European elegance in San Francisco

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

Photography by Aya Brackett | One of California’s finest collections of eighteenth-century English and European decorative arts is to be found in San Francisco in a large Queen Anne revival house in Pacific Heights. Carefully chosen to evoke the atmosphere of an English country house or a French château, these objects shine brilliantly against the dark brown paneling in the main rooms. When the eminent San Francisco decorator Michael Taylor (1927-1986) worked here in the 1960s, the first thing he wanted to do was bleach the paneling to off-white tones, but the owners persisted with their original idea of preserving the dark character of the walls to act as a foil for their collections. The results are extremely effective. These rich and jewellike interiors were achieved with the services of another notable San Francisco decorator, Anthony Hail (1925-2006). They work most beautifully at night when warm subtle lighting provides an entrancing background for the objects.
What strikes the visitor most about the main rooms is the owners’ extraordinary facility for choosing fine objects and putting them together in striking groupings. This singular talent was found most famously in the work of John Fowler (1906-1977), the English designer who did so much to create English country house taste after World War II. Almost as famous, and certainly as influential on the Continent, were the interiors of the amateur Carlos de Beistegui (1895-1970). Beistegui’s Proustian evocations of the past at the Château de Groussay outside Paris beginning in the 1940s were more formal than Fowler’s, although they retained the relaxed ambience of the English country house.1 But it was the Wrightsman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that most directly influenced these collectors. They were so impressed by the installation of those galleries in the 1960s that they asked Hail to use them for inspiration in their house. In the last ten years the owners have made a series of acquisitions that have added another dimension to the interiors. The main rooms all combine comfort with a measure of formality, but it is the arrangements of objects that give them scale and richness. 

This talent for grouping objects is immediately apparent in the entrance hall. On one side a large carved gilded wood jardiniere from the Italian Piedmont, in the manner of Turin’s most famous neoclassical woodcarver Giuseppe Maria Bonzanigo (see Fig. 4), is flanked by a pair of silvered rococo Venetian armchairs and positioned under a painting of an English man-of-war by Peter Monamy (1681-1749). The painting in turn is set between a pair of rococo looking glasses from the well-known Irish collection of Aileen Plunket at Luttrellstown outside Dublin.2 This composition of objects from different countries is a recurring feature of the collection. On the other side of the entrance hall is another careful assemblage (see Fig. 5). It begins with a grand pair of white and gold looking glasses in the Palladian style from Spencer House in London. They are attributed to John Vardy, the architect who worked on this town palace between 1755 and 1758, and provide the principal architectural focus to the room. The looking glasses are placed in an unusual, yet successful, combination with a pair of French neoclassical console tables bearing the partial stamp of Georges Jacob. Decorated in white and gold, the tables were formerly in the vestibule of Rose Terrace, the spectacular eighteenth-century style mansion at Grosse Point, Michigan, created for Anna Thompson Dodge (1871-1970) in the early 1930s.3 Then, in a complete change of pace, a set of four chinoiserie wall sconces originally from the Chinese sitting room of Government House in Cape Town, South Africa, hang alongside the looking glasses. Dating from the early twentieth century, the rococo revival sconces with their reverse-painted decoration introduce a pleasing air of informality.

There are also other lighthearted moments in the house, which act as counterweights to the serious nature of the main objects. A cast-iron stove in the shape of an enormous snail, made in Reims, France, about 1866, for example, stands at the bottom of the staircase.

The set of Swedish trompe-l’oeil wall paintings in the dining room gives the visitor the feeling of being in a small European château or schloss (Fig. 9). Each is decorated with trophies, medallions, and garlands of flowers around a “framed painting,” one of which depicts Stockholm harbor on a stormy day (Fig. 7). The panels are complemented by an elaborate late eighteenth-century English cut-glass chandelier, an English Regency dining table, and an early eighteenth-century set of Italian gilded chairs painted with coats of arms.

The most interesting grouping in this room is the one above the chimneypiece (Fig. 8): Meissen porcelain figures of the Senses—Sight with her telescope and Touch being bitten on the finger by a parrot—are mounted as candelabra in gilt bronze and form a garniture with a gilt-bronze clock signed Gilles l’âiné à Paris that dates from about 1750. The painting above, of a hunting dog with dead game within a trompe-l’oeil frame, is flanked by a pair of extremely unusual gilded wood wall lights. These sconces are composed of rather languid rococo scrollwork brightly carved with sprays of flowers. Finished in matte oil gilding, they are northern European, possibly German or Dutch.

The most spectacular room in the house is the large double-height living room with its cove ceiling (see Figs. 1, 10). The previous owners held dances here for two hundred people, and the current owners discovered that without the parties this room with its dark paneling and solitary gas ceiling fixture, lost its luster, so they set about transforming it. Although it has two tall windows looking onto San Francisco Bay, it is the room rather than the view that remains the main interest. Instead of adding the obligatory rectangular picture windows found in so many houses in Pacific Heights, the owners kept faith with the room’s original fenestration.

The dark nature of the room is offset by two massive yet delicate gilded and cut-glass chandeliers that are in perfect proportion with the space and by five large Flemish paintings of arcadian landscapes. The central panel from the series is hung over the large chimneypiece, a feature of the room that is so darkly painted as to be hardly visible (see Fig. 10). But its presence is in keeping with the surrounding objects: two large Chinese Coromandel lacquer armoires surmounted by gilded Italian baroque reliquary busts, which themselves are surmounted, respectively, by a barometer and a hygrometer by the eighteenth-century French makers Cappy et Mossy.

