Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reggie on New York Social Diary Today

Reggie is thrilled and absolutely tickled pink to be featured today on David Patrick Columbia's New York Social Diary, a great honor indeed.  Mr. Columbia enjoyed my recent essay on my "Top Ten (Little) Rules for Keeping It Together" and thought that his many readers just might enjoy reading it, too, and so he has re-posted it today on his weekly "House" feature.

Needless to say, I am over the moon!

New York Social Diary is a daily "must read" of mine, and I encourage you, Dear Reader, to link over to it and read through its many delightful features, particularly if you are not already familiar with it.  But then, Reggie couldn't possibly imagine how any of his readers wouldn't already be familiar with NYSD!

Thank you DPC.

Images courtesy of New York Social Diary

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Language of One's Class

As should come as no surprise to his readers, Reggie is rather a stickler when it comes to language and the correct use and pronunciation of it.  He seeks to speak English properly, refraining from the egregious use of slang, lazy or silly pronunciations, or sloppy grammar.  And he thinks you should, too.

                     Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
                     Condemned by every syllable she utters.
                     By right she should be taken out and hung
                     For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.
                                                                                             —Alan Jay Lerner

Today marks the beginning of a new Reggie Series on the Language of One's Class, in which I shall explore the use of language, pronunciation, and ways of speaking that are clear identifiers of the socio-economic standing of the speaker, at least here in America.  It is a subject that I have glanced upon before, in my essays When Is a Vase a Vahz? and Drapes Is a Verb, where I shared the correct pronunciation of one (vase) and the correct usage of another (drape)—at least from the perspective of this self-described Saint Grottlesex/Ivy League somewhat observant Episcopalian WASP.  My goal in codifying this subject into an ongoing series for you, Dear Reader, is to share with you how one should speak if one wishes to do so in a manner that identifies one as a member of this country's educated and cultured upper classes, as opposed to from within those less refined strata struggling below.

Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige:
An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics
of the English Aristocracy

Reggie recognizes that considering "class" as a subject these days is a surefire means of exciting emotions—mostly negative—in certain circles because the concept is a touchy one for many people, particularly here in America.  That is because we are (mistakenly) taught in this country to believe that there is no class system here, at least not in the same way that can still be found in some, more hidebound European nations, and that we Americans are all of one large, fluid "middle" class, with no "upper" or "lower" classes straddling above or below.

Reggie begs to differ.

Jilly Cooper's Class:
A View from Middle England

Just as Henry Higgins remarked in My Fair Lady that "an Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him," so it does in this country, too—at least to those of us who have an ear for such things.  Even with the vastly leveling influence of television and radio, which have largely (and unfortunately) obliterated regional accents amongst the younger generations in this country, an American's way of speaking today still speaks volumes regarding his level of education and degree of sophistication.  One need look no further than the depressing (and for Reggie grating) use of "I" in people's conversations today instead of the far preferable and more correct "me."  I will never forget an exchange I witnessed on one of the Housewives of Orange County episodes (admittedly a once-guilty pleasure of mine, long since overcome) where one of the pumped up bimbos featured on that series said—several times at least—that "She gave the items to Shane and I."  Heavens!  Where is Anita Loos when we need her most?

Paul Fussell's Class:
A Guide Through the American Status System

As one considers the nuances of language and its correct use and pronunciation among the educated and cultured classes, there are three books that I wish to recommend to my readers.  They are worthy and thought-provoking treatises on the class systems that existed in England and the United States in the mid- and later-twentieth century, the vestiges of which continue in (somewhat diminished) force to this day.  Each book delves into and analyzes the language, vocabulary, and pronunciations that those of us "in the know" recognize as key identifiers of their speaker's class, education, and sophistication.

The first of the three books is Nancy Mitford's groundbreaking Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1956.  It was the first book that codified the differences between "U" (for upper class) and "non-U" (the striving middle class) speakers, and created a firestorm of interest among literate English and northeastern Americans in the ensuing decades.  The book divided the world (the English one, that is) into three classes comprised of "upper," "middle," and "lower" orders.  When growing up we Darlings regularly consulted Miss Mitford's Noblesse Oblige and considered it to be the definitive resource in such matters and distinctions.

The next book is Jilly Cooper's Class: A View from Middle England, published in 1980 by Book Club Associates.  This book ably and amusingly updated and expanded Miss Mitford's tome, and sliced the world into six separate classes, ranging from the "Stowcrats" at the highest, most aristocratic level, down to the "Definitely-Disgustings" at the lowest and most base level.  Boy and I often read aloud from this clever book during the Christmas holidays when on an extended stay at Darlington House, with much enjoyment.  Fascinating and thought-provoking, it is a jolly good read.

