A late 19th century terrace of houses, long a hotel, has been reinvigorated and given a not so much High Victorian interior as High Celtic. Exuberance is the word. Lunch in the canted bay window is framed on three sides by the best view in County Down, overlooking the incoming storm brewing on Carlingford Lough. Yacht sails shudder, rocks are sprayed and seagulls flap around, while wild garlic mushrooms are served in the first floor restaurant of The Whistledown Hotel come hail or high water. To the rear of the hotel is Warrenpoint Park complete with its freshly restored bandstand, good for sheltering from the rain.
Warrenpoint is blessed with an abundance of Victorian houses, especially along the esplanade. Castle House, close to an inland side of Warrenpoint Park, stands out as being older. It’s a Georgian five bedroomed three storeys over exposed basement corner house marking the junction of St Peter’s Street and Great George’s Street South. The first floor paired Gothic windows are particularly distinctive: with fenestration like this curtains would be a crime. The ground floor margin paned sitting room windows, the middle portion taller than its outer equivalents, is equally interesting, reflecting a triptych of the streetscape. Even a spider’s web of telephone wires can’t diminish the charming appearance of Castle House.
It’s not the most likely place to come across a 1960s architectural masterpiece. But then rugged County Donegal, ever by the sea, is full of surprises. A few kilometres north of the lively town of Buncrana, on a wild and windy and windswept road, a Celtic corniche eventually leading to Dunree Head, stands Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in the otherwise little known townland of Desertegney. Indeed, on an especially inclement day the white architecture merges with the swirling white clouds and almost disappears.
Our Lady of the Sea is by name and nature nautical. The long low main building with its western bell end shape and high porthole like windows is reminiscent of a boat come ashore. This was the architect’s direct response to the site which overlooks Lough Swilly on a clear day. The modernist minimalist bell tower linked to the church by a glazed vestibule is a daring concept of geometry, a clever combination of solid and void, a religious lighthouse. Liam McCormick was a great yachtsman.
The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, County Donegal, 2014, states, “Church architecture did not evolve again until well after World War II, when a response was required to reflect the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) with its renewed emphasis on the collective experience of the faithful. Nowhere in Ireland was this achieved more successfully than in Donegal by Liam McCormick whose church designs broke completely with earlier conservative models. While his buildings make reference to the past in their use of familiar vernacular forms and textures, they also respond to place and the Donegal landscape. In several cases the sites were selected by the architect and the manipulation of both the building and it is a precious part of their impact that is sometimes overlooked.”
The Francophile Charles Dickens would still recognise the Golden Triangle of Paris. Dickens on France edited by John Edmondson in 2007, “Dickens first saw Paris in July 1844, when he and his family were travelling through France on their way to Italy. He was instantly enthralled: ‘I cannot tell you what an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world. I was not prepare for, and really could not have believed in, its perfectly distinct and separate character.’ This first, fleeting visit marked the beginning of a friendship with the city that would last for the rest of his life.”
A love of interior design is clear from the custard colour and navy trimmed reception hall to the 27 meter high seascape mural painted on gold leaf seen from the elevator behind a glass panel to the Marmara marbled bathroom filled with The Ritual of Ayurveda products. “There’s a focus on really good materials,” says Camay. There’s also a focus on individuality: domed objets d’art; Grecian urns; sculpted shirt collars; Indian feathers. In the duck egg blue reception rear reception area opening onto an intimate courtyard are bookshelves with hours of distraction. Titles include ‘American Fashion’, ‘La Lumière de Londres, ‘Putman Style’, ‘Le Style Hitchcock’. Joseph Roth springs to mind again: “… it’s so well appointed that it almost corresponds to my notion of a seventh heaven.”
In Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Camel’s Back character Perry exclaims, “Take me upstairs. If that cork sees my heart it’ll fall out from pure mortification.” Channelling your inner Perry, close your eyes and dream of the ideal Parisian hotel bedroom. And open your eyes in the fourth floor bedroom of Hôtel George Washington. As you gaze through the pair of French doors clasping Juliet balconies and a trombonist serenades you from the street below (no, not artistic licence, this is Paris), it’s clear some dreams come true. There’s an elephant in the room. Or at least one over the bed. And a herd in the Ralph Lauren wallpaper. “It’s so unique, that’s one of my favourite bedrooms,” Camay confides. “Our bedrooms are very large for Paris. They all have double beds with a bath and rain shower in the en suite bathrooms.”
