Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mr. Vanderbilt's HOUSE and COLLECTION - Antechamber and Library

***Click HERE to view the introduction to this book.*** 
***Photos and text from Mr. Vanderbilt's House and Collection, described by Edward Strahan pseudo Earl Shinn - the Holland Edition published in 1883.*** 





Illustrated at the top of this page is one of the ordinary decorations of the Library, which opens out of the central hall, on the ground-floor. The relic in question is an antique fan, in excellent preservation, of the generation when paintings by Lancret, Fragonard and Lavreince were freely used to blow the wind into sweet faces that were soon to lie low under the guillotine.    This fan is superbly royalist in sentiment, - for that fans may have a sentiment, it proves in its own person. On the sticks - pearl with gilded relief-work - are seen the symbolic dauphins, curling their tails with the greatest haughtiness, and surmounted by a rising sun with disc and rays of gold.    The fan was intended as a badge of loyalty, and a symbol of congratulation to the royal mother on the birth of the prince.    The infant, after perishing in the Temple, has risen repeatedly, as is well known, in Canada, in Austria and Germany; the families that are willing to draw pensions from the houses of Chambord and Orleans on the strength of authentic proofs of the survival of Louis XVII, are numerous and persistent. This silken toy, which fluttered gayly in honor of his birth, survives in more credible form, and inhabits America as a prosperous emigre, telling tales of the brilliant times before the Revolution. The purest type of the Marie Antoinette period of decoration is seen on the two external sticks, while the middle ones are sculptured with equally elegant subjects, comprising human figures in all the finish of the gem-carver. The screen part of the fan is also artistic, - a sector of rich silk, on which are painted in gouache three principal subjects; in the middle there is a love scene of quaintest artificiality, with a gallant making his declaration to a powdered beauty at her toilet. A Cupid in the air, not satisfied with the towering head-dress and crest of feathers of the court beauty, is about to add a wreath of roses to the edifice; dressing-maids attend, on either side, to the love-lock or to the toilet-table, and the inevitable abbe plays the guitar to a lovely visitor in a hat. This scene of Beaumarchais-like comedy is conceived with the proper extravagance and painted with the proper nicety. Festoons and frames of spangles surround this group as well as the others, where we see Cupids crowning their Psyches, or turtle-doves pairing. The division of the breadth of taffetas into panels, connected by medallions  and festoons, is altogether characteristic of the period; and the frail treasure is all the more precious for having outlived the Bastile and the other ponderous vanities that crumbled in the Revolution because, - unlike this gauzy survivor - their time was come.

At the beginning of the above paragraph we have unlocked a desk of which only one person living has a right to the key, and exhibited a favorite chair which is equally individual in its employment. The Library is remarkable for the panels of rosewood, inlaid with pearl and brass in lines which design various Greek subjects. These panels are found framing the doors, forming the front of the mantel-shelf and the pediment above it, and constituting the cornices of the low book-cases which are set against the walls. One of our illustrations shows, for instance, a jamb of the door leading into the drawing-room, in this sort of work, with tragic masks and trophies: the corresponding panel has emblems of music and war; a rich curtain, half covered with lines of deep fringes, is drawn across this door.


The fretted ceiling of the Library is of rich workmanship, set with small square mirrors which incrust the spaces of the design. The walls, where they can be seen between the pictures, display a heavy brocade with Oriental peonies as a figure; the same stuff completely covers the large arm-chairs, which are upholstered so as to conceal the frames; the writing-chair, however, is of leather. 

The chimney is masked from floor to ceiling with an     elaborate structure which can be best understood from the plate in photogravure; the fireplace is framed in three broad slabs of African onyx, a stone much more beautifully colored and veined than the better-known Mexican onyx. This fine spar we shall find profusely employed in the drawing-room. Here, in the Library, the choice pieces enclosing the fireplace are very successfully represented by the plate, with their veins like webs of the geometric spider, a design which seems to be repeated in the carpet. On and near the hearth are found the fire-basket, - the fender of architectural design, - the utensils for the fire, which hang from a sort of panoply, and have been found original enough to form the subject of one of our smaller sketches. Greek acanthus-capped pillars stand in couples beside the hearth, or rise at either side almost to the ceiling for the support of the entablature. In front of these are gilded sphinxes, sitting, to support the shelf of a statuette or a vase. The mantel garniture, clock and lustres, is of that phase of Marie Antoinette decoration which is sufficiently classical to go with a Greek environment. The mirror is found repeating these objects, as well as the pictures on the opposite wall. In designing this elaborate chimney-piece, the architect has been successful in combining the Greek orders, which are apt to look rather too bare in an interior, with whatever of Pompeian frieze decoration and Roman sumptuousness would harmonize with them most properly, and carry out the impression of richness proper to a fully upholstered modern room. Here is a Greek fireplace which does not seem to deaden the fire by its chilliness. The one thing to avoid, in adapting classical motives to domestic architecture, is a museum look; and this is certainly a Greek structure which
continues to be Greek without the homeless air of the admirable ruins which travellers admire.


