Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Joy of Painted Blinds


Today's roller blinds come in all sorts of colours, fabrics, stripes and patterns and this to my mind is a big improvement over all the plain beige and cream ones that most of us grew up with.
I recently came across this photo of the treatment that a creative person had given to an off-the-shelf roller blind from Ikea.
I think this is a charming, simple and effective and it made me think of several bespoke 'painted' blinds that I have come across during my imaginary travels through historic rooms. There are not many of them, so I can show them all here, hoping that some readers may be inspired to paint or design something similar. I'm pleased I have persuaded one client to go this way; in a dining room where the curtains won't always be drawn at night, roller blinds with painted decoration can be elegant and fun, and give as much privacy as curtains would. 

As far as these images show, painted blinds were particularly popular in Germany. It is remarkable that all of them depict private spaces that are situated inside mostly royal palaces. date from the first half of the 19th century, but then that was also the height of the art of the interior watercolour, which was particularly taken up in that country, so whether these blinds existed in southern countries I couldn't say. 

The earliest image I have found dates from 1829.
Princess Augusta's 'Muslin Closet' in a Berlin town palace decorated by the then uber fashionable Schinckel was entirely hung with muslin drapes with decorated borders. 
Luckily for us the window on the right is shown with its blind completely down, so we can see, behind the plants, how they were decorated with Greek ornaments
Another private sitting room, this time in the Palace of Bamberg, is depicted in this gorgeous watercolour of 1844. The decoration is in a Roman/Etruscan style, and this particular Princess took the floral arrangements to an altogether higher level.
As in the Berlin image one of the blinds is shown as drawn down and the elegant decoration can just be made out behind the seated girl : 
The view through the window suggests an upper floor of the palace, so one can sympathize with this young lady's desire to bring so much greenery into her room; the gardens must have been a long walk away!

If I may digress for a few seconds : I love the wacky flower support thing that she has on her desk, and here is a contemporary image of  something similar:
Another one of my favourite images dates from the 1830s and shows a private sitting room in the Royal Palace in Berlin.
I love the blue and gold in this room, which must have been in an important part of the palace, judging from the decoration and the height of the ceiling. The picture hang is also quite grand, but the room is furnished as a private domain; with a sofa, a reading table, a couple of light chairs, and a charming seating area inside the window. There is also a small, personal rug under the table, protecting the grand carpet.  
What suddenly struck me though, is what I THINK is a semi-transparent, painted blind in the window. I'm not entirely sure of it, but here's a detail :
Now ... is this a plant on the window sill - or a landscape with a tree painted on a semi-transparent blind ? It looks even more like a painted tree reflected in the big mirror. It appears that through the blind one can spot a pediment on columns of  a nearby building. It must have been painted on something like muslin, which presumably doesn't roll up easily like paper or canvas. The user of this room will have had servants to attach and remove the blind, so I guess practicality was not of prime importance.

The next example is also semi-transparent and was published in a French magazine in 1840 and may there for not depict an actual room. 
Even so, the half drawn up blind painted with a Chinoiserie scene looks charming.
An equally elaborate design was present in another private study in an apparently royal castle in Silesia, around 1850. The windows  have smart, embroidered surrounds (of which the proper name escapes me right now ....) and seem to lack draw curtains. Instead, there are blinds painted with a fantasy river landscape. This must have been in summer, and I love the row of miniature plant pots on the window sill.    
Ten years later we see the only English image of a similar blind:
In this design for a bedroom, published in Berlin in 1871, we find an elaborate idea for the curtains, which includes two elegant blinds:  


So far these are all blinds that show their best effect when they are fully drawn down. They are painted landscapes or decorations that perhaps looked a bit odd when the upper part was invisible and the design would start half way the window.

Blinds that solve that problem would need to be of a much simpler design and the earliest of those I have found in a charming watercolour of a very private sitting room at Buckingham Palace. Here, Queen Victoria's family enjoyed views over the gardens and the afternoon sun. There were striped awnings outside and painted blinds on the inside.
They had a border of (presumably) flowers in between two thin lines; a design that worked regardless of high or low the blinds were drawn. 
The same was true for this curtain and blind design that was published in 1900. Here too, the design always works, as it's really only a wide border along the bottom. This kind of decoration is not difficult to do and could be easily painted or stencilled on a roller blind today. 
And finally an actual painted blind that I was very happy to spot in an auction catalogue.
Somehow this reminds me of rooms in Italy or Spain - backgrounds in films like The Leopard and other gloomy, dusty rooms. For a study I think this would look very smart indeed.