“We are in the business area of the Golden Triangle of Paris,” she confirms, that iconic 8th Arrondisement. “Do you know how the Arrondisements are numbered? They are ordered like an escargot, the numbers swirling around in decreasing concentric circles. We kept the façade of Hôtel George Washington and refurbished everything else behind. At Hôtel Chateaubriand we were able to keep the original form inside. Hôtel George Washington is a Haussmann townhouse with a ‘noble’ second floor which has a balcony. Our service is very personal – our team have been with us a long time. Our clients are a very good mix of leisure and business travellers.”
The Rios also own Le Petit George a few doors up on Rue Washington. Quirky neon lettering on the awning reads “Sincère et Malicieux”. Has Tracey Emin been en ville? We have an aperitif: “Champagne is an integral part of French culture!” Camay relates, “Monsieur Rio’s inspiration for this restaurant was the same expression of luxury as the hotels, from opulent linen tablecloths to silver cutlery, bringing back attention to detail. We wanted to change part of French dining culture and bridge the gap between bistro and gastronomy: ‘bistronomy’. It’s a unique dining experience.” The all-female run establishment is a hit with lawyers and bankers midweek and well informed travellers at the weekend. “We attract a really good lunch crowd and are busy Monday to Friday. Lisa l’des Forges is Chef and Melisande Malle is Sommelier and Manager.
The décor is an essay in understated elegance in a language only the French can compose. A marble and brass bar stretches along one party wall and the kitchen to the rear is only visible through a small serving hatch. There are no pictures on the walls: we are the living art in this space. “There’s a Chef’s Table in the basement for 10 people,” leads Camay. Joseph Roth once more, “Paradise is downstairs, in a basement. But it’s so well appointed that it almost corresponds to my notion of a seventh heaven.”
She’s more to say, “With more than 70 new sculptures in mirrored beads and glass bricks, The Narcissus Theorem focuses on Le Petit Palais and its architecture. Taking up the myth of Narcissus – a man who, in love with his own image, was transformed into a flower – Othoniel engages with visitors, inviting them to self contemplation but also offering a reflection of the world around them through his work.”
Juliette’s even more to say, “This journey through myths and fairy tales begins with a rite of passage: the crossing of a river. Visitors then proceed to the garden of forbidden fruits before descending into the Grotto of Narcissus. Exploring the theory of reflections of the Mexican mathematician Aubin Arroyo, Othoniel transports us to a world between dreams and reality, opening up doors to endless fields of space and imagination.”
Le Petit Palais isn’t petite but it is palatial. Architect Charles Girault won a competition to build the museum for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. He liked to make an entrance: the gilded to the nines front doors are framed by one pair of pilasters and three pairs of ionic columns supporting ever increasingly larger arches. Charlie gives a masterclass in très Beaux Arts.
Such commanding architecture demands arresting art and Jean-Michel Othoniel doesn’t disappoint: he wins hearts and delivers in spades. He too can make an entrance: his piece Blue River was created in situ with bricks of Indian glass flowing over the stone steps. The artist is asking us to pass from one world to another, a playful, magical and poetic universe. In the courtyard fountains, Narcissus is four gilded lotus flowers reflecting the water that reflects them. It is the yellow of the flower in the legend. Hanging from trees or rising from the ground, Necklaces evoke the temptations of hidden forbidden fruit.
As another mathematician, Hannah Fry, told us at the recent Westminster Property Association dinner at The Londoner Hotel, “Equations and symbols aren’t just a thing, they’re a voice that speaks out about the incredible richness of nature and the startling simplicity in the patterns that twist and turn and warp and evolve around us.” One of the most fun aspects of the show is just spottting the pieces. Are the gilt swags in the colonnade art or architecture? We are not wallflowers; we are made in God’s image.
Writer Gertrude Stein quipped in the 1920s, “And so life in Paris began and as all roads lead to Paris, all of us are now there.” We’re at the opening of the Thierry Mugler show Couturissime at Musée des Arts Décoratifs (known by all by its acronym MAD). Everyone is here. Dynamic and dramatically lit displays are arranged in acts like an opera, ensembles ranging from sci-fi robotic garbs and aquatic fantasy fauna to even wilder flights of the designer’s imagination. Thierry Mugler’s work, whether overture or finale, is always original, often avant garde, sometimes subversive, never dull. Gertrude Stein also mentioned, “In Paris you have to have a formula.” In the 2020s we have: we’ve got chemistry.