The ante-room, or private reception-room, communicates with the Library, and is found immediately at the left on entering by the vestibule. The wood employed in fitting it up is mahogany. Mahogany panelwork covers the lofty ceiling, with stamped leather introduced as decoration. A high mahogany wainscoting covers a large part of the walls, and the bookcases and seats are of the same tropical wood, too much neglected by the modern architect.


One of our colored views gives a glimpse into this ante-room. Its ample window is framed in an arched screen of carved mahogany, in whose edges are set large rectangular panels of stained glass in scrolled renaissance designs, - the plate-glass window being thus surrounded with a system of painted windows. The screen in question gives an arch-shaped opening for the casement proper, and the arcade is continued by lateral round-arched openings at the sides, in which are placed a pair of broad low vases, like the urns in niches of a classical columbarium. The curtain-rod stretches at the spring of this arch, so that the heavy draperies may be drawn completely across at night, when a couple of crystal lanterns attached to the window-frame supply the place of the sunshine, and light up the objects in the apartment still from the direction of the casement. The ponderous carved table supports books, writing-materials and a globe. The low three-cornered chair beside it is cushioned with leather. This is the most serious-looking room in the house, and can be so curtained and enclosed, at a touch, as to inspire the gravest meditations in an applicant doing ante-room duty while expecting a reception.

 The rarities of which illustrations are introduced in this chapter have been selected from the library.

Solon Vase: "Night" - A number of the vases and other pieces decorated with so much plastic originality by Solon-Miles in pate-sur-pate are accumulated in the library, and are introduced freely among our plates, as objects of art and not as products of a commercial character. Solon-Miles was long engaged in the porcelain-works at Sevres, but before the close of the Empire was tempted to carry his talent to England, where he now resides. His method of employing barbotine or slip as the material for a bas-relief is a novelty, and has caused his exquisite designs in this material to be sought after by collectors as eagerly as the choicest works of the carver in ivory or marble. He usually employs white, on a ground of blue, red, brown or black. His remarkable, original and classical talent as a designer gives an authentic value to his slightest composition; his English hosts now recognize in him a modeller worthy to succeed Flaxman, and his material is more attractive; however exquisite are the "cameos" which Flaxman modelled for Wedgwood, in white on a turquoise or lavender ground, they must yield in distinction to these enchanting sculptures, like them Greek in spirit, but unlike them translucent and gem-like. It is strange that Solon has never applied himself to making a fac-simile of the Portland Vase. He is the only artist fit to try it who has arisen since England has been the custodian of that unique curiosity, and his material is more suggestive of the original than Wedgwood's, which was mechanically faithful but gritty and dry. Wedgwood's cameo-work, however, was cast in a mould and susceptible of repetition, while Solon's designs are hand-wrought and individual. The material is applied in semi-liquid state to the pottery to be decorated, partly painted on, and partly modelled in the higher reliefs with touches of the brush or the graver. Where thinnest, it becomes transparent in the firing, still covering itself with the glaze that involves the object all over; in the portions lifted higher than the field, it gets more and more opaque, thus yielding all the delicate effects to which the cameo-cutter has recourse when working in stratified gems. Thus the veil or scarf looks transparent when it flies off from the figure and floats in vacancy, and the skirt looks white where it clothes the limbs and gauzy when it falls from them.  Our ceramist's material of burnt translucent paste would bestead him but little if he had not the artistic ability to give it effect; but his compositions are so many poems, chiselled and embroidered in their tiny perfection like separate epigrams of the Greek Anthology. 

The vase representing "Night" is blue, like the sky around the moon. Gold stars are sprinkled over it for a background to the figure, who floats with head bent back and drapery falling in long festoons from neck to foot, as if Sleep was the cause of Night rather than the attribute. On other parts of the vase, little genii accompany the shooting stars, whose fall, says the legend, accompanies the death of a mortal. This vase is simple and almost funereal in shape, with little other decoration than the Night-goddess who rises like a statue on the vaulted and star-studded blue. The flat handles, zigzag base-ornament, and heavy lotus-flower terminal standards, give it a primitive character, as if meant for libations in a death-rite under some defunct religion.