I have no idea really how widely used blinds like these were; among thousands of  images I have only found these few. Painting this kind of interior views was not as widespread in southern countries as it was in the North, so there is very little evidence for their use in countries like Italy or Spain.
On top of that, due to their material and their use, very few of them will have survived the ages. 
Sad, because I really like them !  



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POST SCRIPT

As a result of this post, I was sent two photos by a reader, Penelope Bianchi, of paper blinds that she found many years ago in an Antique shop in Florence, and which have clearly found a very sympathetic home in California. Thank you Penelope!
In her message she says that there were blinds like this in the Madelaine Castaing sale, but I never saw the catalogue. I would love to receive photos and add them to this little collection. Any one? 














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Many of the images came from that invaluable book AUTHENTIC DECOR, by Peter Thornton.

1. Ikea 'tree' blind : Pinterest.com
2. Berlin interior : Authentic Decor, page 248
3. Bamberg interior: Authentic Decor, frontispiece
4. Design for a window wall: Authentic Decor, page 242
    (from Wilhelm Kimbel's influential furnishing journal published between 1835 and 1853)
5. Blue and gold sitting room : Authentic Decor, page 261 
    (Described as: A Royal love nest - sitting room of Countess Liegnitz, the morganatic wife of King           Friedrich Wilhelm III, 1824)
6. Chinoiserie blind: Authentic Decor, page 262
    (from: Le Bouteiller, Journal de l'Industrie et des Arts utiles, Paris 1840) 
7. Study, Sagan Castle, Silesia, 1850s
8. English sitting room by Lady Honoria Cadogan, in Inside Out, Charles Plante
9. Bedroom designs, Berlin 1871, Authentic Decor, page 326
10.  Buckingham palace (1848):  House Proud - 19th century water colour interiors from the Thaw      Collection, Davids/McCarron-Cated/Gere, 2008
11. Design for curtains: Authenic Decor, page 322
    (from: Ernest Foussier's 'Nouveaux Modeles de tentures, Decorations de fenetres', Paris 1900)
12. Photograph: Sotheby's catalogue of Christopher Hodsoll sale, 29 Oct 2002


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

'Hotel style' .. or is it

Although it has been a while, today only a quick post, as my books are still packed away and I've got 3 boxes of Christmas decorations to empty.
Being 'into' curtains, pelmets, poles and all that, I always find it disappointing when designers or architects have tried, but in my view not hard enough to make these interior elements exciting. That happens, for instance, when the room cornice (crown moulding in the US?) runs in front of the curtain track, thus forming a kind of pelmet box.
In contemporary interiors this system has its valid place and can look perfectly adequate, particularly in rooms where the whole of the window wall becomes one big curtain from floor to ceiling, as is the case in most modern style hotel rooms. For example The Four Seasons hotel in Istanbul, where, although it's not my own taste, I wouldn't mind staying a night or two.

In more traditional settings, however, it doesn't work for me. An extreme example of this is a bedroom in a top London hotel, in which I, for one, would not be able to go to sleep. Not only is the cornice too deep for the room, it jumps out of the wall in several places, where it becomes not only the curtain cornice, but also the corona top of the bed hangings.
I am sure my readers of good taste will agree that this is rather lazy and just not very nice. In my view traditional pelmet boxes and bed headings should be separate things and not simply mushroom out of the ceiling like this.

HOWEVER:

Last week I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which has recently reopened its doors after a lengthy restoration project and is looking absolutely magnificent (perhaps something in a later post on the background colour for the paintings). Several historic interiors have been built into the museum and one of these is a salon which was designed and put together around 1794 for a well-to-do merchant in the city of Haarlem.
It is an exceptionally fine and elegant room, which, apart form its plaster ceiling, has survived virtually intact and original. At the end of the 18th century this was the best money could buy in the Netherlands, even if the 'production' is very European. The chandelier is English, the fireplace Italian, the carpet is Flemish and the silk hangings, chair covers and curtains came from Lyon.
The borders around the wall panels and the curtains are not just mitered in the corners in the way we would do it today. In this case there is both a horizontal and a vertical version of the pattern. That's how smart it is.
The carving around the door cases and the doors themselves are beautifully detailed too. Here is the room from the other side:
And here is my own photograph taken in the Museum. Although the cornice is more ornamental than architectural in character, it clearly jumps forward above the windows, forming the curtain pelmet boxes, precisely in the way that I have just been criticising. 

