Saturday, March 6, 2010

Reggie's Rooms II: The Saloon at Avenue House

I first came across images of Sir Albert Richardson's enchanting drawing room at Avenue House in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, in John Cornforth's absorbing book The Inspiration of the Past: Country House Taste in the Twentieth Century published in 1985 by Viking Penguin in association with Country Life magazine.  According to Mr. Cornforth's deliciously informative and lavishly illustrated book, Professor Richardson (as he was also known) was considered to be "one of the first admirers" in England in the early part of the twentieth century "...of the style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as one of the principal promoters of the continuity of the classical tradition."  This view is amply borne out by the beauty of his decoration of the Saloon (as it was called) at Avenue House.

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.


  1. Oh yes. I love the before and after.

  2. Nice to have you back, and I do agree with LPC and your comments about the care and study are right on

    Thank you Reggie

  3. That was a fascinating character if ever there was one. He was a survivor from the Edwardian period, "a larger than life eccentric with a passionate love for everything Georgian, often wearing a wig,being carried around in a sedan chair and reading 1790s copies of the Times in his club. His 18th century house was a kind of latter day Soane Museum, lit by candles and oil lamps, the gas having been taken out as too modern and electricity never having been installed. One ungrateful guest advised a friend not to stay there because "all the mattresses are stuffed with Georgian wigs."
    John Martin Robinison, The Latest Country Houses (1987)

  4. As you say, it would make more sense in color. (The gilt against the grey; the small, patterned rug in front of the fireplace; splashes of color from the the portraits flanking the fireplace.)

    It's one of those rooms where the little details really matter. (It would be fun to see the painted backs of those armchairs, for instance, or to know what the lady on the right is reading.)

    HOWEVER. I am unpersuaded by your spirited defense of legginess. It's a very cold, formal room. You would certainly feel out of place without a jacket and a tie. (And you would probably fit in better wearing a truss.) Do you put your drink on one of those (possibly French) side tables? Where are the ashtrays? (Now you may object that he has decorated the room for himself, not his guests, so these considerations do not apply. But when we start decorating for ourselves alone we run the risk of winding up like Des Esseintes in the woods.)

    Cornforth notes a few pages earlier:

    "The Slump left few people in England with the confidence to build, but rather more people were willing to decorate. Edwardian philistinism left a sense of visual nervousness hanging over the period."

    I think this room has the jitters.

  5. Hello Toby:
    Thanks for this information, quite marvelous. I read in another place he annually gave a dinner to his friends based on an 1805 menu.

    Dearest Ancient:
    Thank you for your comment, which I certainly appreciate, but I must beg to differ. Sir Albert's Saloon is a drawing room designed for entertaining and various social activities. It is not a cozy snuggery or smoking room. Regardless, I should feel quite comfortable in this room, as it is not dissimilar to our own drawing room at Darlington, in which I am comfortably sitting (in my dressing gown no less) as I write this.

  6. Some of us are just more formal people than others,and will prefer a more formal aesthetic. My much smaller living/dining area is all "leggy" high Victorian. My guests regularly comment on its coziness. There is a more informal leather grouping in the basement around the TV/electronic entertainment devices and "softer" upholstered pieces in my home office.

  7. I wholeheartedly agree with The Ancient...this room leaves me cold. Much prefer your posting of Canon Volpi's drawing room. Too many legs for my liking in this one although the architectural details of the room are beautiful. For my taste, rooms have to be inviting even if they are "leggy". Perhaps it's the fact that there is so much "airspace and breathing room" that bothers me. Hate to agree with a liberal, but this time, I'm on the Ancient's side!

  8. P.S. Surely thou cannot honestly tell me you would sit in this room in your dressing gown!!

  9. Dear Lindaraxa:
    Thank you for your comments. I would most definitely feel comfortable sitting in the Saloon in my dressing gown, as I do in the drawing room at Darlington. After all, if one cannot feel comfortable in one's own house, where can one? There are those who, upon seeing our drawing room for the first time ask us if we ever use it, to which I respond "all the time! much to their astonishment. I am more comfortable sitting in an 18th century bergere than lounging on a La-Z-Boy.

