Planting Fields Foundation opens its new spring exhibition, Fabulous Interiors by Elsie de Wolfe and Charles Duveen, 1915 -1945, on Saturday, March 29th at Coe Hall, open every day 11:30am - 3:30pm, through September 30th.
Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) and Charles Duveen were two of the most successful interior designers of the first half of the twentieth century, they are a study in contrast. De Wolfe was one of the very first professional women decorators in the U.S. Her career, which began in 1905 two years before the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts even began teaching interior decoration, is legendary. She was an actress who changed careers and had a passion for French 18th century rooms. Her work rejected dark Victorian interiors in favor of light reflecting French classical-revival rooms. De Wolfe was prolific and her imaginative designs had a powerful influence on glamorous American homes throughout much of the 20th century.
At Planting Fields her gorgeous 1915 tea house in the Italian Garden is a rare surviving example of her finest work. Apart from old photographs very little of Elsie de Wolfe’s work survives, which makes the tea house extremely rare and historically important because its trellis interior, utterly distinctive of her French eighteenth-century revival style, survives with all its original furniture and fittings. Its gorgeous Fragonard-like murals by Everett Shinn (signed and dated 1915) glow with brilliant colors against the blue-green trellis ceiling, and the room’s furniture is exquisitely painted by Shinn with garlands of flowers. Still in the tea house today are its six original wrought iron electric light fixtures made to look like bouquets of flowers painted in naturalistic colors. Henry Joyce, executive director of Planting Fields Foundation, and the co-curator of the exhibition, writes that “The tea house room is a masterpiece of de Wolfe’s most creative interior design. Despite its diminutive scale it is one of Planting Fields’ great treasures”. This year between March 29th and Sept 30th, during the time of the exhibition’s run, the tea house will be open every day from 12:30-2:00pm, with free admission.
The exhibition explores the rarefied world of fine interiors by two firms whose styles of design were very different. Elsie De Wolfe was committed to a vocabulary that was based on high-style French interiors of the eighteenth century, with a focus on light reflected by mirrors and enhanced by painted walls and furniture. It was de Wolfe who made the use of beautifully printed and colored floral chintzes and toiles de rigueur for curtains and upholstery. Very importantly, Elsie de Wolfe made the interior design profession one where women could flourish. She herself built on the models of both Candice Wheeler (1827-1923) and Edith Wharton (1862-1937) who were, in different ways, successful forerunners in the world of decorating. In the twentieth century de Wolfe firmly established a place for ambitious interior designers to succeed. Her business grew rapidly after her work for the Colony Club which opened in 1907. Many club members (all of whom were well-to-do women) were out-of-towners and gave de Wolfe commissions as far away as the Midwest and California. She began to make a lot of money and opened a bigger office and showroom on 5th Avenue. In 1910 she and Elizabeth Marbury (the theatrical agent with whom she lived for 25 years) bought a fine house on East 55th street which de Wolfe decorated and published. She was now a star; she gave lectures on decorating which were turned into a best-selling book, The House of GoodTaste (1913) ghost written by journalist Ruby Ross Wood. Wood went on to be a highly successful interior designer in her own right, influenced by the de Wolfe look. There grew to be a whole raft of mainly women decorators working successfully in New York City between about 1920 and 1960, who were to a large degree influenced by Elsie de Wolfe. Among them, in addition to Ruby Ross Wood, were Nancy McClelland, Dorothy Draper, Francis Elkins, Rose Cummings, Sister Parish and the Thedlow firm (Lottie Handy, Theresa Chalmers and Edna de Frise) who worked at Coe Hall in 1928 for the third Mrs. Coe, Caroline (after Mai Coe died in 1924). They worked here again in the 1950s decorating a new residence, the Manor House, with elegant French inspired rooms, where Caroline moved after her husband’s death in 1955.