So there you have it. Plus ca change. Very few things are really new. Some kind of historical precedent can usually be found; even for these 'hotel' curtains, which, to be honest, I'm still not going to be designing like that myself.  
 


Wednesday, 24 July 2013

In Memoriam - Hambleden Manor

When I started this blog I listed some of my favourite rooms that over the years I had found in books and magazines etc. in order to devote special posts on them. Some of these are historical views, others are photos of interiors created in the 20th century. The room I am writing about today was on the list as a room that still existed, but sadly this post has turned out to be an obituary. Not that it changes the beauty of the room, which I only know from a photograph anyway, but it so happens that all the contents of the house were sold at auction last week, which means everything has gone and with this not only a most beautiful room has completely disappeared, also another interior created by John Fowler. And that is a sad thing. Here is the room (scanned from pages 48 and 49 of Chester Jones' Colefax and Fowler and instantly recognized by many of you I'm sure).



It is the drawing room at Hambleden Manor, which reads as one of those timeless English houses in a particularly dreamy village which is often used for filming. It is that beautiful. The house, estate and indeed most of the village has long been the property of the Smith family, who started a newspaper shop business, which is now well known on every High Street in the UK as WH Smith. So the Smiths became very rich, purchased themselves a gorgeous place to live and were even ennobled as Viscount Hambleden. They have owned the estate since the 1870s, but in 2003 large parts of it were put on the market by the 5th Viscount, including 44 houses in the village, but not including the Manor itself. Here his mother remained; on her own since her divorce from his father, the Viscount nr 4. Read more about this business HERE .
I have no idea what happened to the estate or its sale other than internet gossip, but it seems that last year the 4th Viscount died and that this has prompted the sale of Hambleden Manor.

It was for this 4th Viscount and his first wife, the sophisticated Contessa Maria Carmela Attolico di Adelfia, that John Fowler worked on the house in 1955. Here she is in her drawing room, by all account a formidable lady of great culture and style.



Chester Jones recounts how she wanted a yellow drawing room but John Fowler chose a darker shade than she liked, convincing her that it would fade over time into the perfect colour. And from the photographs it does indeed look like the most gorgeous apricot yellow. It was probably put on in several layers and required the lovely layered depth that John Fowler is famous for.
I am not particularly fond of yellow, but this colour I could live with very happily. I particularly love the grey detailing in the ceiling cornice and the picking out of the plaster band of decoration on the ceiling itself. The same grey picks out vertical lines down the corners of the room, which is a very smart detail indeed.  


The furnishings are an interesting mix of English calm and symmetry and some Italian exuberance, and I'm sure Lady Hambleden herself brought a great deal of style to the house a swell.
The colour scheme was inspired by the carpet (as it often is in these traditional  'Colefax' interiors); a large Aubusson, famous for its beautifully faded pinks, greens and yellows.
 
The carpet is the main decorative fabric element in the room; all the other fabrics are plains or weaves, without pattern, except for the cushions which seem mostly embroidered and the large sofa and two chairs, which are covered in damask silk. The scheme is really beautifully simple: a pink, a green and an ecru taken from the carpet, all appearing throughout the room as plain chairs, sofas and table covers. The somewhat sharp velvet on the central seat and the sofas in the windows is a wonderful touch and stops the room from going too soupy.
And then there is that gorgeous colour on the wall and small bits of black scattered throughout the very symmetrical end wall.

The room sums up the ideal vision of English interiors: grace and luxury, colouring and light, but above all comfort. There isn't a chair in this room that you wouldn't want to go and sit in, and that comfort must surely be largely thanks to Lady Hambleden herself, because this photo was taken several  decades after John Fowler helped her with the house.



It is all a reminder that these houses are merely (other peoples') collections of furniture and fabrics that may have been beautifully put together by a master, and maintained and improved by a person of great taste, but may ultimately just as easily be dispersed and lost for ever. Every table, chair and picture will now become part of somebody else's house, though I doubt if many of them will find their new home in a room as beautiful as this one.