The third and final book is Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, published by Summit Books in 1983.  In his book Mr. Fussell expands upon (and Americanizes) Miss Cooper's earlier tome, and brings a particularly sardonic wit to the subject at hand.  Although somewhat dated by now, it is still wickedly funny and well worth reading.  Mr. Fussell breaks down the classes into nine separate ones, with "out of sights" sitting at both the highest and the lowest levels (read the book to learn why).  Of particular note is a questionnaire concerning one's living room's decoration (well, one actually prefers to refer to such a chamber as one's drawing room), where the final score supposedly indicates where one sits on the "upper class" to "mid- or low-prole" class continuum.  Most amusing, indeed.

In discussing language and class, Reggie recognizes that one must maintain a sense of humor and objectivity about it, or one can dangerously (and tediously) descend into a nitpicky Hell of snobbishness, which is something to be avoided, if not abhored.  While Reggie—like many in his class—aspires to speak precisely and correctly at all times, and refrains from using sloppy and lazy language and pronunciations, he is a playful fellow and occasionally will engage in silly banter that runs afoul of the rules that are ingrained in him.  And that is, in his mind, more than acceptable, because the use of language is an art and not a science.

But one can only flout rules if one actually knows what they are in the first place.

 To be continued . . .

All photographs by Boy Fenwick

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reggie's Top Ten (Little) Rules for Keeping It Together

Reggie recognizes that there is but a thin line for many of us between managing the myriad challenges and responsibilities of day-to-day life and having it all careen out of control into one big messy collapse.  After all the years he has been on this planet, stumbling about, Reggie has learned that when he keeps on top of the little things in his life—at least the ones that are in his control—he is better equipped to also manage the bigger challenges that inevitably come his way.

Over the years Reggie has come up with a list of ten (little) rules that he endeavors to follow in his daily rounds, and which he finds are helpful in "keeping it together" when managing his day-to-day existence.  They are, you will agree, very basic rules, and ones that many of our mothers taught us when we were children (or in the case of Reggie's mother, MD, drilled into him, because he was—admittedly—a rather slow learner of such things).

Herewith, Dear Reader, I share my list of top ten (little) rules in the hope that you will find them, at best, interesting or, at worst, mildly diverting.

1.  Make Your Bed
Every morning before I get on with my day, I make our bed.  It doesn't take much time, and I feel more in control of my life when I do it.  And you will too.  The bed doesn't have to be made with military precision or gussied up as if for a photo shoot for a decorating rag—just pull up the sheets and blankets, plump the pillows, and smooth out the covers.  It is far more pleasant and satisfying to walk into a bedroom at the end of the day where the bed has been made than to be confronted with an unwelcoming mess of tangled sheets and wrinkled pillows.

This young Miss knows that making her bed is a good daily
habit and can be done in a jiffy, too!

2.  Wash and Put Away the Dishes
I find that keeping a tidy kitchen is quite satisfying, and it is one of those (rare) tasks where I actually see tangible evidence of my efforts—something that is often lacking in my workaday life.  A kitchen that is chronically full of dirty dishes and unwashed pots and pans is a sure sign of depression and despair, of a life out of control.  It is okay to go to bed without finishing washing every dish and utensil, but I try never to leave the house the next day without having done so.  It is far better to come home to a tidy kitchen than to a messy one.

Washing up after a meal can be a pleasant way to spend
"quality time" with one's loved ones

3.  Hang Up Your Clothes and Put Away the Laundry
It drives me crazy when clothes mount up in our bedroom, whether clean or dirty, as it makes me feel out of control.  When I change my clothes I hang them up, put them away, or put them in the hamper.  Furthermore—as far as I’m concerned—laundry isn’t finished until it’s been properly put away.  Also, I endeavor to be a good citizen, mindful of the environment, and I return the wire hangers our dry cleaning comes home on when I next drop off clothes at the cleaners.

One really does feel so much better
when one's clothes are properly cared for

4.  Tend to the Mail
It is alarmingly easy to let the mail build up, accumulating in stacks scattered around the apartment or house.  Don't let that happen!  You’ll feel a lot better about it (and yourself) if you buy a basket or canvas bag to keep it all in one place, and then sort it at least once a week, segregating bills from periodicals and personal mail, and then putting the rest into recycling.  I hate it when my unopened mail uncontrollably piles up.
This is the unfortunate consequence of
allowing one's mail to get out of control . . .

5.  Get Your Hair Cut
It is important to stay on top of one's appearance, and one's hair is a critical aspect of doing so.  Being a "hair-challenged" fellow, I endeavor to get what hair I have left cut at least every two weeks, and I am unhappy when I procrastinate doing so.  Don’t let yourself go too long between haircuts, gentlemen, because it looks slovenly.  Also, for those of you with more hair than Reggie has (and this applies to both men and women), please rethink the appropriateness of your hairstyle every now and then.  Look at yourself in the mirror with a gimlet eye from time to time and check and see if that hairstyle that looked so good on you when you were in high school or college remains flattering today.  It most likely doesn’t anymore.

These men know that appearances really do count!