The combination of exotic Asian lacquer and porcelain with European decorative arts is the order of the day here—from Chinese porcelain in French gilt-bronze mounts to the elaborate pair of imperial Chinese jardinieres with jade and coral trees of life, one of which is displayed between a pair of French eighteenth-century chenets of a dog and a cat. The prime example of East meets West is a distinguished piece of eighteenth-century mounted porcelain from the collections of the margraves of Baden: a Chinese blanc de chine elephant saddled with a Japanese lacquer bowl and mounted in gilt bronze bearing the crowned C that indicates that it was assembled between 1745 and 1749 (Fig. 14).

The elaborate jardinieres are spectacular examples of Chinese workmanship of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century (Fig. 12). They have certain affinities with a nécessaire in the manner of James Cox (c. 1723-1800) of London, the gilt-metal case of which is also embossed with scrollwork and mounted with paste gems. Like the nécessaire, the large musical clock by Francis Perigal in Figure 11 was intended for export to China.4 Such English automata fascinated the Chinese imperial court: this example has a figure in a pagoda that lifts a scroll at the quarter hour with an inscription in Chinese characters that loosely translates, “May you have five sons who pass exams to become high officers in the government.” Above the dial is a scene of ships that, at the hour, sail to a tinkling tune past a waterfall of revolving glass rods. Although it is rather old fashioned for 1790, the Chinese loved the exuberant rococo scrollwork of English ormolu clocks, and these objects show how the two cultures admired and imitated each other’s luxury goods at this date.

The furnishings of the living room are divided into three groupings: a seating area in the middle of the room and one at either end. The tables in the middle of the room display a collection of gold boxes and other objets de vertu that are a particular passion of the owners. There are a group of French boxes by Joseph Étienne Blerzy (m. 1768, active to 1808); a varied assortment of German hardstone boxes, including an agate horse’s head mounted in diamonds, rubies, and emeralds from the former collection of Alexis de Rosenberg (1922-2004), baron de Redé;5 and some English boxes of the early nineteenth century, including a Freedom Box by Alexander James Strachan (see Fig. 13). There are also a few portrait miniatures-one an engaging likeness by the Russian court miniaturist Augustin Christian Ritt of a man in informal dress sitting in a rustic chair in a landscape that, from his gesture, must be his property (Fig. 15).

Some of the grandest objects in the room are assembled on a long gilded wood console (Fig. 17). A Japanese lacquer box occupies pride of place in the middle. It is mounted in sumptuous rococo gilt bronze and must have been transformed by a Parisian marchand mercier into a fashionable high luxury object about 1750. Its padded blue silk lining suggests it was once fitted for a precious object, such as a porcelain tea service. On either side of the box are two of the most impressive objects in the collection, a pair of framed marquetry pictures mounted with the gilt-bronze crest of Joachim Murat, the king of Naples from 1808 to 1815. The marquetry pictures are after paintings of Evening and Morning by Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). They can be swiveled on their Egyptian style gilt-bronze mounts to reveal another pair of marquetry panels with scenes after the decoration on ancient vases, probably derived from prints of the famous Sir William Hamilton collection (Fig. 16). More recently these marquetry pictures were in the salon jaune at Beistegui’s Château de Groussay.6

On the other side of the entrance to the room is a large Flemish cabinet of about 1670 attributed to Italian craftsmen (see Fig. 3). Veneered in red tortoiseshell, it has panels of painted marble on the drawer fronts, and on the inside it has a compartment lined with mirrors and hung with a silver chandelier like a miniature baroque theater. The living room also holds some pieces of miniature furniture, which the owners particularly favor. These include an Italian baroque gilded wood throne for the figure of the Christ child, a child’s chair stamped by Claude Chevigny, and a neoclassical gilded wood child’s chair from the collection of the princes de Ligne. The most extraordinary of these small pieces, although not strictly miniature, is a delicate rococo rafraichissoir fitted for two wine bottles at the top with a mirror-lined compartment in one side for the glasses (Fig. 2). Its small scale indicates that it was intended for intimate dining. The silvered decoration and the inventive carving of icicles spilling over the edge and at the knees suggest that it is probably German rather than French—possibly for the court of Frederick the Great at Berlin or Potsdam.

While the overall impression of these rooms is one of richness and variety in the European mode, it is the unusual setting that gives them their singular American character. At night, when the house is bathed in the subtlest of artificial light, when it is filled with orchids, and indeed when it is filled with guests, the collection really comes to life. Many museums and their curators could learn from such an example. 

1 See Château de Groussay, Sotheby’s France and Poulain, Le Fur, Paris, June 2-6, 1999.  2 Luttrellstown Castle, Clonsilla, County Dublin…, Christie’s, September 26-28, 1983, lot 255.  3 The Dodge Collection of Eighteenth-Century French and English Art in the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, 1996), p. 24. The decoration was by the New York and Paris firm of L. Alavoine and Company; much of the furniture was supplied by Duveen Brothers of New York.  4 Magnificent Clocks, Christie’s, London, September 15, 2004, lot 16.  5 Meubles et objets d’art provenant de l’Hôtel Lambert et du Château de Ferrières, Sotheby’s Monaco May 25-26, 1975, lot 23.  6 Château de Groussay, vol. 1, June 2, 1999, lot 281

MARTIN CHAPMAN is the curator of European decorative arts and sculpture at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.