After World War I, Elsie de Wolfe lived at her Versailles house, or her apartment in Paris for at least half of every year where she entertained European high society and Americans abroad, including Cole Porter, whose first musical comedy (1914) de Wolfe had designed sets for, and the future Duchess of Windsor who was a close friend and client, along with the Prince of Wales. Immersed in the French beau monde de Wolfe’s interiors began to reflect a contemporary chic that she saw about her in Paris, which until World War II was the international center of new art and design. She began using clear bright colors instead of her earlier more muted palette. She started to use leopard and zebra printed fabrics mixed in with her habitual floral chintzes, along with luxurious fur rugs and throws. There was just a hint of fashionable art deco in her work of the 1920s; more sparkle in polished metal surfaces, more mirrored glass for walls than twenty years earlier.
In 1936, because of her brother’s mismanagement she was forced to close her business, Elsie de Wolfe, Inc. and declare bankruptcy (none of her archives survive). She spent the war years in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, in a house she named “After All” which she decorated, using her famous end-of-career black and white motif, with the help of the young designer Tony Duquette. She helped launch his extraordinary career. In 1946 she returned to her Versailles house and died four years later.
Charles Duveen’s father, Joel Joseph, and his uncle, Henry had been in the works of art and interior design business since the 1870s and by 1900 had become the internationally famous firm, the Duveen Brothers with galleries in Paris, London and New York. After Joel’s death in 1909, the eldest of his twelve children, Joseph (later Lord Duveen of Millbank) led the firm in a new direction. They disposed of their general business in interior design and devoted themselves to selling extremely fine works of art. It was then that Charles created his own independent antiques and interior design business. With the agreement that Charles would not use the Duveen name, Joseph paid him an annual fee, hence the name Charles of London or C.J. Charles. His business in New York and London flourished for over thirty years. His rooms at Coe Hall from the early 1920s, are some of his best surviving work.
Charles Duveen, brother of the famous art dealer Lord Duveen of Millbank, is credited with making the Tudor style of dark paneled rooms a prevalent taste in expensive houses on both sides of the Atlantic, using oak furniture. It is a vocabulary based on the formal court interiors and state reception rooms of 16th century English monarchs, a more masculine than feminine style of work.
Apart from Coe Hall’s architects, Walker & Gillette, Charles Duveen, as head of his antiques business, did more to shape the style of the rooms than any other person. By the 1880s his antique dealer family, who were Jewish and Dutch, had created the famous art dealer and decorating business, the Duveen Brothers of Paris, London and New York. At Coe Hall, his firm, Charles of London, supplied roughly 80% of the furnishing. There were also over twenty established antique dealers who also sold furniture to Mr. Coe. But today in the archive room at Coe Hall there are a limited number of bills or letters between 1920 and 1923 for each of those firms, but for Charles of London there are hundreds. He supplied over four hundred decorative art objects, including light fixtures, tapestries, tables, chairs, cupboards, beds and even china and linens. Mr. Duveen’s correspondence with William R. Coe is mostly cordial, though there are some disagreements about costs. In 1923 Mr. Coe wrote to Frank Partridge, one of his London antique dealers, that Charles Duveen “had been responsible for a great deal of the decoration and furnishing of my house and I have paid him an enormous amount of money.” Although the Coe Hall archives might not be complete, the Charles of London invoices that are extant for all the artifacts bought for the house add up to about $450,000. Additionally, Mr. Coe spent a total of roughly $75,000 (today about $900,000) in payment to other antique dealers, including Jacques Seligmann et Fils, Stair & Andrew, Lenygon & Morant, J. Rochelle Thomas, Frank Partridge, and French &Co.
By 1920 the rather conservative Tudor or Elizabethan style of room decoration was a taste that had been established for over twenty-five years, both in England and the United States, where it had been widely promoted in books and magazines. In 1920 Charles Duveen was very successful; he lived in New York City, had a house in Hastings-on-Hudson, where he sailed on the river, and a house in England. He ran a large showroom in mid-town Manhattan where his antique and interior design business was highly regarded (even if a little old fashioned compared with the lighter touch of Elsie de Wolfe’s newer design successes).