6.  Men Over Forty: Shave
Just as it is important to stay on top of one's hair, I believe men over forty—such as Reggie—really should shave every day, like it or not.  That's because there are few of us on the far side of forty who actually look good in a stubble.  Contrary to what you might tell yourself, gentlemen, that grizzled mug of yours makes you look more like an escapee from an ICU, or the neighborhood drunk, than the village heartthrob.  Leave the sexy stubble to the boys under forty or to the rare movie star who can still carry it off.  If you don’t like wet-shaving on weekends, buy yourself an electric razor.  And use it.

A clean-shaven man has a decided advantage
in getting ahead in today's cutthroat world

And here's an alternate rule for the ladies:

Women Over Forty: Pay Attention to Your Roots
Nothing says “I’ve given up” like an inch of gray roots when the rest of your hair is (or once was) dyed chestnut brown.  Ladies, do yourself (and us) a favor and either keep up with coloring your roots, or let your hair go gray.  It's one or the other.

7.  Wear Clean, Cared-For Clothes
I endeavor never to leave my house or apartment wearing dirty, unkempt clothes.  While this is hardly shocking news, I am routinely surprised by the number of people I see out and about wearing filthy jeans, stained shirts, and—in the winter—grimy or soiled outerwear.  One can be forgiven for wearing inappropriate or threadbare clothing, but never dirty clothes.  The sole exception is when one is wearing garments that have become soiled by one's honest, dirty labors, such as from gardening or cleaning out the garage, and where a quick related trip to the local garden center or hardware store is required.  Reggie is not saying that he believes one should only be seen in public wearing one's finest, but rather that one must endeavor only to wear clean clothes.  And yes, that means doing laundry.

A freshly laundered and well-ironed shirt attests to the
upstanding character of its wearer

8.  Take Care of Your Shoes
Shoes are the first thing that most people look at when sizing up their wearer, and nothing says "slob" more than badly cared for, unpolished shoes, worn down at the heel.  Good leather shoes are expensive, so take care of them!  Also, please put your sneakers through a wash cycle every now and then, and replace them when they are worn out.

It is important to inculcate our children
with good habits when they are young

9.  Keep Your Car Clean
A dirty, ill-kempt car full of trash, detritus, and junk does not reflect well on its driver, to put it mildly.  I take pride in taking care of our cars, and that means keeping them clean and tidy.  I have ours washed and vacuumed regularly, and I don’t allow their interiors to become filled with empty water bottles, food wrappers, or refuse.  A clean and neat car—whatever its age, make, or model—says that its driver is in control of his life; a dirty one announces that he is not.

This man knows that when it comes to his automobile,
appearances speak volumes about its owner

10. Be on Time
I make a point of aiming to arrive on time for my appointments, both professional and personal.  That doesn't mean that I seek to arrive early or am weirdly obsessed with being punctual, but I do make the effort to arrive when I say I will.  That's because I believe it is a sign of respect for the person I am meeting with and the commitment I have made.  It's okay to be five or ten minutes late from time to time—life happens—but people who are chronically late are in one of two camps: those not in control of their lives or selfish souls lost in their own worlds, oblivious to the lack of respect that such tardiness shows for the persons they have agreed to meet.  I feel better about myself when I am on time for my appointments.  And if I know I'm going to be more than five minutes behind schedule I call the person I'm meeting to let them know I'm running late—it's the least I can do.  (Note: this rule does not apply to attending most private parties where it is acceptable—if not actually preferred—to arrive fifteen-to-thirty minutes after the appointed start time.)

A minute passed is a minute that is gone forever 

And so, Dear Reader, you have Reggie's Top Ten (Little) Rules for Keeping It Together, which he endeavors to follow to the best of his abilities in his routine daily life.  Of course Reggie is human and slips up on some of them, and some more often than he cares to admit.  But I do try and stay on top of them, and I do stay at it.  For I find that when I am successful in keeping on top of these "little" tasks—such as doing the dishes or keeping up with the mail—I am better equipped to meet the bigger challenges in my life as they come along.  And I cut myself some slack when they do.

There are, of course, other (and more important) rules that Reggie strongly believes in, such as cherishing one's loved ones, following through on one's promises, and living within one's means—just to name a few.  However, those are not the subject of today's essay.

Tell me, do you have any (little) rules that you follow that are not on my list?  If so, I'd love to know what they are.

All photographs, except of woman holding shirt, from LIFE Archives; photograph of woman holding shirt courtesy of Getty Images

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Does Anyone Know What These Are?

I would appreciate your assistance with something, Dear Reader.  I am in a bit of quandry, and I cannot—despite my best efforts—resolve it.  Many years ago I bought a pair of earthenware figures that have some sort of functional purpose that I have not been able to determine, at least definitively.  I've consulted books and reference materials, I've asked specialists, and I've nosed my way around museums and collections, but it has all been for naught.  Can you help me, please?

I bought these figure heads in a group shop where the (absent) dealer had them marked as "window supports," supposedly used to prop open windows to allow fresh air into a room.  I've also seen them referred to as furniture supports.

Neither of these descriptions makes sense to me, though.  I suspect they were made for some other purpose, but what it is I have not been able to ascertain.  Do you know what they are?

