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Windows on the past: Watercolors of long-vanished houses and gardens

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

August 2008 | Earlier this year the New York Times ran a report on the “new” trend of homeowners hiring celebrated photographers to document their houses. Once at the mercy of shelter magazines to showcase their interiors, these people have bypassed those arbiters and commissioned photographs to be hung on their walls and assembled into sumptuously designed albums for their coffee tables. “We fetishize homes now, in a way that we never used to,” says Todd Eberle, a photographer whose work appears regularly in Vanity Fair and has been exhibited in galleries and museums.1 He’s wrong of course, as House Proud: Nineteenth-century Watercolor Interiors from the Thaw Collection, an exhibition opening at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City this month, vividly shows. Well before the invention of photography, people were lavishing money and attention on their rooms and preserving the results for posterity by means of paintings.

Indeed, the artworks on view, drawn from the eighty-five watercolors donated to the museum by Eugene and Clare Thaw in 2007, are documents in every sense of the word. For their original patrons they captured beloved spaces in time. For us they provide a rich record of the social and aesthetic history of a vanished world. Mario Praz (1896–1982), the noted literary scholar, and the person credited with being the first to recognize the value of such paintings, and who was himself an avid collector of them, summed up their evocative power:

Water-colours of interiors, of which so many were painted particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century, possess, in a special manner, the virtue of bringing a place to life in the mind of the beholder, thanks to the diligence with which they reproduce every piece of furniture and every household object, every minute detail of carpets and curtains, and the feeling of light and shade in a room. It might be said that by means of this objective diligence they capture the soul of things, preserving them as a botanist preserves a flower in a herbarium, or an entomologist a butterfly. Like those Japanese paper flowers which, when put in water, disclose an exuberance unsuspected in a piece of dry straw, or like the genie in the bottle of the Arabian tale who becomes gigantic when he emerges, so do these little pictures of interiors expand in the beholder’s imagination.2

The curators—Gail S. Davidson and Floramae McCarron-Cates, of the museum’s Department of Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design—have designed a show that plays up the pictures as both evidence and time machines. They have placed objects from the museum’s collection alongside paintings showing similar items, and visitors are provided with magnifying glasses for close-up views of any of the painstakingly rendered articles that capture their attention. “These works hold their own in both fine arts and decorative arts contexts,” Davidson says. And, in fact, some of the Thaw works were shown at two earlier exhibitions in New York City, one at the Morgan Library in 1985 and one at the Frick Collection in 1992, which played up their status as works of art in their own right.3 The Cooper-Hewitt Museum show uses them to “trace the evolution of the domestic interior from the more formal to the more personal,” Davidson says. “We’re using them to discuss changes in both style and function over time.”Water-colours of interiors, of which so many were painted particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century, possess, in a special manner, the virtue of bringing a place to life in the mind of the beholder, thanks to the diligence with which they reproduce every piece of furniture and every household object, every minute detail of carpets and curtains, and the feeling of light and shade in a room. It might be said that by means of this objective diligence they capture the soul of things, preserving them as a botanist preserves a flower in a herbarium, or an entomologist a butterfly. Like those Japanese paper flowers which, when put in water, disclose an exuberance unsuspected in a piece of dry straw, or like the genie in the bottle of the Arabian tale who becomes gigantic when he emerges, so do these little pictures of interiors expand in the beholder’s imagination.2

The exhibition’s curators—Gail S. Davidson and Floramae McCarron-Cates—have designed a show that plays up the pictures as both evidence and time machines. They have placed objects from the museum’s collection alongside paintings showing similar items, and visitors are provided with magnifying glasses for close-up views of any of the painstakingly rendered articles that capture their attention. “These works hold their own in both fine arts and decorative arts contexts,” Davidson says. And, in fact, some of the Thaw works were shown at two earlier exhibitions in New York City, one at the Morgan Library in 1985 and one at the Frick Collection in 1992, which played up their status as works of art in their own right.3 The Cooper-Hewitt Museum show uses them to “trace the evolution of the domestic interior from the more formal to the more personal,” Davidson explains. “We’re using them to dis-cuss changes in both style and function over time.”

Eugene Victor Thaw, a retired art dealer, and his wife, Clare, have built up several important collections and donated them to museums including the Frick Collection, the Morgan Library, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the Fenimore Art Museum, and others.4 Thaw credits Praz’s seminal study, An Illustrated History of Furnishing, first published in English in 1964, as well as John Cornforth’s English Interiors 1790–1848: The Quest for Comfort, published in 1978, with sparking his and his wife’s interest in these works. “Cornforth published several paintings by a woman named Charlotte Bosanquet,” Thaw recalls. “She came from a large family and she traveled around the various houses of her relatives painting them. The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford has two albums assembled by her. Not long after reading that book, we found a piece by her in an antiques shop off the King’s Road for just twenty-five pounds [Fig. 6]. After the publication of those two books, these kinds of paintings just started turning up, especially in England. Whenever we saw one that was charming, or that we liked, we’d try to buy it.”

