Those of us who make the pilgrimage to North Carolina each spring and fall have just wrapped another High Point Market and survived the tumult of stimuli that washes over us as we see what’s new in the home furnishings arena. As I was thinking about how I wanted to frame the choices I’ve made for my favorite products, I realized just how much of a shift in consciousness we’ve undergone during the last century, one that has to do with how adept we are at being at home.
This occurred to me as I was reading about the lives of the historically significant figures I’m pairing with the design products in this literary design encounter. Their ability to “be at home” in the most authentic sense of the word brought this question to mind: “What does it mean to be at home in the mid-21st century in America compared to how it felt in the mid-20th century in Europe?” I make the comparison by using two spheres of influence, the inner circle of Lady Ottoline Morrell and the coterie of Natalie Clifford Barney.
Ottoline Morrell at Home
I’ll begin with Morrell, who gathered the crème de la crème of the British literary set at Garsington Manor, a stone residence near Oxford that is said to date to the 1630s when it was built on the site of a medieval home once owned by Geoffrey Chaucer’s son Thomas. The Morrell’s moved in on May 17, 1915, after waiting several years for the lease held by the tenants they inherited when they bought the house to expire.
Ottoline’s desire to escape a London that had become a veritable war-time hospital permeated her journal, and the relief she felt when she reached Garsington was palpable:
“After nearly three years of waiting we have arrived here. I have dreaded it, dreaded the plunge of entering into such a completely new existence, and dreaded all the arranging and ‘house-moving,’ but now that it has actually happened, and that we are in the midst of it, not looking at it from a distance over a hedge, I feel full of fresh hope, almost as if we had stepped out of a dark nightmare into a fresh magic world, where all is blossom and spring and tranquility.”
Her descriptions of renovating the manor house are delightful to read. She writes about the special paint colors she struggled to realize, from the Venetian red lacquer for a paneled room that it took her and her painter much experimentation to formulate to the transformation of a long, low hall: “This we made a lovely, pearly dove-grey, on which I painted a faint shade of pink that reflected the cardinal-red silk curtains. I had a winter sunset in mind.” Her narrative about the renovation, which is intimately conversational, is the opening entry in the book Ottoline at Garsington: Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell 1915-1918 in which she writes, “I feel as if I were living in a dream, and as if life was hanging suspended, spellbound in a happy trance.”
She is already being bombarded with requests for visits from the luminaries she would eventually welcome, an esteemed list that includes E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, W.B. Yeats, Cecil Beaton, T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, D.H. Lawrence, Ian Fleming, André Gide, and many, many others. She records her impressions of one particular weekend in 1916 when the group she is hosting is made up of Katherine Mansfield, Maynard Keynes, John Middleton Murry, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Lytton Strachey, and Aldous Huxley.
“We never had such immensely long discussions as we had this week-end,” she writes. “Beginning on Saturday evening until Monday morning. Endless and exciting and exhausting. We started on Gertrude Stein’s ‘Portrait of Miss Dodge.’ Then Robert Graves’ poems, Over the Brazier. I found Clive Bell very annoying; he was so superficial and spluttering. Murry was much more sympathetic and seems to be able to feel what a poet was like, and what he really desired to say.”
By all accounts, Ottoline knew exactly how it felt to make her guests feel “at home,” whether she gathered them within the home’s interior she so lovingly transformed, or on the loggia or in the Italianate garden that she and Phillip had created, the former modeled on the entrance of Cranborne Manor in Dorset and the latter inspired partly by the gardens at the Villa Capponi near Florence.
Every decorating decision was geared toward her desire “to make this place a harbour, a refuge in the storm, where those who haven’t been swept away could come and renew themselves and go fourth strengthened.” But she did so only after taking some time for herself. “I will bestir myself and ask some people here and have a party for my birthday,” she explains. “I will ask the Cannans and Lawrences and Bertie and Maria will be here. Bertie and Lawrence can make friends and plan a ‘revolution’ and a ‘New World,’ and write manifestos together.”
Natalie Barney at Home
Though the Brits who orbited around Ottoline’s celestial pull remain among the most creatively driven intellectuals England has ever seen, the other group of artistically inclined individuals I’ve tapped for this post were much more avant-garde. The planet around which these Bohemians revolved was Natalie Clifford Barney, whose Friday afternoon gatherings in her Left Bank apartment at 20 rue Jacob remain legendary. The American debutant left the states as soon as she had the financial means, which came about when her father died and left her with the substantial fortune, to remain an ex-pat Parisian for the remainder of her life.
She founded her famous salon in Neuilly, moving it to Paris in 1909. For over 60 years she gathered an ever-evolving cadre of intellectuals in her home on Fridays from 4:30 to 8 p.m. They discussed literature, art, music and many other topics of interest, an enterprise about which she was fond of saying, “I didn’t create a salon. A salon was created round me.”
Like Morrell’s inner circle, the names of those who passed through Barney’s home were distinguished: Auguste Rodin, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, André Gide, Anatole France, Ford Madox Ford, W. Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, William Carlos Williams, Rainer Maria Rilke, Peggy Guggenheim and Sylvia Beach.
I feel fortunate that the liveliness is well documented because the anecdotes help me to imagine how it must have felt when a reading by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay packed the salon in 1932. There are conflicting reports as to whether Hemingway attended and James Joyce made it known he didn’t care for the tenor of Barney’s salon, which included nonconformists like the American painter Romaine Brooks with whom Barney had a romantic bond.