His Royal Highness, Prince Albert of Saxe-Gotha

My little fellows are, I believe, English Staffordshire pearlware figures.  I suspect they are commemorative images of Prince Albert of Saxe-Gotha, and were made in or around 1840 at the time of his marriage to Queen Victoria.

When I brought them home I opened a window to try them out as window supports, but when I did so I realized they are the wrong shape for that supposed purpose.  In order for them to function effectively as window supports, the frames of the windows would need to be constructed without the interior weather stripping that all windows (at least those that I am familiar with) have.  Such weather stripping is not a modern, energy-saving convenience—our window frames at Darlington House are original to when the house was built in 1817.  Were window frames made differently in England?

They were clearly made to hold something.  The top has cross-hatching on it to help stabilize whatever it was they held.  I suspect they may have been originally intended to hold potted plants, either in terracotta pots or cachepots, and would have been sold in groups of three or four for that purpose.  Related examples are available today, in terracotta.

A terracotta pot foot available on Etsy
from mygardengoddess

Tell me, Dear Reader, what do you think my little figure heads are?  Do you think they are, in fact, window supports, as the dealer identified them?  Are they furniture supports, as some have said?  Or do you think they are pot feet as I suspect they are?

Any guidance or thoughts that you may have would be greatly appreciated.

All photographs by Boy Fenwick, except for the one of the terracotta pot foot, which is courtesy of mygardengoddess, whose site on Etsy can be found by clicking on the link above

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pick Up the Telephone!

I recently received a telephone call out of the blue from my friend Jock Pardoe.  After speaking with him for a minute or two, I still wasn't quite sure why he had called me, so I asked him.

"I'm calling just to say 'hello,'" he said, "It's been awhile since we spoke, and I was thinking about you.  So I thought I'd pick up the telephone and call you, and check in."

I was really quite flattered and pleased.  We had a lovely conversation, and I enjoyed catching up with Jock, hearing what he was up to and discussing what was going on in our respective lives and with our loved ones.  At the end we made plans to get together soon.  How nice, I thought, as I hung up the phone.  It had been a long time since someone called me up for no reason, except to say "hello."

And it got me thinking . . .

Over the last several years many people I know have pretty much dispensed with using the telephone to communicate, instead relying increasingly on email, texting (the youngs), and more recently Facebook.  It all started out in the workaday world, where email is far more efficient for taking care of routine business than endlessly leaving voicemail messages or speaking on the telephone.  With the advent of the BlackBerry and the iPhone, email very quickly took over in the personal world, too.  It's never been the same since for the poor old telephone.

While I think email is certainly an efficient and convenient means for communicating and sharing basic information, I believe it is no substitute for picking up the telephone and actually speaking with someone.  In fact, I think too many of us rely on email when we really should be picking up the telephone instead.

Now, before you roll your eyes and say, "Reggie, of course you think that way—you're a hopelessly old-fashioned fuddy-duddy!" I ask you to ponder the following:

How many times have you found that you have exchanged ten emails with someone to resolve something that could have been more efficiently taken care of in a single phone call?

How many times have you received a message via email from someone that contained time-sensitive or important information and that you somehow missed in your inbox queue, only to discover it several days later, if at all?

How many times have you received an invitation to a private party that you thought was for some kind of mass-email "event" promotion, and you ignored it, only to learn after the fact that it wasn't?

How many times have you sent (or received) an email where the content was—for whatever reason—misinterpreted by the recipient, where they took what you meant in the wrong way?

How many times have you hit the "send" button and then realized in re-reading what you wrote that it wasn't actually what you meant to say?

More times than you'd think.

In each of these cases, it would have been far preferable to pick up the telephone and call the person you wished to communicate with rather than sending them an email.

When writing and sending emails or texts, you can't always depend that your reader will truly understand what you are saying, or interpret it in the way you intended.  Email is not a nuanced communication tool.  Email is the absolute worst medium to use when communicating a criticism or a complaint, because it can set the recipient off.  Unlike when speaking with someone, in an email you can't determine how your audience has interpreted or reacted to what you have written, until you hear back from them.  That is, assuming they ever email you back.

Boy has a very sound rule that he follows, both in his personal life and in his professional one: never use email to discuss non-routine business, or where the recipient could potentially misconstrue what is being written about.  Only use email for routine communication of information.  If you've got to work something out with another person, then get on the telephone and speak with them.

And he's right.

Another reason one should only use email for routine communication or business is that you can't control who your email will ultimately be forwarded to.  Once an email has been sent it is out there, in the public domain.  How many of us have been forwarded or seen emails (sometimes in the media) that someone else sent that contained embarrassing or less than flattering information about the sender?  I have, and so have you.

Dear Reader, I'm not suggesting that you shouldn't use email.  No, not at all.  What I am encouraging you to do is to use email only for what it is best suited: routine communication.  Do not rely on it as a substitute for picking up the telephone and actually speaking with someone, particularly in those situations I have outlined above.