The sale was at Christie's, South Kensington on 10th July 2013 - go to :  Sale 8999 (for as long as it's on the Christie's website). There was lots of furniture including curtains from other rooms.




Portrait lady Hambleden:  Francesco Arena - from an ITALIAN WEBSITE 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

A Fabric Covered Mirror

Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire is one of the greatest treasure houses of Europe. The quality of the furniture is breathtaking and it is all very, very palatial in a rather un-English sort of way. However on a recent visit I noticed something quite modest and unassuming that I had never seen before. In a small room upstairs, redecorated in recent years by David Mlnaric there is a mirror frame that is entirely covered in fabric, ensuite with the walls, the curtains, a sofa and the bed. 
 Here is a detail of the mirror - as it's easy to miss .. 
 
 I have to say I'm not a fan of the solid red carpet, but apparently that is 'very Waddesdon'. As is the elaborate furniture, including those green vases in their gilded bronze mounts, that are to my mind FAR too grand for a room that just wants to be a simple and charming, secondary bedroom. But I suppose this is Waddesdon, so even small, secondary spare bedrooms are given priceless furniture.
It's Le Gout Rothschild ... after all.
So as this is Waddesdon, the lovely printed cotton was recreated specially for this room, from a fragment found elsewhere in the house, but an almost identical pattern (as far as I can work out on the website) is done by Nicholas Herbert in London. He calls it Kaveri and anybody who likes soft faded cottons and linens should check out his website here. It's all beautiful stuff.
 
But anyway, I had never seen a mirror frame covered in fabric like that before and wasn't sure I liked the way it made the mirror disappears into the background. What I did know, and have always had a soft spot for, were wooden cornices for curtainboxes and fourposter beds that are covered in fabric. They go back a long way, as here at Knole in the 1670s.
 
I think that is one of the most beautiful beds ever made. I love the proportions, the richness of the material, but at the same time the simplicity of the design. It's so strong but perfectly ladylike at the same time. In the decades that followed it the design and execution of state beds became ever more complicated but the basic idea remained the same; an architectural cornice, carved in wood and glued with the same fabric as the swags, tails and curtains that hang from it. Here is the Queens bed at Hampton Court from the 1690s. 
 
And about 15 years ago in the same palace, they beautifuly recreated various beds and curtain headings in the rooms where William III used to live. This is a cornice over a festoon curtain in the King's private bedroom, with decorative swags, tails and ribbons.  
 
 I guess one of the last great state beds that had this kind of  architectural and entirely fabric covered top was the famous bed at Houghton, designed by William Kent in the 1730s. It looked back to the earlier, more architectural style of the bed at Knole,
and is totally covered in green velvet and intricate embroidery that started life being silver. 
 
After this time a different style came in and the fabric gave way to elaborately carved headings that were usually gilded, providing an amount of bling that the glued fabric could not compete with, as here in the state bed from Petworth. At night, with a few candles, the effect must be gorgeous. 
But that's another story really.
Cornices covered in fabric enjoyed succes in the various William & Mary revivals that the 20th century produced and I think it is still a very attractive way to make a grand statement that is not  over the top. Here is a bed, also by David Mlinaric:
  I think curtains and beds look so much more finished with a cornice like that - Surely it's much smarter than the usual gathered and velcro'd way ? And it's only a wooden cornice with fabric, so it's not that difficult to do.  And also if you have swags and tails, they look so much better coming from a cornice than when they just dissapear over the top of the board that they are fixed on. 
 
Here are curtains that my colleague Alec Cobbe and I had made when we redecorated Kenwood House, London for English Heritage, using a now sadly discontiued Jean Monro chintz.
We didn't want another silk room, but they had to have style and presence. Reproduced carved and gilded things would have interfered with the original room, so the fabric covered moulding was the perfect solution.
 So anyway, I started with a mirror. And then I digressed to one of my favorite things; fabric covered cornices. But a few months ago I found this image, from the 1840s. It is a tented dressing room in Paris and on either side hangs a mirror frame that is covered in fabric, just as at Waddeson: 
And here it is:
 
 To be honest, I'm still not entirely conviced by the Waddesdon mirror,
but as far as I can see, it does have a historical background.
 
