the celebrated American artist and naturalist Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827), who named several of his many children after famous painters.  Rubens was an aspiring botanist at the time his portrait was painted, when he was only seventeen years old, and later went on to pursue careers as an artist, like many in his family, and as a director of the Peale family museum.  He is depicted accompanied by a potted geranium, which was an exotic rarity in America at the time his portrait was painted.  Rubens is shown both wearing and holding a pair of metal-framed spectacles, with his hand resting on the clay pot of the plant.  This, I believe, subtly conveys the visual and tactile pleasure he takes (or is it took?) in examining and touching his (for the time) unusual potted plant.  It is a most pleasing portrait, the composition of which is more interesting for the prominence of the potted geranium than what is seen in another portrait of him that his brother painted six years later:

Rubens Peale
Painted by Rembrandt Peale, 1807
The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Don't get me wrong, I believe the later portrait is wonderful, and exceptionally well-painted; it is certainly a work of art that I would be more than proud to hang at Darlington (the handling of the collars and neckerchief is particularly masterful).  However, I am more drawn to the earlier portrait, an American masterpiece, because it conveys a narrative that extends beyond the mere depiction of the sitter.  I also like the fact that the earlier portrait shows Rubens accompanied by something as unexpected and charming as a flowering geranium, of which he is justifiably proud, for it is a handsome specimen, indeed.

Our potted heirloom geranium
photo by Boy Fenwick

Given my affinity for Rubens Peale with a Geranium, it is not surprising that I own a geranium planted in a clay pot, inspired by the painting.  Although mine is clearly not the same type as Rubens Peale's, it is a fragrant heirloom variety bought from a dealer who specializes in specimen plants, and it flowers with similar small red blossoms as the geranium depicted in the painting

As I was writing this essay I realized that the clay pot shown in the above photograph is but a sorry vessel for my geranium when compared with the one in Rubens Peale's portrait, and that I should endeavor to repot it more sympathetically.  I recalled that I had seen a clay pot inspired by the one in the painting when I visited the Trade Secrets annual spring garden sale last year in Sharon, Connecticut.  At that show the talented and prolific contemporary potter Guy Wolff had a booth where he was selling, among other things, a pot modeled after the one in the portrait of Rubens Peale, which he called "the Peale Pot."  We have many clay pots at Darlington made by Guy and his potter son Ben, and have collected them for years as they are handsome and beautifully made.

I decided to expand the focus of this essay to also include a road trip to visit Guy Wolff's studio where I hoped to buy one of his Peale pots to repot my geranium, so that it would more closely resemble the one in the painting of Rubens Peale.  I called the studio and was pleased to speak with the master potter himself, and learned that he had many of his Peale pots in stock to choose amongst, should I stop by his shop that weekend.  So Boy and I fired up the Rover that Saturday morning and drove over to Connecticut on a mission to visit Guy Wolff's studio and buy a pot or two.

The Wolff Pottery studio and shop in Bantam, Connecticut
photo by Reggie Darling

Guy Wolff's studio and shop is located on Route 202 in Bantam, Connecticut, several miles south of Litchfield, and a pleasant 90 minute drive from Darlington House.  The shop was manned the day we visited by Erica Wolff--Guy's wife--and their daughter Elizabeth.  The Wolffs offer many different styles and sizes of pots to choose from, and there was a healthy stream of people stopping by their shop the early spring Saturday we visited.

photos by Reggie Darling

Right inside the door of the shop we found the inspiration for our trip--a stash of Peale Pots in various sizes.  Eureka!

A selection of Peale Pots
photo by Boy Fenwick

While we were there we were also enchanted by the other pots on display, and chose several non-Peale pots to also add to our collection of Wolff pots.

Pots thrown by Guy Wolff and his son Ben Wolff
photos by Boy Fenwick

We fell in to a pleasant conversation with Erica Wolff and explained to her how it was that we came to visit the studio that day, namely to purchase a Peale Pot.  When she learned of our regard for the painting of Rubens Peale, she smiled sweetly and said that she had something that we just might like to have, and then disappeared.