When emailing your friends and loved ones, ask yourself whether email is the most appropriate, efficient, or politic means of communicating with your audience, or if what you have to say or communicate would be better done over the telephone.  An effective way of determining that is to ask yourself what you would prefer if you were the one being contacted.  Would you rather get a phone call or an email?  I think you will be surprised how many times you decide that speaking with someone on the telephone is preferable to email.

And what about my friend Jock's reason for using the telephone, to call up his friends simply to say "hello"?   I think it is the best reason of all.

And with that, Dear Reader, I rest my case.

Pick up the telephone!

All photographs courtesy of LIFE Images, Martha Holmes photographer

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spring Is in the Air

Here in the Hudson Valley, Lord Winter is finally releasing his mighty grasp.  While there is still snow on the ground in places, what remains is mostly the remnants of frozen piles left from shoveling or plowing, or lies in shadowy places on north-facing hillsides.  Although still chilly, the air is balmier and softer; buds are plumping; and the snow drops have begun pushing up out of the soil, their tiny white flowers soon to follow.

Our pretty little tête-à-têtes

The light is different, too.  It is softer and more golden.

Spring is in the air.

Several weeks ago, when the ground was still frozen and the light was cold and steely gray, we bought a pot of tête-à-têtes to enjoy at Darlington House, as a harbinger of spring.  This past weekend the diminutive flowers were at their loveliest, and their fragrance sweet and delicate.  We were so taken by them that we have ordered eleven more pots of them in different sizes to have massed on our dining table during a party we're throwing later this month.  It should be lovely.

Just as Reggie likes to (mostly) hibernate during the depths of winter, keeping close to hearth and home, so does he like to spread his wings when spring arrives, and begin to socialize again.  In fact, he's itching to get out there.

How about you?

Photograph by Boy Fenwick

Saturday, March 12, 2011

From Lenten Ashes So Does the Phoenix Rise

As readers of this blog may recall, or at least may have noticed when perusing his blogger profile, Reggie is a self-confessed, "somewhat observant" Episcopalian.  During his lifelong membership in that particular denomination he has noticed that there is is one character trait that virtually all Episcopalians share in common, aside from their religious affiliation.  And that is a pronounced fondness for drink.

A well-appointed drinks tray is one
of the great pleasures of being a grownup

Episcopalians' willingness to indulge in imbibulous activities is so well known that members of certain abstemious denominations derisively refer to Episcopalians as "Whisky-palians." I've even heard some sneer, "Oh, right, you're the guys where 'when two are gathered together' a fifth will soon appear!" and then burst into peals of self-satisfied laughter.

So what is wrong with a drink among friends, I ask?  Or alone at home, for that matter?  And who made up the rule that one should wait until five o'clock before starting to drink?  As MD used to say when reaching for the decanter when I was growing up, "It's five o'clock somewhere!"

Reggie's pre-dinner cocktail of choice is a very dry and very cold Beefeater gin martini, served up, with an olive or two.  He has written about his fondness for martinis often enough that a number of his readers, most notably the Ancient, have commented on it, and not always in an entirely complimentary manner, he might add.

A perfectly made martini is a
vision of loveliness, indeed!

When pondering what to give up for Lent this year, I recalled the admonishments of Rectors past that one should select something to give up that is truly a meaningful sacrifice.  It is easy to give up something that one engages in only rarely, if at all.  To that end it would hardly be a sacrifice for Reggie to give up playing football during Lent, a sport he hasn't played since he was a boy, and even then engaged in only with great reluctance, if not misery.

So this year, while sitting in a pew on Ash Wednesday at Saint Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue, I decided to make the supreme sacrifice and give up the one habit I truly adore and which the absence of in my daily life would leave me feeling deprived, if not in physical pain.

Yes, Dear Reader, Reggie has given up drinking martinis for Lent.

As with so many resolutions—such as when one goes on a diet or vows to increase the frequency of one's exercise regimen—Reggie's resolve to abstain from imbibing martinis was steadfast on the first day of his commitment, and nary a drop of gin passed his lips—nor did he long for it.  It helped that he dined at home that evening, where no gin bottle lurked to tempt him (we long ago decided to confine our martini drinking during the week to when dining in restaurants—which might explain why we eat out so often).  But the next night was not so easy.  For that evening we met our dear friend Jasper Lambert at a restaurant for dinner.  And it was there that Habit reared her seductive head and pleaded with Reggie to dispense with such foolishness and order the delicious, ice-cold martini he so craved.  "What harm could it do?" she soothingly whispered in my ear.  And as Christ was tempted, so was I.  But just when I was on the verge of giving into Habit's siren call, a brilliant solution presented itself to me.  It was a miracle.

"Eureka!" I cried, "I've got it!  I don't need to drink a martini, I can drink something else!"  And so I jubilantly ordered a rye Manhattan, another great favorite cocktail of mine and a most delicious and satisfying alternative to a gin martini.

Gentlemen may prefer blondes,
but they marry brunettes!