Mr. and Mrs. Coe were intensively involved with the building and decoration of Coe Hall. They often asked for furnishings and paintings to be delivered pending approval; in September 1921 Mr. Coe wrote to the Paris dealer Germain Seligmann about a tapestry that was at Coe Hall on approval, asking that it be exchanged because, “it has been hung and it looks very dead in the house.” Similar issues arose from time to time with paintings. Mrs. Coe had the seat furniture, today in the reception room, delivered, also owned by Seligmanns, to see if it would work well in the room, it did, and they bought the suite. The curtains for her bedroom were made from fabric that she had in hand and passed on to Charles of London to be sewn up. Curator at Coe Hall, Gwendolyn L. Smith, who is co-curator of the exhibition, writes that, “these kinds of details recorded in the archives, of which there are many more, enable us to recreate the rich and fascinating history about the building and decoration of Coe Hall, one of the few great surviving mansions on Long Island”. More of this story is told in our new exhibition, with rare and fascinating artifacts kindly loaned from descendants of Charles Duveen. It opens at Coe Hall on Saturday March 29th (Members Preview Friday March 28th 5:30-7:30pm) and runs through September 30th.
Fabulous Interiors by Elsie de Wolfe & Charles Duveen, 1915-1945
On view March 29th – September 30th
Open daily 11:30am – 3:30pm at Coe Hall, Planting Fields
Free with $4 admission to Coe Hall and $8 parking fee
Tea House is open!
Open daily 12:30pm – 2:00pm
Entrance to the Tea House is free with $8 parking fee.
Events & Public Programs
Friday, March 28, 2014
Opening Night & Preview Party
Fabulous Interiors by Elsie de Wolfe & Charles Duveen, 1915-1945.
5:30pm – 7:30pm at Coe Hall
Saturday, March 29th, 2014
Broadway Sings Cole Porter at Coe Hall
7:00pm – 10:00pm at Coe Hall
$40 Non-Member / $20 for Members/ No Parking Fee
Sunday, March 30th, 2014
Glamorous Design Lecture at Coe Hall
Eileen Kathryn Boyd, Interior Designer Of New York And Long Island Speaks About Her Design Work, Design Trends And Influences
2:00pm at Coe Hall / $15 Non-Members / Free for Members
Sunday, April 6th, 2014
Lecture at Coe Hall by Gwendolyn L. Smith, Curator at Coe Hall
Charles of London, The English Country House & Coe Hall
2:00pm / Lecture is FREE with $4 admission to Coe Hall and $8 Parking Fee
Saturday, April 19th, 2014
The Adventures of Peter Rabbit, presented by the Theatre Three of Port Jefferson
3:00pm – 4:00pm at Coe Hall
FREE with $4 admission fee to Coe Hall / $8 Parking Fee
Sunday, May 4th, 2014
Poetry Reading, presented by the Poetry Society of America
The works of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Great Hall / Free with $4 admission to Coe Hall
Read by Alice Quinn, former poetry editor of the New Yorker. Mary Stewart Hammond will read her own poetry at 2:00pm in the Great Hall.
Friday, May 9th, 2014
Movie Night at Coe Hall – To Catch a Thief
Saturday, May 10th, 2014 – Mother’s Day Weekend
Family Pancake Breakfast at Coe Hall
10:00am – 11:30am / $8 Parking Fee
$20.00 Non-Members, Adults & Children / $15.00 Members, Adults & Children
Saturday, May 17th, 2014
Into the Garden: Plein Air Painting with Annie Shaver-Crandell
10:00am – 3:00pm
FREE with $8 Parking Fee – meet at the end of the West Parking lot by the Main Greenhouse.
Tea House by Elsie de Wolfe, Planting Fields, 1915
Watercolor presentation drawing for a Charles of London scheme (Private Collection)