In the decades since the Thaws began collecting them, these paintings have become quite rare, and the ranks of dealers specializing in them have dwindled. Charles Plante in London, who has specialized in architectural drawings and prints for twenty years, is the preeminent dealer, but even he finds fewer examples these days. Of some three hundred pictures on display in his booth at the Olympia International Art and Antiques Fair this past June, there were just twelve such watercolors.5 “I like the ones by known artists from the pre-photography era, pre-1850, best,” he says, “but they just don’t turn up that often.”

Davidson stresses that the Thaw gift is the most important donation to the museum’s Department of Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design in almost four decades. Its addition makes the Cooper-Hewitt’s holdings in this area arguably the largest of any institution in the United States.The Thaw Collection is comprised of works by both professional and amateur artists, both known and unknown. They were often the work of women members of a family, and they are often wonderfully accomplished. Thaw points to a picture in the collection by Anna Alma-Tadema, the daughter of the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, of the library in her father’s London house done when she was about nineteen (Fig. 4). “It was a revelation to my wife and me to see an artist of that caliber, who never had a career. She brought off a very complicated view of a room full of objects and textures like fur and wood grain. You can lose yourself in all the detail.”

Many of the paintings give us a last glimpse of grand palaces—views of the extravagant circular dining room at Carlton House, the London residence of the Prince Regent (later George IV; r. 1820–1830) in 1819 (Fig. 1); of the study of Czarina Alexandra Féodorovna (1798–1860) in 1835 in the Hermitage, in Saint Petersburg, before parts of the palace were destroyed in the fire of 1837 (Fig. 10); and of the cozy, toy-strewn sitting room of Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901) in Buckingham Palace in 1848 (Fig. 5). Another watercolor provides evidence of the famous painting collection in the Vienna palace of the nineteenth-century connoisseur Karl, Count Lanckoro´nski (Fig. 7).

“Such pictures of vanished spaces are ex-treme-ly important documents,” Thaw says, “but I was always most attracted to rooms that I think I could actually live in. It’s the more bourgeois rooms that I love. There’s a painting by Otto Wagner of a salon in the Leuchtenberg Palace in Munich. With its solid Biedermeier furniture and that big porcelain stove on the right, that’s a room I’d like to spend time in” (Fig. 8). Other images in the collection show a Russian winter garden, with an abandoned shawl evocatively tossed over a chair (Fig. 9), a student’s room at Oxford from 1853, and the library of a New York town house (the only American interior in the collection) (Fig. 11). The most recent work in the collection and in the exhibition, Alexandre Benois’s impressionistic view of the bedroom of Czarina Maria Alexandrovna in the Gatchina Palace, Saint Petersburg, of about 1900, illustrates how changing styles in other artistic fields eventually influenced these kinds of documentary pieces (Fig. 12).

When the paintings include human figures, they are often in the background, and rarely rendered with as much loving specificity as the furnishings. In fact, Plante says, most collectors prefer the unpopulated rooms. “I, myself, love them cold and distant and austere, so the furnishings and decoration can speak for themselves.” Praz was of the same opinion: “It is the absence of the human form, or its presence only as a mere figure or mannikin or as a framed painting on a wall which turns the furniture and the objects into the true dramatis personae.”6

One of the great advantages of studying these paintings, as opposed to later photographs of the same spaces, is that they “enable us to see the decoration of the past through the eyes of the past,” as John Richardson observed in 1983 on the reissue of Praz’s Illustrated History. It was for this reason that Richardson regretted that the book’s “abundant illustrations have doomed this History to be one of the most looked-at but least read books of our time: a decorator’s crib instead of a bible.” He went on to warn that “We ignore the text of Praz’s History at our peril.” 7