And so, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, I have renewed confidence that I shall indeed remain steadfast in my Lenten resolution to dispense with martinis.  And to assist me in my resolve I have stocked our cabinets with a sufficient quantity of rye, vermouth, bitters, and maraschino cherries to ensure that I shall be able to stand up on Easter morning and look myself in the eye in the mirror and proclaim with heartfelt, joyous honesty, "Yes, I did it!"

And for that Reggie is most grateful.

Tell me, what did you give up for Lent this year? 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Fine and Pleasing Silhouette

Over the years I have collected a fair number of silhouettes.  I like the way they look, they are readily available at antiques stores and fairs, and they are generally well priced.

For the possibly lone person reading this blog who is not familiar with the term, "silhouette" is the name for a type of highly graphic, representational image, most often (but not always) a portrait of a person in profile, where the subject is featureless and usually done in black (most often cut from paper or card) and mounted on a lighter background.  Silhouettes were a quick and inexpensive means of taking a sitter's likeness before the advent of photography, and were popular in America from the late-eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century.

I first started collecting silhouettes shortly after we acquired Darlington House, in the late 1990s.  Initially I was fairly indiscriminate in the silhouettes I bought, driven more by impulse than connoisseurship.  Over time, though, as I became more knowledgeable I also became more selective, focusing my buying on unusual and skillfully executed ones, in interesting period frames.

Although I still stop and admire silhouettes when I am out and about visiting dealers and shows, I only rarely buy them anymore.  I realized a number of years ago that I was on the verge of having more silhouettes than I knew what to do with.  As in all collecting, it is possible to find oneself with too much of a good thing if one isn't disciplined in one's buying.  So I put on the brakes and diverted my collecting attentions elsewhere.

One of the last silhouettes I bought is, I believe, the best in my collection.  If I had to choose only one of the silhouettes I own, this is the one I would reach for.  It is a beautifully and artistically done likeness of a young man that sits in an unusual and rare Federal-era frame.

I don't know who the artist was who cut the likeness (it is unsigned), but they were exceedingly skillfull at their craft, and the quality of their scissor-work is far superior to any other in my collection.  Whoever did it was a master (or mistress) at their art.  I bought the silhouette from an antiques dealer in western Massachusetts who said that he had bought it at a local auction.  That's all I know about its history or provenance.

Judging from the sitter's clothes and the style of the frame, I suspect that the silhouette was done in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the heyday of silhouettes' popularity.

A detail of the frame

The frame is an unusual one.  Most silhouettes that I see are framed in lacquered papier-mâché frames, similar to the frame of the miniature painting of what I suspect is a China Trade merchant that I posted about recently.  I've also seen silhouettes that are framed more conventionally, in square or rectangular wood or metal gilt frames.  I'm not aware of seeing one framed as this young man is, though, in an entirely wood, flat frame made of mahogany and decorated with an inlay border around the perimeter.  Given its quality I suspect the frame was made by a cabinetmaker, which would explain why it has a particularly fine hanging hook on it as opposed to a more conventional and plainer hanging ring seen on picture frames of this period.  The frame appears to be in its original, untouched finish.  Although I think it would look better if I had it refinished—the surface has darkened and dulled considerably over time—I am going to leave it just the way it is, for reasons that are well known to those of us who watch Antiques Road Show with any regularity.

All in all I am quite pleased to have this little silhouette, and I feel most fortunate to own it.

Tell me, do you own any silhouettes?

Photographs by Boy Fenwick

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Pompey Post

All right, enough already with all the family melancholia!

A number of my readers have been asking me to please post about dear Pompey, and herewith I most happily comply.

This photo was taken a number of weeks ago, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the dining room at Darlington House.  Pompey, like many dogs, enjoys a good sun bath, and here he is sitting in one of my very favorite positions of his, with his legs straight out, basking in the winter sunlight streaming in the room's windows.

Ah, me, I do so adore my beloved Pompey!

Photo by Boy Fenwick

Saturday, March 5, 2011

My Mama Was a Coal Miner's Daughter

My mother, known as MD, was a rather complicated person, given to conflicting emotions and a self-disparaging, wry sense of humor that bordered on black.  Nowhere was this more evident than when she spoke of her upbringing, a subject that she had decidedly mixed feelings about, both of pride and regret.

Downtown Bramwell, West Virginia, ca. 1914

MD was born in Bluefield, West Virginia, in 1921, and spent the first part of her life in the little town of Bramwell, only eight miles outside of Bluefield, where she lived in great comfort as the only child of the second son of a wealthy coal-mine-owning family.  Although many people think of West Virginia as a rather hardscrabble place to live—and for many of its inhabitants it is—those who owned the mines lived a storied existence far removed from the misery of those who worked in the mines or who lived in the hollers that surrounded them.  Many of the area's Coal Barons, as they were known, lived in Bramwell, where they built large and comfortable houses.  Little Bramwell was reputed to have the highest concentration of millionaires per capita of any town in America at the turn of the last century.

Many of the houses that the Coal Barons built in the
hills surrounding Bramwell are still standing

Although not ruined by the Great Depression, MD's family's circumstances were much reduced, and her father decamped, along with his wife and daughter, to Detroit, where he spent the remainder of his days representing the interests of the family business selling coal to the automobile manufacturers based there.