    Please understand that this is a photograph of an empty room, devoid of occupants. Drawing rooms are designed to accommodate many people, so require space and movable seating. Cozy rooms do not accommodate a crowd, nor are they meant to. Whereas an empty dance floor appears univiting, so does an empty room. Fill them with people, on the other hand, and they beckon us. Imagine the Saloon with a dozen or more happy guests in it and I would hazard your opinion may change...

  10. Reggie --

    If you tell me you were also wearing a silk turban and Turkish slippers, and were borne there on a litter by four properly-attired house servants, I might begin to weaken in my reservations.

    (What I really wanted to say is that I've been thrown out of better Saloons than that one, but I can't seem to recall a specific instance...)

  11. The Saloon is certainly one of the most elegant "less is more" rooms I've seen. Comparing the before and after makes a difference. Welcome back online.

  12. Canon Valpy's friendly & cozy drawing room has always been one of my favorite late-19th Century interiors, but even though it may be almost as leggy as the early version of Professor Richardson's saloon, it's a much friendlier room. Then again, that was the idea. Both rooms are 'simple' in their own ways, but the ends for which the two rooms' simplicity is used are different, so the results are naturally different, too. Form follows function.

    The relaxed, welcoming simplicity of Canon Valpy's friendly room reflects his calling. A shepherd of the flock--however elevated his individual title within the eccelesiastical heirarchy--must be, above all, approachable, one who provides 'shelter from the storm', as the Prophet Isaiah puts it, and in this case, the atmosphere of warmth, safety & security is enhanced with fresh colors, pretty chintzes, plump cushions, simple curtains blowing in the breeze & books piled all over the place. In a soothing room like Canon Valpy's, you could let your hair down & be yourself, knowing that, whatever you had on your mind, you'd be accepted and treated kindly.

    In an impossibly elegant room like Professor Richardon's, you could never let your guard down for an instant, or it would all be over. It's a beautiful room all right, all right, but it reminds me of the Reception Room in Heaven. Someone will be with you shortly. Please make yourself at home. Like anybody could relax here. The canon's room makes me want to kick back & put my feet up, but this room would make me worry, the way one worries in dreams: Is there a spot on my tie? Did I forget the combination to my locker? Am I wearing pants? Then, the door would open, and someone would deliver the bad news. I'm so sorry, Mr. Magnaverde, there seems to have been a terrible mistake. You're supposed to be in the Other Place. They're waiting for you. You may take the elevator...down. Yikes!

    But see, there's a reason for all that. Canon Valpy's room is designed for a few people, for intimate chit-chat, so as soon as you open the door, you feel at home, and at ease. This room isn't like that, but, then, wasn't meant to be. This is a room for a crowd--a noisy crowd, at that--and it's no wonder that seeing it empty, like this, devoid of the beautiful people it was designed for, gives us pause & makes us feel that we don't probably don't belong there in the first place. No wonder it feels cold.


  13. ...continued

    Here's the main reason why the two rooms feel so different: the 'simple' furnishings in the Professor's room exhibit a completly different type of 'simplicity' than does the laid-back vibe of the Canon's room, one with their own--and much more worldly--agenda. Here, the unpatterned rug, plain walls & solid fabrics (and here, Coco Chanel's hard-as-nails "Elegance is refusal' comes to mind)--are meant to emphasize the elegant outlines & handsome finishes of the relatively sparse furnishings. More importantly, that plainness would have provided an important calm background for the rich fabrics, flashing jewels & constant movement of the assembled guests for whom the room was clearly decorated. In their aesthetic restraint & their stiff placement, the minimal furnishings show this was never intended to be a room in which a small group friends would lounge after dinner, but one where large groups of people could mingle & move about with ease.

    Of course, the Professor made that intent explicit with his use of the word 'saloon'--a room of public entertainment--rather than the more intimate 'drawing room', but, unfortunately, these days, the only time we're used to hearing such terms is in the overweening ads from uppity real-estate marketeers, so we tend to lump them together, when, actually, they're not at all the same thing. But that's hardly a new development. The tendency to confuse--and worse, try to combine--the functions of two such disparate rooms was something that Edith Wharton addressed in The Decoration of Houses--and that was more than a century ago:

    "In many large houses lately built in America...this distiction has been disregarded and living and gala rooms have been confounded in an agglomeration of apartments where the family, for lack of a smaller suite, sit under gilded ceilings and cut-glass chandeleiers , in about as much comfort & privacy are afforded by the public 'parlors' of of one of our new twenty-story hotels...Gala rooms are menat for general entertainement, never for any assemblage small or informal enough to be conveniently accomodated in the ordinary living rooms of the house. Occupied by a small number of people, such a room looks out of proportion, stiff and empty"--which were the very criticisms that a few people have remarked about above. Anyway, once we realize that these were rooms designed for totally separate purposes, their specific characteristics begin to make nore sense. Form follows function. Apples & oranges.


