Written by Dr. Cynthia Paulis, firstname.lastname@example.org Wednesday, 30 April 2014 00:00
Now that the polar vortex is finally behind us, it’s a great time to get out and explore the beautiful gardens at Planting Fields Arboretum, which are coming into full bloom; but, not to be missed is the wonderful new exhibit called Fabulous Interiors by Elsie De Wolfe and Charles Duveen 1915-1945, which just opened and will run through September.
According to Gwendolyn Smith, the curator of the exhibit, the two designers had uniquely different styles.
“Charles Duveen came from a very famous family of art dealers that were responsible for bringing all of the famous art to America, the Rembrandts, the Van Dykes,” says Smith. “Charles was the brother of Joseph Duveen, who was the patriarch of this art dealing family. When the father passed away he assigned Joseph to take over the business and there was a family struggle. Joseph took it over and Charles was told he could no longer be in the firm so he was paid an annual stipend to leave and not use the family name so he became an interior designer but used the name Charles of London. The reason we are doing this exhibition is because the furnishings and furniture at Coe Hall, about 80 percent came from Charles of London. We are fortunate to have archives here with hundreds of receipts and correspondence from Charles of London with the Coes.”
Duveen was famous for designing furniture with a low arm and was fascinated by the Tudor period; his favorite colors were heraldic, plum, gold, red, all the colors that would convey royalty. Some of his famous clients were the Pillsburys and William Randolph Hearst.
In sharp contrast to Duveen’s style was Elsie de Wolfe, a former actress who spent several summers in France at Versailles and became interested in 18th century French interiors. In l915, de Wolfe was commissioned by Mai Coe to work on the interior design of the Italian garden’s tea house and five years later she was involved with the decoration of Mrs. Coe’s bedroom and bathroom dressing room. De Wolfe loved bright colors and the use of light in her designs.
“One of the things visitors will notice right away is the confectionary burst of color, beautiful rich sea green hue garden inspired trellis, beautiful hanging baskets all done in iron work yet they look like real flowers,” says Smith. “The furniture was hand painted by Everett Shin, who frequently collaborated with Elsie de Wolfe on many projects. He was an American artist, who was born in New York and trained in Paris and he became enamored with a lot of the 18th century artists and began exploring a lot of the French medium through his art. He not only painted, but he was a carpenter, writer, composer. He built this fabulous furniture for the tea house, painted the backs of it and it all has this theatrical look to it, because it has this blue theater drape to it and these wonderful garlands. Shin was a prolific painter and we have a lot of these paintings that were in the Planting Fields collection in storage so we decided to get them out and display them.”
The reading salon ends the exhibition, which is the never before seen bedroom of Natalie Coe, with a beautiful view of the Italian gardens now coming into full bloom. Visitors are encouraged to sit on the furniture in this room with a zebra hide.
“All of the furniture here is contemporary so, unlike other parts of the house, people can relax here, leaf through a design book,” says Smith. “The whole idea is to be inspired by Elsie de Wolfe and go dream about your own interiors that you might create.”
Henry Joyce, executive director of Planting Fields Foundation, was thrilled with the exhibit, which took a year to plan.
“This is a really exciting show because very little is known about Charles Duveen, who was the interior designer of this house, because all of the archives disappeared,” says Joyce. “We found his grandson, who owns several pieces that he lent us for this show, rare watercolors of renderings of his own house in England. This is the only show which has ever been done to describe the work of Charles Duveen. He was a major interior designer between l910 and 1914...also we were able to do the show because we have all of the original letters between Mr. Coe and Mr. Duveen about the creation of these rooms. Even letters where he says his bed isn’t comfortable enough, he needs a better mattress. All of the art and wonderful gilded furniture is all documented, so this is breaking new ground in terms of the history of this very important man.”
Joyce adds, “Elsie DeWolfe, who created the tea house in the Italian Garden, is even more important as a decorator, but barely any of her works survives. Our tea house from 1915 is her surviving masterpiece of interior decoration, so because of the Duveen archives and the tea house we were able to do this show. We are very excited.”
Adding to the festivities of the opening night was the opportunity for guests to meet two of the grandchildren, Peter and Charles Duveen, and two of the great-grandchildren, Ali and Skylar. The brothers Peter and Charles live upstate New York and many of the pieces showing at Coe came from their places.
Peter Duveen marveled at the exhibit. “The exhibit is terrific, they did a great job of displaying the materials and explaining them and they are wonderfully organized and displayed.”
Charles Duveen said, “This exhibit is great because it pulls out the essence of what he was like and his kind of furniture and how he respected the old, Elizabethan, furniture which was comfortable. Almost the opposite of this is Elsie, who shows hard, blue and new. She’s looking ahead and he is looking behind. His view of a chair was something.. .can we sit and relax in it, sink into the chair. That whole aura of be comfortable in your home, the wood tones that would soften, here is the fireplace, the wood, the stone, plaster moldings, things that look and feel old, he would bring over and the craftsmen would recreate them. Elsie seemed to be someone who loved blues and colors and things we would look at today and say, that’s what my room looks like."
Aggie Duveen smiled and summed it up the best: “Charles Duveen designed for the man and Elsie de Wolfe designed for the woman.
The exhibit is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. until the end of September and the tea house is open for touring from 12:30 to 2 p.m. daily. To learn more about events at Planting Fields go to www.plantingfields.org or call 516-922-9210.