Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Louis XIV, 300 Years and a Day

Three hundred years ago and a day, Louis XIV died but five days before his 77th birthday. He had reigned for 72 years and 110 days, the longest of any monarch since the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses the Second, who died aged ninety in 1213 BC.

Like Ramesses, Louis was named "the Great," and not to be outdone, Voltaire named a century after him, "le siècle de Louis le Grand," the century of Louis the Great. The Durants, Will and Ariel, those Eisenhower-era icons of hardcover, multi-volume world history, did Voltaire one better and named an age after him, "the Age of Louis XIV." He was also christened Louis-Dieudonné (Louis, Miracle of God) for the very real wonder of being the issue of Louis XIII, sickly and enfeebled, who died when Louis was a small child. Fatherless, he was formed by the wily Italian cleric Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIII's first minister, reputed lover of his mother, Anne of Austria, and regent and mentor to the young monarch. He was also named le Roi Soleil, the Sun King, for his unprecedented patronage of the arts and his willful conflation of his own person with the sun god Apollo.

He defined absolutism, raised the vast palace at Versailles and many others besides, stumbled by revoking the Edict of Nantes, waged a succession of half-remembered Continental wars that earned him few friends but a good deal of territory and prestige, and perfected both state bureaucracy and state propaganda and in so doing became the radiant figurehead for the state and the kingdom of France and so in turn became the model for and envy of all other rulers of Europe and more profoundly the prototype of the ruler in the modern age.

His taste in all things was slavishly copied, as were his pretensions. He also bankrupted France with his endless wars and inveterate building and so ultimately set the stage for the French Revolution.

He notably loved women, flattery, ballet, hunting, building, military sieges, his own reputation, children, flowers, France and God, though he came late to the last of that randomly ordered list. Mazarin formed his political mind and fundamentally he was more clever than smart; he was also one of the most civilized personages ever to live, which gives a perhaps-misplaced sheen of great intelligence through perfected manners. He knew how to delegate and was a fair though not exceptional judge of character and ability, and he kept a vast number of secrets and never committed to anything when directly asked, always replying, "On verra." One will see.

Having outlived most of his own family and all but one of his direct heirs, he died a horrible death of gangrene that began in one leg and gradually consumed him over a period of weeks. He also died as he had lived, without complaint, with exceptional good humor and exquisite consideration for those about him and with great dignity.

When the future Louis XV was brought to him on his deathbed, he advised the child, "Do not follow the bad example which I have set you; I have often gone to war too lightly and sustained it for vanity. Do not imitate me in this, but be a peaceful prince, and strive for the betterment of your people." 

He was eminently quotable, even to his last words. All those attending him agree that those words were "Je m'en vais, mais l'État demeurera toujours." ("I am departing, but the state will endure.")

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Frick garden is saved

Wonderful news for all who love the unique ambiance of The Frick Collection and its delightful Russell Page garden: The museum has announced today that it is abandoning its ambitious expansion plans, designed by Davis Brody Bond. The additions would have subsumed Page's elegant garden beneath a massive, six-story-plus addition (seen to the right of the entry in the above rendering) that also would have overwhelmed the original two-story, Louis XVI-style Frick residence, the heart of the museum, and left it a mere appendage.

The press release states that the Frick will regroup and develop a new expansion plan, and that the second-flooronce family rooms but today executive officeswill be converted to exhibition space. Having visited and dined in these rooms several times, we can attest that they will make excellent additions to the museum's exhibition space, though the executive staff will lose a magnificent perk and be forced from the old Frick residence.

The statement reads:

The Frick remains committed to furthering its mission by attaining its goals, among them having additional space for the display of works of art, including galleries on the historic second floor of the mansion, dedicated classrooms for education programs, updated facilities for the care of our art and research collections, and better public access between the museum and the Frick Art Reference Library. We also plan to improve visitor amenities in general while offering equal access for visitors with disabilities. At the same time, preserving the unique residential character and intimate scale of the Frick will remain our top priority.

Well, no one can argue with thatat least until we see the new plans. Part of the solution should be to rein in ambitions and ponder how best to enhance the Frick while ensuring that it remains what it isthe best small museum in the world, with an accent on small. Does the Frick truly need to expand both its mandate and its facilities to so great an extent as first proposed? Or will expansion destroy this unique house museum? After all, the Frick is a house, albeit a grand one, and to ensure success in this venture, those guiding it must not lose sight of that fundamental, defining fact. Logic and moderation counsel that the Frick should maximize its existing assets, purchase or lease administration space adjacent to the property and seek creative and judicious rationalization of the built fabric it already has.

In the meantime, we can all rejoice that Page's oasis of verdant civilization has been spared from New York's relentless redevelopment mania. The Frick is unique and should be thoughtfully preserved; after all, what other building in New York can boast its own front yard bordering Fifth Avenue and Central Park?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Chelsea Flower Show: Clone wars & that '50s vibe

The winning designs of the 2015 Chelsea Flower Show have been announced, and Dan Pearson's preternaturally natural recreation of a slice of woodland at Chatsworth (above, from the UK's Telegraph)  has won Best in Show. Another microplot of meticulously contrived virtual reality,  James Bassen's Perfumer's Garden in Grasse (below), was awarded a gold medal.

Both gardens are stunning recreations, kudos to both design teams for jaw-droppingly flawless execution,  especially Bassen, whose garden is particularly lyrical. But the thought occurs, Should one really call them gardens? They seem more like extraordinary clones, the Dolly the sheep of garden design. They also remind one of the current hyper-realist waxwork fixation in contemporary art, exemplified by artists such as the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who fashions remarkably lifelike wax effigies of historical figures and then photographs them in "portraits" (below, HRH Princess Diana, in wax).

One frankly designed garden, an elegant chessboard based on de Stijl geometries by Marcus Burnett, may not have been particularly innovative but it was so expertly balanced and flawlessly executed that it also won a gold medal.

Unsurprisingly, with our current hipster-driven fixation upon elevating nostalgia for days of future past into a cultural obsession, a number of winning designs seem to have come straight from the well-thumbed pages of that postwar horticultural bible, America's Garden Book, specifically the chapter on contemporary garden design from the iconic 1958 edition. Bush-Brown's Eisenhower-era masterpiece encapsulated the heady design moment when America discovered pebble-encrusted concrete pavers, the Southwest, and redwood plank.

Below, gold-medal winning gardens by Harry and David Rich, Adam Frost, and Chris Beardshaw.

For complete coverage, we'd highly recommend a visit to the website of the UK's Telegraph, which has devoted an entire section to the Chelsea Flower Show.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Chinoiserie notecards in World of Interiors

In the better-late-than-never department, we would be remiss if we didn't note the March issue of World of Interiors, which featured Aglae Auersperg's watercolors of her family's Chinese pavilion in the gardens at Vlašim, a Bohemian estate in the modern-day Czech Republic. The pavilion (above) has been impeccably restored and the watercolors are atmospheric and charming, and the issue was, as usual, intriguing, informative and visually stunning.

The issue's Inspiration page featured our boxed Tea House silhouette notecards and one of our folding cards reproducing our watercolor of the Pagoda at Rheinsberg, which once stood an extensive eighteenth-century folly garden created by Prince Heinrich of Prussia, brother of Frederick the Great.