Turn of last century Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke lived for years on the Left Bank of Paris. Maurice Betz writes in Rilke in Paris, 2012: “Always on his doorstep whatever his address, the Luxembourg Gardens were Rilke’s preferred oasis of calm and a crucial location for reflection and reading across all his Parisian residences. The Luxembourg Gardens are the lung, the central open space in Rilke’s Paris, where the crowded tumultuous streets give way to uncluttered perspectives, quiet avenues, noble statuary and above all, light. The gardens were constructed on the order of Marie de Medicis, widow of Henry IV, in 1611 and were designed to echo her palace gardens in Florence.”
On a very sunny autumn day, it’s the gardens that are crowded and tumultuous. Parisians really know how to enjoy their parks, no doubt in part a result of all that apartment living. Jardin du Luxembourg is packed with strollers, sunbathers and children, all between the oversized statuary and under the blue sky glimpsed between canopies of yellow, orange and red leaves. Rainer Maria Rilke remarked, “For Paris, that I admire so much and to which I know I must submit as one submits to a training, is always in some sense new, and when you feel its grandeur, its near infinity, it annihilates you so violently and so completely that you must demurely recapture from the very beginning the impassioned attempt to live.”
His comment “Paris is as sure of itself as ever” still rings true as does when he continues “It is just the same, as gigantic and brimming with necessity in the details as much as in its larger forms.” We’re updating Gertrude Stein’s view in her 1940 book Paris France from the city being “the natural background of the art and literature of the 20th century” to being “the natural background of the art and literature of the 21st century”.
She lived in the 7th Arrondisement on the Left Bank. “A very charming flat between the courtyard and the garden,” was how she described her French home. “The days go by and I have no desire to move from my house and garden.” Her sister Diana Mosley said, “As soon as possible, in 1945, she got a flat in Paris, where she lived for 20 happy years.” She never lived in England again. Nancy wrote to her mother, “I am so completely happy here… I feel a totally different person as if I had come out of a coalmine into daylight… Oh my passion for the French!”
It was a charmed existence. “The houses she visited ‘glittered like miniature Wallace Collections’ and the women were generally ‘glittering with jewels’,” records Harold Action in his 1975 biography of Nancy Mitford. He offers tantalising glimpses into her Parisian life: “Highly diverted by the difference of French and English social conventions, full of admiration for General de Gaulle, enchanted by the details and incidental episodes of the Parisian scene, she became ardently Francophile, yet she remained English to the core.”
“For the next 20 years, the happiest of her life, Nancy settled in Paris. Even before settling there she had put these words into the mouth of her hero Fabrice: ‘One’s emotions are intensified in Paris – one can be more happy and also more unhappy here than in any other place. But it is always a positive source of joy to live here, and there is nobody so miserable as a Parisian in exile from his town. The rest of the world seems unbearably cold and bleak to us, hardly worth living in…”
“Always a strenuous walker, Nancy was able to familiarise herself with the intimate old Paris behind the boulevards and the Hôtel de Ville, the quays and narrower streets with high roofed buildings, with the venerable Place des Vosges and the classical mansions on the left bank of the Seine so long inhabited by French nobility whose names had inspired Balzac and Proust. Balzac’s Madame de Sauve might even have suggested Nancy’s Sauveterre. The British Embassy was full of her friends. Our Ambassador Duff Cooper and the glamorous Lady Diana made it sparkle as never before with poets, painters and musicians.”
“Before the end of 1947 she had the good fortune to discover an ideal apartment, the ground floor of an old mansion between courtyard and garden in the Rue Monsieur, which she referred to henceforth as ‘Mr Street’. ‘I’ve got a perfectly blissful and more or less permanent flat,’ she informed in December 1947, ‘Untouched I should think for 60 years. I spent my first evening removing the 25 lace mats with objects on them mostly from Far Japan (dainty). The furniture is qualité de musée – such wonderful pieces, now you can see them.” Her character Cedric sounds positively autobiographic in Love in a Cold Climate: “In Paris I have an apartment of all beauty. One’s idea of heaven.”