 
 
 
ILLUSTRATIONS
 
Waddesdon from the air; from the Waddesdon.org website. photo by John Bidelow Taylor
 
A Bedroom in the Bachelor Wing, Waddesdon Manor
Photo in: Mlinaric on Decorating, Mirabel Cecil and David Mlnaric, 2008
 
Queen Mary's bed, Hampton Court Palace
Photo in: Great Interiors, edited by Ian Grant, 1967
 
Detail of Yellow curtains, The Kings Bedroom, Hampton Court Palace
Photo in : World of Interiors, December 1995

Green Velvet Bed at Houghton
Photo in: Fowler / Cornforth, English Decoration in the 18th Century
 
State Bed from Petworth
 
Bedroom by David Mlnaric
Photo in: Mlinaric on Decorating, Mirabel Cecil and David Mlnaric, 2008
 
Kenwood House
Photo in Country Life article on the redecoration
 
View of a Parisian Dressing room, by Francois-Etienne Villeret
in: Authentic Decor, Peter Thornton, 1984

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A Small Winter Garden

After my last post about plant screens in Russian interiors, I came across the magnificent interior views of the Winter Palace in Saint Peterburg, as published by De Gourcuff Editions in 1994, with texts by Emmanuel Ducamp, a great expert on Russian interiors and furniture. They date from between the 1830s to the 1870s and they show how much the Tsarinas loved having plants in the rooms, especially the Empresses Alexandra Feodorovna and Maria Alexandrovna. Besides large flower and plant arrangements in varoius private rooms, the palace had two rooms that were wholly dedicated to plants; the Winter Garden and the Small Winter Garden. 
 
When after a huge fire in 1837 substantial parts of the palace needed rebuilding, a large, double height, winter garden was installed that overlooked the palace courtyard. We would now call it a 'state of the art' affair, as the windows in the ceiling could be removed for air and sunlight and plants could be brought in from the floor below through a trap door.
 
 
This is the south side of the palace during a military parade. Interesting are the various little balconies, that were presumably light, wooden constructions, clinging to the outside wall like birds nests on the edge of a cliff. With all the pomp and ceremonial life of the period the Winter Palace must have offered precious little in the form of privacy or anything that looked like a pleasant place to sit and gossip. The Palace was in the middle of a very grand city and had no garden, so these winter gardens offered a connection to nature and the outside, however artificial.

 Apart from the large and formal Winter Garden, there was also the Small Winter Garden, right next to the Empress's own rooms. It had one of these balconies and must have been a very private space.

 
Here is the palace from the river, which shows what a fabulous view the balcony must have had. To the left, towards the river, were the rooms for the Empress, which faced south west and must have had  beautiful evening light.
On a side note, these images also show that the Winter Palace wasn't always painted in the blue green that it is today. I presume that is a reconstruction of what is thought as the orginal, 18th century colour, which certainly gives the building an instantly recognisable look but I find rather hard (not to say electric, particularly the side that faces the square). 
 
 
What made me write this post. however, are the following images; the Small Winter Garden with and without plants, as decorated for Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. They give us a wonderful look behind the scenes of what must have been a great extravagance. Before the fire of 1837 the space was a small study for Tsar Alexander I, who was Alexandra Feodorovna's brother in law, but in the reconstruction stairs were created to the floor below, designed as a kind of grotto with a fountain and seats. Along the walls, under the windows and on the side of the steps we see empty troughs and decorative containers ...  
 
 
... ready to receive all sorts of plants, individual pots and lots of  ivy.
Narrow poles were also fitted across the room and around the alcove at the end and around the arches and the windows, all smothered in ivy. The mirror in the alcove on the back wall must have heightened the sense of exotic luxury, reflecting the row of Chinese style lanterns.


And in this view from the other side of the room we get a glimpse of the space downstairs, where birdcages stood on wooden stands.
 
Architecturally I suppose the space wasn't that succesful; they had to make do with what was there and the room below looks rather dark and low, but it must have been pleasant enough in a Palace that was extremely public and had virtually no corridors so people must have constantly walked through one's  rooms. The Small Winter Garden, however, was at the end of the Empress's suite of rooms, reached through her Dressing Room, which certainly in this view looks very private: 
Alexandra Feodorovna (1798-1860) was born in the Scharlottenburg in Berlin as princess Charlotte of Prussia. She was a rather private and frail woman, who remarkably chose to spend the 5 years of her widowhood in the company of her husband's mistress.