The family's main offices were located in downtown Bluefield,
where my grandfather kept an apartment

Initially the business in Detroit was good, but over time demand there for the family's coal diminished and then subsided altogether.  By the end of my grandfather's days, the mid-1950s, the auto companies were no longer using coal to fire their plants, and the family's mines had pretty much petered out.  My grandfather—by this time a widower—was reduced to living on the income of a trust set up for him by his dead wife's parents.  A sad comedown, indeed, from his salad days as a young man, when the prospect of no longer being rich would have been shocking to him, if not unfathomable.

Much of my grandparents' set's social life revolved
around the Bluefield Country Club

MD's parents met as college undergraduates, when my grandfather played football at the University of Virginia and my grandmother was a Sweetbriar College sweetheart.  They married shortly afterwards, before my grandfather left for France to fight in the Great War, outfitted with custom-made uniforms from Brooks Brothers.  No army-issued kit for him.  My grandmother, who was bewitchingly pretty and adored expensive clothes, came down with influenza during the Great Pandemic of 1918-1919 and recovered from it only to learn years later that what she really had contracted was—instead—multiple sclerosis.  The disease eventually invalided her and then ultimately killed her just shy of her fiftieth birthday, only a few short weeks after my parents were married.

My great-grandmother built this house in 1914 to live in
after her husband died and her children were grown.
MD would stay here when visiting as a girl

My mother described her childhood as a largely solitary and lonely one.  Like her parents before her and her own children after her, she was largely cared for by domestics when she was young and spent much of her adolescence away from home at boarding school.  Her parents were preoccupied with the challenges of her mother's illness, among other concerns.  During most of her school vacations she stayed with her grandparents, dividing her time between the house, shown above, in Bramwell, where she stayed with her father's mother, and Indiana, where she stayed with her mother's parents.  I have a print of that house, too, a large brick Italianate, but I can't seem to find it no matter where I look for it.  Perhaps that's a post for another day.

The Watsons were close friends of my grandfather's family,
and Mr. Watson was one of MD's godfathers

When I was growing up MD didn't talk much about her childhood or her parents, except to say that she felt she was a disappointment to her mother, who wished her prettier and more social than she was, and a burden to her father, who was mostly focused on tending to his weakening wife when he wasn't away at his hunting camp in Canada, where he escaped to whenever he could.  He didn't care for working all that much.

I don't recall our connection to Mrs. Elkins, if there was any.
Another example, though, of how the Coal Barons lived

MD's mother's parents died when MD was in her early thirties, and she found herself, much to her professed surprise, sufficiently well set up by them that my father—by then her husband—was able to leave a career in corporate law and instead pursue one largely focused on service to his country, confident that my mother's income would be enough to pay for the private-school educations of each of their four children, along with buying and maintaining the houses among which we divided our time.  It was also what allowed my parents to ultimately walk away from each other with no strings attached after their marriage disintegrated.

One of the family mines in the Pocahontas Coal Field
This is what made it all possible . . . until it didn't anymore

MD was always rather cagey about her upbringing and her financial situation, and she felt guilty that her family had owned and profited from coal mines where the conditions for the miners were dangerous, the pay low, and the life hard.  She didn't like to discuss it much.  She also steadfastly refused to answer any questions about her financial circumstances when people got too nosy, seeking to figure out how it was she was able to live with no visible means of support.  MD was of a generation and a class that still believed that speaking about such matters was not done outside of the confines of one's trust and estates advisers' offices.

The unbelievably tidy interior of the exhibition mine
at the Pocahontas Coal Field in West Virginia

MD's reluctance to speak of such matters, even with her own children, became something of a joke—at times a rather trying one, I admit—among me and my siblings, as she refused to speak about finances virtually to her dying day.  Within the family she would only discuss her finances with my older brother, Frecky, and only near the end of her life, when he began helping her manage her affairs.  If anyone outside the family had the temerity to fish about, she would freeze them out by saying, "Why, whatever do you mean?  I'm just a coal miner's daughter!" and then laugh enigmatically, even bitterly, knowing full well that she had done more to confuse her questioner than enlighten them.

And that's just how she liked it.

I found the vintage postcards used to illustrate this story among MD's effects when my siblings and I emptied her apartment after she died, more than a decade ago.  I rediscovered them recently while rooting through a box at Darlington House, and I was transfixed.  They are a vivid record for me of a world once inhabited by my mother and her family, long ago and far away—a world that is as remote to me as the moon.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Peter Pennoyer Postscript

One of the pleasures of writing this blog is that it has led to the felicitous correspondence with and meeting of a number of interesting people with shared interests that I likely never would have come into contact with otherwise.  The following story is an example of one such meeting.

As regular readers of this blog may well remember, I recently wrote a post about an embarrassment of book signing parties that we attended here in New York this past autumn and winter.  Six of them, actually.

