Saturday, 23 February 2013

'Verdant Boudoir'

In 1839 a French nobleman with the wonderful name Astolph Marquis de Custine travelled to Russia and published a memoir. Amongst his impressions and observations he described something that was new to him:

'The residences of several Russians of taste are distinguished by a peculiar ornament, a little artificial garden in a corner of the drawing room .. In this little verdant boudoir are placed a table and a few chairs; the lady of the house is generally seated there, and there is room for two or three others, for whom it forms a retreat, which , if not very secret, is secluded enough to please the imagination'.

Clearly he was quite taken by the 'ornament' he observed, which was unknown to this Frenchman 'of taste' (I love that description), and indeed the 'verdant boudoir' that he described was particular to Eastern European and especially Russian interiors. Over there, in the second half of the 19th century, bringing plants inside became very popular and I guess the grander you were the more elaborate these arrangements could become.
It so happens that one family's appreciation for indoor plants has been recorded very carefully. They were the Wittgensteins, a Princely and well connected family that used to travel all over Europe; servants, tutors, nannies and even furniture in tow. The family had an album of watercolours of their various residences, from the 1830s and 1840s, and in virtually every room there are several planters, pots and vases with flowers.
Later I would like do a post about plants in general, but here we are just concerned with plants as described by the Marquis that were used to screen off parts of a room in order to provide some privacy for just one or two of people.

The Wittgensteins were particularly fond of a house called Pavlino and this was the Drawing Room: in 1835:

Not only are the windows completely filled with plants, in the right hand corner we see a seating arrangement that could have been the model for Custine's description: a sofa and a table, screened off by a row of plants:

The Princess Wittgenstein also had an extraordinary bathroom in this house, with a sunken bath tub surrounded by plants and screened by tall frames covered with climbers.
The room had elaborate drapery (partly wallpaper?) of a kind that I wrote about before: 

In Berlin the Wittgensteins had a town house designed by Schinkel and one room seems to have been a bedroom, dressing room and study all at once. Here again long tubs with scrolled feet were used as ornamental screens.  

The interiors of the Russian Imperial family also show huge amounts of plants and flowers. Here is a room in the Winter palace, St Petersburg, which was given to the artist Luigi Premazzi to use during his stay in 1852. He has left us some of the most finely painted and beautiful of all interior views, so he must have been put up here while he worked on a series of interiors for the Tsar. In front of the corner windows stood a raised seating area behind a planted screen and I presume on the right hand side the bed was hidden behind screens of fabric.

There is also an amusing pair of views (but made by different artists) of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna's study in the St Nicholas Palace in the Moscow Kremlin.  Here is one side of the room in 1847, with not only one of these screened off seating areas, also a pyramidical construction of pots in front of the window as well as several vases containing loose flowers.

The seating area seems raised slightly, with probably metal screens for training the plants. To us this arrangement, right next to a perfectly comfortable sofa and chairs seems rather artificial and much like sitting in a cage !

It must also have been so dark in that corner. On the other side of the room, however, there was another one of these seating area, but now in front on the window.

Interestingly, this is the only example I have found WITHOUT the relevant greenery and plants and it shows the construction really well. It was clearly meant for just the Tsarina herself and the table in front has various little pots, ready to be filled when she was in residence.

And finally the image that inspired this post. It is the only photograph of a plant screen that I have ever seen, which (having just said how Russian these things were) was actually taken in London in Grosvenor House, the town pad of the Dukes of Westminster (demolished for the Grosvenor House Hotel in the 1920s). The photograph dates from 1889, when as one of the first buildings in London electricity was introduced, so perhaps it was taken to show off the chandelier, with lightbulbs instead of candles.

Astolph Marquis de Custine (1790 - 1857) had an interesting albeit rather tragic life. He was one of the first 'outed' members of French high society and also became one of the first professional travel writers.

The Saloon at Pavlino, by Sotira, 1835
in: Nineteenth Century Interiors -  An Album of Watercolours. Charlotte Gere, London 1992
also in Mario Praz.

Bedroom in the Wittgensteins House in Berlin, by Eduard Gaertner, 1836
in: Nineteenth Century Interiors -  An Album of Watercolours. Charlotte Gere, , London 1992
also in Mario Praz.

The Princess' Bathroom at Pavlino, by Sotira, 1835
in: Nineteenth Century Interiors -  An Album of Watercolours. Charlotte Gere, , London 1992
also in Mario Praz.

An Artist's quarters in the Winter palace, St Petersburg
by Luigi Premazzi, 1852
in: Authentic Decor, The Domestic Interior 1620 - 1920, Peter Thornton.

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna's Study in the St Nicholas Palace, Moscow Kremlin
Both images are in: The Moscow Kremlin in Watercolour, watercolours and lithographs of the XIXth century. Irina Bogatskaia, editorial director Emmanuel Ducamp, Paris 1994
The first one was done by L.A. Riezantsev in 1847; the second one I have lost the name of the artist of.
Photo ca 1890 - Old Grosvernor House, from :


  1. I've never seen anything quite like this in American houses. Conservatories, yes, and lots of indoor plants, but no special screened-off area. Even in the attractive pictures you show, these areas look peculiar and inappropriate, and as you say, cage-like. Possibly one of those fads that take hold, or perhaps there was something about that time and place that made these make sense. Perhaps they were less opaque than lacquered screens.

    1. I know ! they are mad and look so odd to us today - particularly the one in the corner of that blue room. Who today would like to sit there ?? that's what makes them fascinating though. Perhaps the lack of privacy in those palaces was such, and rooms were generally so enormous, that we simply can't imagine what it must have been like for an Empress to sit inside a private (almost childlike) space like that. I suppose the Russian/Eastern European climate must also have played a part though, and with limitless staff creating little inside gardens must have been a source of fun.

  2. It's quite interesting that they consistently use plant screens and yet no silk screens nor of leather? So was this just a trend and a reason behind it or just whim?

    I must say the work and detail of your posts are really lovely. I feel like you could write a proper textbook for schools.

    1. :) thanks
      I suppose fabric screens were too solid and were used to dress behind etc. The lady of the house needed to be able to see what else was going on in the room!

  3. Fascinating. If it weren't for those travel memoirs, I would have assumed they were for young children or servants!

  4. Well, that is terribly interesting, and rather unexpected. Although I suppose if one has vases of cut flowers, why not screens of plants...
    Don't forget that the Marquis de Custine's memoirs were in part the inspiration for Sokurov's extraordinary 2002 film Russian Ark (in which de Custine appears as 'the European').

  5. Another marvelous, and highly informative post. I have admired many depictions of Baltic and Eastern European interiors with such miniature gardens over the years. Peter Thornton and Mario Praz have numerous examples in their groundbreaking tomes, which I have spent many, many hours delightedly poring over. Thanks! Reggie

    1. I recommend scanning your favorites and zooming in on your screen, you see so much more than in the book, it's really quite addictive !

  6. Hello !
    I love watercolors's interiors !

    1. Hi, I see you are keeping the tradition alive, very nice !

  7. Great post dahhling... we share common obsessions: interiors!