Response to the original publication of Praz’s book ranged from exuberant praise in the pages of House and Garden (“a most wondrous treasure trove”) to dismay that such an eminent scholar would devote time to such frivolous matters. Michael Levey, in the New York Review of Books, called the Illustrated History scholarly in detail but was troubled by its “deeply romantic” foundations.8 On the other hand, Edmund Wilson (1895–1972) realized that “One could hardly do justice to this book by attempting to cover its contents.… [It is] a history of social life as well as a history of furnishing. I have found it inexhaustibly interesting.”9 And Hugh Honour pointed out in a posthumous appreciation of Praz that the true subject of this book wasn’t really interior decoration, but rather “the ruminations and memories, the visions and fancies prompted by paintings of interiors.”10 As recently as 2000 David Watkin noted that when it comes to “the study of watercolours of domestic interiors, Mario Praz…is the father of us all. A literary historian rather than an art critic, he used his study of psychology and poetry to explain the extraordinary hold which these drawings have over us.”11It is true that Praz’s idiosyncratic and personal approach can make his book frustrating as a reference work (just try to find a succinct definition of terms such as lit à la Polonaise or boiseries), but there is no denying that he blazed trails. Later scholars may have become more empirical in their use of these images as evidence, but they all pay homage to the territory Praz first mapped.12 He was the first to see these paintings as primary documents of the taste and mores of previous generations, not just as beautiful objects, but as epistles dispatched more or less directly from the past. Praz was not interested in simply tracing the evolution of painting styles or of various furniture types, though he does do both, and he didn’t just use them as visual inventories of great houses. Instead, he wanted to get at the root of what would become the bourgeois domestic mood, or Stimmung, to use his word, of the nineteenth century.

We can all get lost in the contemplation of these pictures. In Praz’s imagination, these “crystalline” rooms seem “to be waiting for human inhabitants.”13 The viewer can almost hear the instruments about to be played,14 or the receding echo of a footstep far down a hallway glimpsed through an open door.15 Of another painting that captures sunlight beaming through the windows, he wrote that “you cannot help gazing at this shaft of sunlight as though it were bound to change its position, little by little, on the wall in company with the gradual movement of the hands of the clock as it chimes beneath its glass bell on the dressing-table.”16 Praz always emphasized the experiential and emotional ellipses in these pictures—the sounds, smells, textures, and partial views that inspire viewers to imagine themselves in these spaces, so, it seems only fitting to give him the last word:

if one could stretch out a hand into the strip of light that falls on the floor, one could feel its warmth. These watercolors so accurately preserve the taste of that age that you would almost say the doors and windows depicted in them have never been opened since then, and that we breathe the spirit still enclosed there like—the comparison is perhaps overworked, but it is certainly appropriate here—the scent of perfume that lingers in an ancient phial.17

1 Quoted in Kimberly Stevens, “Picture, Picture on the Wall…,” New York Times, February 21, 2008.
2 Mario Praz, The House of Life, trans. Angus Davidson (Oxford University Press, New York, 1964), p. 287.
3 On the Frick Collection exhibition, see Charlotte Gere, Nineteenth Century Interiors: An Album of Watercolors (Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992).
4 For the most complete profile of Thaw’s work and donations, see the series of interviews by Steven M. L. Aronson published in several issues of Architectural Digest (April, May, September, and December 2006; April and June 2007; and January, March, June, and August 2008).
5 Charles Plante Fine Arts is at 50 Gloucester Street, London; www.watercolours-drawings.com.
6 Mario Praz, An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau, trans. William Weaver (Thames and Hudson, New York, 1982), p. 38 [first published in English as An Illustrated History of Furnishing, from the Renaissance to the 20th Century, trans. William Weaver (George Braziller, New York, 1964)].
7 John Richardson, “Commentary: The Obsessions of Mario Praz” House and Garden (January 1983).
8 Michael Levey, “Spoils,” New York Review of Books, vol. 3, no. 9 (December 17, 1964).
9 Edmund Wilson, “The Genie of the Via Giulia,” New Yorker, February 20, 1965, p. 152.
10 Hugh Honour, “From the House of Life,” New York Review of Books, vol. 30, no. 3 (March 3, 1983).
11 David Watkin, “The Psychology of the Interior View,” in Inside Out: Historic Watercolour Drawings, Oil Sketches, and Paintings of Interiors and Exteriors, 1770–1870 (Charles Plante Fine Arts and Stair and Company, London, 2000), p. 4.
12 See, for example, Peter Thornton, Authentic Décor: The Domestic Interior, 1620–1920 (Viking, New York, 1984); Charlotte Gere, Nineteenth-Century Decoration: The Art of the Interior (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1989); and Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior since the Renaissance, ed. Jeremy Aynsley and Charlotte Grant (V&A Publications, London, 2006).
13 Praz, The House of Life, p. 259.
14 Mario Praz, “Genre Painting and the Novel,” introduction to The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction, trans. Angus Davidson (Oxford University Press, London and New York, 1969), p. 4.
15 Ibid, p. 5.
16 Praz, The House of Life, p. 290.
17 Praz, An Illustrated History, p. 38; also The House of Life, p. 288.

SHAX RIEGLER is a PhD candidate at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture in New York City, specializing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century decorative arts.