  14. Dearest Magnaverde,
    Huzzah, and well said! You divined my message explicitly. Thank you!

  15. Dear Reggie & Magnaverde,
    Phew! you saved me another sleepless night... that's exactly what I was going to say, although not as eloquently. The drawing rooms I'm familiar with are of the more intimate kind, that is why I did not warm up to this one. You can see a clear example of both types in stately homes such as Chatsworth where you have a State Drawing Room and a Family Drawing Room.

    Seeing that this was not a stately house or an embassy residence and that the room was redone in 1934, I did not interpret this drawing room as the "reception" kind, thus my comments vis a vis the canon's room. I also thought drawing room and saloon were one and the same. I learned something new today.

    Thank you Magnaverde, now I can rest..

  16. Hello! I found your wonderful blog via Privilege and am so glad I did.

    Can I ask - is it pronounced saloon, like "Sheriff, them boys are fighting in the saloon agin" or salon, like "When you come aboard my yacht, please join me in the main saloon for cocktails"?

  17. Lindaraxa, you are most welcome. My pals have always said that listening to me drone on & on can lull anyone to sleep...

  18. I think it's important to remember that despite Professor Richardson's recherché approach to his own house he had a thriving architectural practice. Around a decade ago there was a marvelous, intimately staged exhibit at RIBA's London headquarters when they were still in Portman Square, all of it devoted to The Professor and his Taste. It was a surprise to see that he worked in a wide range of styles, not only purest Regency (if indeed there can be such a thing). There were no wigs on display, but articles of furniture and objects that conveyed his personal aesthetic in a manner that was quite emphatic. Now, as to whether his room is inviting, this has been a highly entertaining discussion. I think it can be safely said in this year of grace 2010, that a drawing room without some fully upholstered furniture will always have the taint of Museum Taste .
    The best rooms, the finest rooms are nearly all of them a synthesis
    of comfort and formality. Don't take my word for it, just have a cursory glance at rooms by Mark Hampton, Mr Fowler, Bunny Williams, David Easton, all of them classicists who would not dream
    of assembling a drawing room without those down filled beautifully
    shaped sofas and club chairs, the ideal visual counterpoint to all that legginess.

  19. Patsy: Welcome and thank you for your amusing comment. I am not absolutely sure, but I believe it is pronounced identically for both meanings, but I am sure Magnaverde and Toby Worthington know better than I.

    TW: I would have loved to have seen the exhibit you refer to. Perhaps I shall try and hunt down a catalogue. You do turn a phrase: "the taint of Museum Taste" is quite delicious, indeed...

  20. I'm late to this particular party, but I have the benefit of the conversation that has gone on before me in my judgment. One of the things that I like about black & white is that by stripping away the distraction of color, one can see clearly the form, and to me, this room is stiff (and yes, I well know the distinction between a formal room for receiving and display and one's comfy private sitting room). I'm as fond as any 'lifelong bachelor' of a room that is more pretty than comfortable, but for me, the curtains here just don't make it--they flatten the windows and lack dimension... and the furniture is sometimes a little off in scale, and most definitely doesn't always relate well to each other (not that I could do any better arranging a room, understand. But yes, tall mirrows give sparkle, and gilt against good a combination as it gets. I give it a six.

  21. DED: I was hoping that you would weigh in here, thank you...I, too, agree the curtains could be better, as I wrote in my posting, but I consider that a minor quibble indeed for a room that I otherwise feel it would be difficult to "improve" without losing what makes it enchanting (at least) to me. I have enjoyed the debate immensely!

  22. The room is beautiful and would still be so without the furnishings. The 1934 photo is wonderful.


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