Solon Plaque: "The Toilet - Greek lady at her toilet attended by her maids, a group in the panel of a large, square-shaped tray.    The mistress sits on a high seat supported by four slender legs, stretching out her lower limbs before her with a natural grace that uniortunately has gone out of the ways of modern ladies.   With her right hand she holds the polished metal mirror in front of her, and with the left fastens her double chiton at the shoulder.    Her beautiful, supple feet are still naked, but her hair is carefully braided and dressed, probably also daintily anointed, heavy ear-rings are in her ears and at her feet an attendant selects from the jewel-box a necklace for her mistress's further adorning. Opposite these, two other slaves prepare the bath, one of them, nude to the waist, stooping over it, and the second kneeling beside it in order better to test the temperature of the tepid water. Both of them arrest their occupation in order to glance at their mistress, as though their attention had been attracted by some exclamation evoked from her by the contemplation of her own gracious beauty, or, perhaps, by the sudden sound of the bell tinkling over her fair head. Between these two groups we see the embroidered tissue that serves as a portiere, hanging in the open doorway. All these figures, being by Solon, are elegantly drawn and modelled, and the old, old, ever new, subject - Fair Woman and her Adorning - is as charming as ever.
SCIENCE.      VASE IN pate-sur-pate, BY SOLON.      DESIGN BY R. M. LANCELOT.

Solon Vase: "Science" - Design inserted in the text. In the pair of which this is one, there are griffins on the neck of the vessel, smooth serpent handles, and a frieze of beautiful Cupids on the ovoid body. The pretty urchins are exercising their minds over scientific instruments, in a charming baby-class. It is not in every class that so much Love is applied to Science.
Winter. Porcelain Vase, Decorated by M. Solon. 

Solon Vase: "Winter" Photogravure - This pair is of highly decorative shape, with twisted handles, narrow neck and foot, and a square base. In the groups in front, eight Greek boys are collected round a grate from which flames up a joyous fire; one laughingly stirs the coals with his rod, and others warm their chubby backs at the heat with ineffable comfort, amid a suggestive tracery of leafless branches. The plate is so successful that the very quality of the pottery is accurately represented by it.

The artist who has dignified the clay with these enchanting cameos is worthy to sign his works, with a name that should be held in as grateful remembrance as the names of the Greek potters whose signatures the student spells out on  the cups and pitchers of the museums.    It is noticeable that the antique potters, like the medallists, often signed their masterpieces, a thing not always done by even the proudest statuary.    Phidias dared not do so, by-the-by, and was punished for even designating himself on his work by a symbol. Solon-Miles has enlarged the horizon of the ceramist's material; he has made it one of the most  flexible,  yielding,  transparent   mediums  to  express   fancies  evanescent and   faint as morning dreams.    His productions, when they are classed with the general achievements of
the century in sculpture, painting, and the like, hold a high place among the highest, and represent what is best in modern design; when they are classed with the specialty of their material, they easily surpass all that has been done since the Greeks, with the single exception perhaps of Flaxman's designs - connect themselves in rank with  the products of the admired potters of antiquity, and should perhaps be placed above those of the men who only invented a process or a material, like Della Robbia and Palissy.  It is fit that they should bear a price like original and autographic pictures or carvings by the most highly-rated modern artists; fit that they should be cataloged, signed and dated, and be made the items in the yet to be written biography of one who expresses the best modern art in a quaintly-chosen medium, and who may be said to-daily turn the clay beneath his feet into immortal jewels. Nor should the artist be thought a trifler who has had the wit to direct his faculties to pottery. It is the only material in which he is safe, the only material employed by Art which is, chemically speaking indestructible. Many a vanished race has left us no record of its brains but its pottery. It is not impossible but that, two millenniums hence, when our marbles are all calcined and our bronzes all melted, and Raphaels oils turned as black as coal, these vases, or competent fragments of them, may be what will tell to the future that we had an art.