I concluded that post by writing that there was one book signing party that I wasn't able to attend, due to a rather tiresome conflict.  It was for the esteemed architect Peter Pennoyer's monograph, titled—not surprisingly—Peter Pennoyer Architects, written by Anne Walker and published by Vendome Press.  I wrote that while I owned a copy of Mr. Pennoyer's absorbing and gorgeously illustrated book, it remained unsigned, and that I aspired to remedy that unfortunate situation one day should I be so fortunate as to have the opportunity to do so.

Peter Pennoyer, AIA
Photograph courtesy of 

the New York Winter Antiques Show

Well, Lady Fortune has indeed smiled upon Reggie, for he has since met Mr. Pennoyer—this generation's Stanford White—and had his book signed by him!  Here's how it happened: Mr. Pennoyer read my post and was gracious enough to leave a comment on it volunteering to sign my copy of his book, and he invited me to contact him to arrange a meeting for that purpose at his firm's offices in Midtown.  So I called and arranged to visit.

Peter Pennoyer Architects' offices are on a high floor in a limestone office building on lower Park Avenue and were a beehive of creative activity the day I stopped by.  Mr. Pennoyer graciously took time from his schedule, gave me a tour of the firm's spacious and handsomely appointed offices, and showed me working drawings and models of a number of the firm's current projects.  He also introduced me to several of his colleagues, including Gregory Gilmartin, the firm's Director of Design, who was—I was gratified to learn—familiar with this blog!  At the tour's conclusion Mr. Pennoyer made an unexpected gift to me of a recent issue of The Classicist, a journal published by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, a most worthy organization where he is chairman of the board of directors, and he inscribed my copy of his book, as you can see in the following photograph.

I am very pleased to have met Mr. Pennoyer, who I found to be pleasant, erudite, and thoughtful (in other words, a gentleman), and to have had the opportunity to visit his offices.  It was most gracious of him to invite me to stop by and to sign my copy of his book, for which Reggie is most grateful and pleased.

Thank you, Mr. Pennoyer.

Now, if I can just get Anne Walker to sign the book, too . . .

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reggie Out & About: The Charles Plante Exhibit and Sale at Mallett New York

Last evening Boy and I attended an opening reception at Mallett, Inc., in New York for an exhibition and sale of neoclassical period drawings and watercolors assembled by Charles Plante Fine Arts of London.  For those of my readers who may not be familiar with Mallett, it is a London-based dealer of very fine English antiques and decorative arts of the 18th century and Regency periods.  Founded in 1865 and with showrooms in London and NewYork, Mallett is one of the oldest and most illustrious of such dealers and is patronized by wealthy collectors, royals, and museums.  It doesn't get any richer, exquisite, or more fabulous than Mallett.

The front of the invitation to the Charles Plante Fine Arts
exhibit at Mallett New York

Charles Plante is a London-based specialist dealer in European and American watercolors and drawings of architecture, gardens, interiors, and design of the neoclassical period, circa 1760-1840.  He has brought several hundred of his works to Mallett's gallery in New York, where they are displayed beautifully throughout the gallery's first-floor rooms, hung salon style.

Mr. Plante standing amongst his delightful
framed pictures on exhibit at Mallett New York

Photograph by Boy Fenwick

Mr. Plante specializes in dealing in diminutively scaled works featuring a wide variety of subjects, and his pictures are beautifully framed using period or period-reproduction frames as well as period-appropriate, beautifully done French and eglomise matting.

As readers of this blog well know, Reggie has a weakness for little things, and so he was delighted to find himself at Mr. Plante's opening reception at Mallett.  While there I had the chance to meet and speak with Mr. Plante and learned that he is an American by birth, educated both here and in England, and has made his home and career in England since 1988.  He is passionate about his profession and the works he deals in and was quite jolly and pleasant when we spoke with him.

The interior of the Charles Plante Fine Arts gallery in London
Image courtesy of same

Works on display at the Plante exhibit at Mallett are priced very attractively, starting as low as $875 for a tiny picture and ranging up to $32,000 for the generously scaled watercolor featured on the exhibit's invitation, shown at the top of this post.  Most of what is on display at the show is very reasonably priced (as these things go) in the $1,000-$3,000 range.  Tempting, indeed!

The invitation resting on the base of a
marble and gilt bronze candlestick
at Mallett New York

Photograph by Boy Fenwick

Reggie recommends that you, Dear Reader, consider visiting Mallett during the show of Charles Plante's pictures, which runs through March 31st.  He is confident that you will be enchanted by it, as he was.  Be forewarned, however: given how charming and attractively priced Mr. Plante's pictures are, you may well feel compelled to buy something if you go, as Reggie was sorely tempted to last evening.

But you'd better get there soon, as the exhibit will likely sell out quickly.

Charles Plante Fine Arts at
Mallett, Inc.
929 Madison Avenue
New York, New York 10021
(212) 249-8783

Please note: Reggie has received nothing in return for writing this review (except several glasses of champagne and a nibble or two at the reception), nor does he expect to.  He is writing it solely for the edification and pleasure of his readers.
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