Little wonder Nancy was a Francophile and honorary Parisian. Aren’t we all? Rue Monsieur is the Lad Lane of Paris. A tranquil oasis surrounded by all the action. Where Rue Monsieur tips the louche sounding Rue de Babylone to the north of Nancy’s pied-à-terre is the intriguing looking La Pagode. Under wraps for now, this oriental building was built as a community hall in 1896 to the design of architect Alexander Marcel before improbably becoming a cinema in the 1930s. Presumably our favourite female English novelist caught the odd matinée at La Pagode.
We Love Paris in the Springtime We Love Paris in the Fall
We’re back where we belong. “The energy of Paris will make you feel very good!” exclaims Parisienne Maud Rabin. The French capital sizzles once again. And nowhere more so than Le Meurice. The most beautifully curated of days. Bonne journée. Très bonne journée. We’ve got agency.
Next stop The Tabernacle Notting Hill. This red brick and terracotta church, designed in 1883 by Habershon + Fawkner (a practice specialising in ecclesiastical buildings and responsible for many chapels in Newport), became a community arts centre in the 1970s. A plaque in the hallway commemorates the life of Claudia Jones (1915 to 1964) publisher, political activist and mother of the Notting Hill Carnival. She organised the first Caribbean Carnival in Britain in 1958. A ‘Carnival Line’ sign over a pair of London Underground Tube seats contains the following station stops: Sound Systems, Community, Friends, Dance, Inclusivity, Happiness, Joy, Unity, Steel Pan, Calypso, Live Stages.
Rianna elaborates, “Mary and I started up business in fashion together many decades ago as teens and I transitioned into television – I’m still a dedicated lover of style. Mary followed her passion undaunted and is now reaping the rewards of her labour. I’m so proud of her! The ballet performance, a collaboration between Mary and the Mark Elie Dance Foundation, is simply breathtaking. I am transfixed.” Distinguished broadcaster Jasmine Dotiwala agrees: “It really is a spellbinding performance.”
From The Tabernacle Notting Hill to Freemasons’ Hall Covent Garden. Now there’s a leap of imagination and thought. Upstairs, it’s all the usual mayhem and madness backstage at Africa Fashion Week London 2021. Makeup! Hair! Change! Makeup! Hair! Change! Downstairs, a lively bazaar of African and African diaspora fashion includes Biblical inspired tops by Ileri. Owner Abiola Egbeye believes, “My fashion is my ministry. It’s important to love God.”
Mary is headlining this year’s Africa Fashion Week London. The Return Collection takes the catwalk by storm. Model Yasmin Jamaal shimmers in her final ensemble. The Gold Coast Dress. This couture art is a metaphor for our times: all that glitters isn’t gold; it’s woven plastic brocade. Ghana was once known as the Gold Coast. “I love Ghana,” says Mary, “and I’ve had many shows there. This winter I am going to Ghana to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.” Yasmin notes, “The dress looks even better in real life than pictures. I love the drama. That’s so Mary! It’s the perfect dress. It is pure creativity. Onlooking model Hassan Reese exclaims, “That dress is special, very special!”
“The Gold Coast Dress girl is going to drama town,” Mary reckons, “to meet her husband, her Prince Regent! She’s the new Queen Charlotte.” There’s rapturous applause and a standing ovation as Mary takes her famous runway bow closing the show. Mary ends, “I have to thank God for making my hands! Thank God for such a blessing. Nobody’s getting my crown! Bye!”
Even by late Eighties’ standards, the hard copy brochure of Tower Walk is impressive in looks and substance. Under the watercolour decorated cover, between patterned lining paper a millennium history of St Katharine Docks (somewhere along the way the saint lost her apostrophe and final S) is followed by interior photographs and axonometric floor plans. One of the later sections of the history entitled “A New Lease of Life” succinctly explains,
“After the dock closed in 1968, it was sold to the Greater London Council who put out a tender for its redevelopment. Taylor Woodrow’s successful scheme comprised a World Trade Centre, a hotel and offices and residential units around a busy yacht haven. The scheme was formally adopted on St Katharine’s Day 1969 and work began on the Tower Hotel. Two decades ago, when the first bricks of this first building was laid, St Katharine’s was a drab, derelict and forbidding site. It took great vision to see the potential of what stands here today.”