Porcelain Vase, in form of a Persian Water-vessel - This fine piece of porcelain, of which the illustration is inserted in the text of the present chapter, has been admitted on the same principle as the Solon pate-sur-pate, though of modern and even commercial origin. It is no excuse for the exclusion of a good piece of work that the maker is living. This worthy piece of English ceramics, though it may possibly be quoted in a dealer's catalogue, deserves to be distinguished here as much as in some art-record of the future when it can be cited as a product of the past and of a hand long dead. It is of recent Royal Worcester make, and is somewhat more than a foot in height. The fashion is closely imitated from a design of which the Persians are never weary, and of which specimens can be seen in silver, in  damascened steel, and in pottery. It is of an elongated gourd-form, with the neck greatly attenuated and fitted with an ornamental stopper. A handle and a serpentine spout rise opposite each other, the latter tied to the neck of the vessel by a clasp of open-work. The surface is surprising, for porcelain, in expressing a dull velvety richness, pitted like an ostrich egg, a treatment which goes well with its warm ivory white; the gold sparingly introduced shows with great elegance on this shade of white, and defines the blossoms which with true Persian largeness of spiral curl over the object.  The handle, of flat fretwork, is finished at the top with a dragon's head, which approaches the rim as if trying to drink at the lip of the vase. On the lid is a many-lobed ornament imitating the battle-mace often seen in collections of Saracen armor. Not a line of the design is untrue to its Eastern ideal.

The door leading from the central hall into the library is furnished with a portiere of tapestry, one of a suite of tapestry hangings which belong to the various doorways leading off from the hall, and which can be seen in series from that court or atrium. They are all of a set, and represent subjects taken from classical history. They are haute-lisse tapestries, from the royal manufactory at Lille, Louis XIV epoch. It is believed to be certain that the set belonged to the Due de Maine, grandson of Louis XIV. The subjects preserve the original borders, a thing much sought after by collectors of tapestry; these borders represent a range of bulbous-looking shields, of the fanciful and unpractical shapes used in tournament, separated by square quatrefoil-strewn plaques; for the corners, there are similar shields set diagonally and enwreathed with scrollwork. Within these borders take place the animated scenes of the legends. In the present case it is Romulus directing the seizure of the Sabine Wives. A fair-haired Sabine nymph lies on the ground in front, whom a helmeted Roman seizes in his brown arms; a second woman runs from the group, grasping her skirts and tearing her hair.   Behind, Romulus with a gesture of his sceptre directs the hasty matrimonial transaction; he is in a complete suit of splendid armor, antique in pattern with all that the seventeenth century knew of antiquity; a winged dragon with swan-like neck forms the crest of his helmet, and his body is covered with a gleaming cuirass, whose fringe of thongs falls over the white skirt of his tunic; while his left hand wields the sceptre, his right holds the bridle-rein. Beyond is an arched bridge over the Tiber, from which a mounted cavalier contemplates the scene disinterestedly; behind, among the trees, the fortifications of primitive Rome, over which Remus leaped in contempt, are represented. The colors are fresh and in excellent preservation, and the general style is in that florid animated taste which shows that the example of Rubens is still fresh in the eyes of industrial designers. No tapestries of the period have been more successfully kept than the set to which this belongs. Among the library fittings is a monumental table, fit to go with the architectural mantel-piece as a serious piece of permanent construction. Its illustration forms the tailpiece to the present chapter. 

Specimens like this, put together under exceptional advantages, designed before America can be said to have a style in cabinetmaking, but showing the handpointings and   tendencies  towards a style, likely to be long  preserved, and representing   the most deliberate work of a period, are just what will be valuable to the Chippendales and Boules of the future. The reproach of American taste as leaning towards a flimsy evaporated delicacy can hardly be applied to a work like this. It looks as immovable as granite, as heavy as bronze. The legs are connected by a sort of lambrequin of carved and inlaid wood, making the lateral sides of the table almost solid; on this curtain, inlaid in marquetry, is the terrestrial globe, encircled by the stars of the national banner. The festoons of pearl discs surrounding the rim carry out a motive repeated in much of the woodwork of the room. The classical motive which controls all the fittings of the library is shown in bold Ionic volutes at the corners and in Greek palmetto designs enfolding the four supports. The feet are braced by an ample slab at the bottom. The general aspect, notwithstanding the innovation of the carved lambrequin, is sufficiently classical to go with the general Attic aspect of the room.


1 comment:

  1. Wonderful series so far. Such a lavishly decorated interior. I realize the home was hopelessly old fashioned when it was renovated by Trumbauer, but the resulting French styled interiors and stripped down masonry exterior were no comparison to the splendid originals. The highly ornamented aesthetic design reminds me of photos from the original Villard Houses on Madison Avenue.