Brooks was a portraitist who was noted for her somber palette of gray, black, and white. During the 1920s she painted a number of the members of Barney’s social circle, including the salonière. Those who attended the Friday night affairs described Barney’s home as having a disheveled nonchalance. Unlike Morrell, she felt she had better things to do with her time than decorate and be bothered with housekeeping. Radclyffe Hall called the backdrop “a rather splendid disorder” in which the “odour of somebody’s Oriental scent was mingling with the odour of tuberoses in a sixteenth-century chalice.”
Papers and books were strewn about, the piles accumulating as the interests of the apartment’s owner and her favorite guests grew. Hall sets the scene: “On a divan, whose truly regal proportions occupied the best part of a shadowy alcove, lay a box of Fuller’s peppermint creams and a lute, but the strings of the lute were broken.” Unlike Barney, Brooks had decorated her flat across the Seine on Avenue du Trocadéro with a desire to achieve serenity and order. The interiors had “muted effects and scarce colour to reflect her sense of self,” writes Diana Souhami in her book Wild Girls, which explores Barney’s world and everyone in it. “At roof level she had a glass studio with views of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower. She wanted each room, and all the furniture and paintings to provide backgrounds for her art.”
Barney and Brooks met in 1915, the same year Ottoline was moving her family to Garsington. Both Barney, at 39, and Brooks, at 41, were avid readers who were famous for debating works by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. In Paris, they lazed about on the grass by the lilac bushes in Bois de Boulogne—the park where Barney was infamous for riding her horse bareback. And in Capri, they stayed in the Villa Cercola with its terraced gardens, guest apartments and furniture made by local craftsmen, which Brooks had bought as a getaway.
This wonderful video of Barney, who was interviewed at 91 in 1966 in the courtyard behind her flat, illustrates why she is seen as one of the powerhouses of the modern movement. In it, she shares anecdotes about meeting fabled writers like Proust and Oscar Wilde.
She is also asked about idleness, as she had devoted an entire essay to the subject. Her answer is so on message given the Bohemian she was: “I think one must be idle in order to become oneself. If you have a profession, you become part of that profession and it seems to me that that’s the idlest thing of all because you become a function instead of a free-thinking individual finding out who you are and what you are, and what other people are.”
The Modern Home for the Intellectual Set
This statement sums up one of the biggest differences I see between our lives today and those of the intellectuals featured in this exploration. Given the frenetic pace we maintain, there seems to be less time for introspection with each passing year. Though many of you will counter that the statement was made by an independently wealthy individual, think about the 1% who operate in our culture today. They are the most mobile and, therefore, the least likely to have an attachment to being at home.
Though I am not in that upper echelon, I’ll use myself as an example. I love to entertain but for the past several years my time at home seems to be centered around recovery from activities in the world rather than celebrating those I’d enjoy gathering around me. I wonder if there are those among you reading this who feel the same.
Since being surrounded by beautiful things is paramount to an enjoyment of home, I am placing the literati and famous painters who were drawn to the inner sanctums of these two notable hostesses within my favorite vignettes from High Point Market, imagining what discussions might have taken place had they been debating life within these showrooms:
When Djuna Barnes first published her Ladies Almanack, she chose not to put her name on it. The author was listed as “A Lady of Fashion.” I believe this lady of fashion would have enjoyed toasting her luck at landing in this setting containing the Axiom bar cabinet and arm chair by Bernhardt.
Given that one of Colette’s renowned portraits is a photograph of her wrapped in animal skins with her crossed arms resting on the head of a lion, I give her this Aidan Gray Home vignette from their High Point showroom in which to prowl.
Virginia Woolf was famous for writing in bed so I place her in this stylish setting from the new Veranda Collection, new this market by Fine Furniture Design.
I’m guessing Natalie Barney would have loved directing her famous Friday evening salons from this Bernhardt vignette that includes the new Ophelia drawer chests.
Somerset Maugham was a well-traveled savant who chose to settle in the South of France. I’m nestling him into this vignette from the Bruce Andrews Design showroom, the pale hues of the furniture in the Dune Collection a soothing palette for such a colorful novelist.
D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda were among the smart set traveling Europe who were regulars at Garsington. Given he is known for his sensual fiction, I’m tucking them into Jamie Drake’s Venus king bed that debuted at Theodore Alexander this market.
Romaine Brooks was drawn to a somber palette of gray, black, and white so I place her in this moody vignette. The centerpiece is the Nightingale entertainment credenza that debuted at Bernhardt this market.
W.B. Yeats was among the noted poets who visited Garsington with his wife George. I’m placing them within this comfortable seating arrangement where they might be inspired to discuss literature with Siegfried Sassoon. Can’t you see the couple relaxing into the Garson chairs while Sassoon perches upon the Alisa ottoman in this Currey & Company showroom vignette?
Duncan Grant was not only an artist; he designed textiles, pottery, theater sets and costumes. Let’s have him kicking back in this Bernhardt vignette that includes Annabella cocktail tables, Ophelia chests, an Annabella end table and Orleans chairs.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was a prolific poet, one I can imagine nestled into this sofa by Badgley Mischka Home. I think she would have loved the sophisticated bling of this vignette showcasing the Monterey sofa.
As the movie Tom & Viv illustrates, Vivienne and T.S. Eliot had a bit of a rough ride in their marriage. I’m giving them a great night’s rest by tucking them into this Pandora de Balthazár bed that graced their space during market.
I hope you enjoyed this exploration that showcases some remarkable new designs that debuted last week. Do you feel you are as “at home” in your surroundings as you would like to be?
The Modern Salonnière and A Case for Being at Home © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.
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