Large clay pots curing in the sun
photo by Reggie Darling

She returned several minutes later carrying a small bottle containing what appeared to be geranium shoots, taking root.  But these were no ordinary geranium shoots.  According to Erica, Rubens Peale apparently gave Thomas Jefferson, a man who shared his interest in botany, a cutting from his geranium plant as a gift around the time his portrait was painted, and the geranium shoots in her bottle were descended from the very plant depicted in the painting.  She said that Monticello's horticultural curator contacted them shortly after her husband started producing the Peale Pot with the news that Monticello had a descendant of that geranium in their collection, and that the Wolffs were welcome to a cutting of it.  Erica Wolff then proceeded to give us one of the shoots, much to our astonishment and joy!

Our Peale-Potted Geraniums
photo by Boy Fenwick

Here is a photograph of our newly-repotted geranium, and also the cutting Erica Wolff gave us that we have potted in a smaller Peale Pot.  Both pots were made by her husband, Guy Wolff.  I am very pleased to have found the appropriate pot for our geranium, and absolutely thrilled to now have a cutting from the descendant of the geranium depicted in Rubens Peale with a Geranium.  Thank you, Erica Wolff.

Reggie believes that he is a very fortunate man, indeed.

I encourage my readers to investigate Guy Wolff's interesting and informative website, where he has examples of his work for sale, plus his show schedule.  While there be sure to click on the link to his potter son Ben Wolff's website, too.

G. Wolff Pottery
Traditional & Horticultural Wares
1249 Bantam Road/P.O. Box 868
Bentam, Connecticut 06750
(860) 567-5577

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ribbons and Bows

Several days ago I came home from work to find Boy with his hand in a paper bag full of grosgrain ribbons.  He bought them at Tinsel Trading Company, a remarkable shop here in New York that specializes in selling nothing but ribbons and related fripperies, such as silk flowers and leaves, felt nuts and berries, cloth butterflies, fruits, and pretty passemanterie of the type once used to decorate ladies' hats back when no self-respecting woman would allow herself to be seen in public without one.  In other words, more than half a century ago.  Tinsel Trading is a type of store that can survive today only in very large cities like New York, where there is a sufficiently large community of fashion, design, and creative types to support such a highly-specialized retail establishment.  Tinsel Trading has been owned by members of the Ceppo family for four generations, and I am happy to report that it's still going strong.

Boy visited Tinsel Trading to find some pretty ribbons to use in a centerpiece on a table that he was decorating for a large benefit being held in New York last week.  While at the store he came across a sale bin of vintage grosgrain ribbons wrapped on spools of white paper, and he bought those that appear in the preceding photograph.  He didn't have any specific purpose in mind for these ribbons when he bought them, other than to add them to the collection that we already have on hand at Darlington for wrapping gifts and other uses. 

Only a week previously I had come across this worn, little plush toy dog when rummaging through a box at Darlington.  When I examined it I noticed that it was missing whatever had once been around its neck, either a collar or a ribbon.  So I asked Boy to tie one of the ribbons he bought around the little fellow's neck, as he is better at such tasks than I. 

I think he looks quite spiffy, don't you?

I encourage you to keep your eyes out for attractive vintage and other ribbons when you are out and about, as they really do come in quite handy.  You would be surprised how inexpensive vintage ribbons like those Boy found can be in group shops or at flea markets, and they can be found at tag sales, too.  Don't settle for the pedestrian ribbons available today in gift stores or big box retailers.

If you find yourself in New York and have a mind for it, I suggest you consider a visit to Tinsel Trading, as it's really quite something to see.

Tinsel Trading Co.
1 West 37th Street
New York, NY 10018
(212) 730-1030

All photos by Boy Fenwick
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