“I don’t like to dress alla moda,” said Gae Aulenti in 1971. “The moment it’s loudly announced that red is in fashion, I stop wearing red. I want to dress in green.” Gigi by Colette reads: “Everything depends on the attitude.” One of very few postwar Italian female architects, Gae had attitude. She died in 2012 aged 84. Herbert Muschamp, then architecture critic for The Times, called her “the most important female architect since the beginning of time”. In 1986 she converted a Parisian railway station and hotel into a museum. Gae had form. She was a protégée of Carlo Scarpa – he singlehandedly reinvented museum conversions in the mid 20th century. A grand central aisle lit by the barrel vaulted glass ceiling of Victor Laloux’s original Beaux Arts design respects the original cavernous volume. Use of contemporary raw materials – wire mesh grid anyone? – emphasise her industrial designer roots and portray an honesty of expression learned from her master. And as for her insertions and interruptions and interventions? Such verve. Such vigour. So very self assured. She is post postmodern. But still, the architect managed to unify the diversity of spaces by using the same rough stone on walls and floors throughout. Gae had élan. “I do admire all of Gae’s work,” admits top architect John O’Connell, “and it weathers well too.” Musée d’Orsay, a museum of mostly French art from the 2nd Republic to the 2nd World War, is itself great art: building as artefact.
“That is possibly the funniest episode I have ever read,” emailed the much missed Min Hogg, Founding Editor of The World of Interiors, in response to a descriptive summary of a group visit to a certain castle in Sussex. Said summary included a luxury coach breaking down, a shuttered up gothic castle, a game septuagenarian scaling a battlemented wall, a mass trespass into the castle, a hungover hostess lying in a four poster bed… and then things went from bad to worse… Fortunately, a visit to The Castle of Mey is less turbulent.
Following a three year reconstruction, The Queen Mother spent four weeks every August and 10 days every October at The Castle of Mey, as she rebranded it, right up to her death in 2001 aged 101. She furnished it simply with purchases from local antiques shops complemented by a few family pieces. And a Linley occasional table. Curtains are draped below bathroom basins in that upper class domestic fashion. Prince Charles continues the holidaying tradition and stays in the castle for 10 days every July. The building dates from the late 16th century except for the double height front hall which was added in 1819 to the design of William Burn for James Sinclair, 12th Earl of Caithness.
Elizabeth Angela Marguerite’s younger daughter wasn’t just so keen on The Castle of Mey. Despite having a bedroom named in her honour, Princess Margaret never slept in the castle, preferring the luxury of the Royal Yacht. The Queen Mother’s favourite colour, Phoenix Blue, is everywhere from picture frames and towels to her raincoat on display in the front hall. There’s a well stocked drinks table in the drawing room. “The Queen Mother’s best loved tipple was one measure of Gordon’s Gin and three measures of Dubonnet served with lemon and ice,” explains her close friend Major John Perkins. He’s still a regular guest at the castle. “She always had ice in drinks and used her fingers, claiming ice prongs were an American invention!”
“The Queen Mother frightfully loved picnics,” he continues, “but when she formally dined in the castle, the seats on either side of her were called the ‘hot seats’ for special guests. At the start of the meal, everyone spoke to the person on their right and then swapped to the person on their left. That way no one was left out of conversations. She rang a bell for the next course to be brought out. Her three corgis would bark at the same time. After dinner, the gents would remain in the dining room drinking port, while the ladies would withdraw to the drawing room. If the gents lingered too long, The Queen Mother would start a rousing rendition of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’! That meant get packing!”
The Major adds, “The Queen Mother had a terrific sense of humour. She was highly highly intelligent. She met all the world leaders of her time except for Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.” On décor, “The Queen Mother didn’t like suspended lights. She liked soft lamps which cast more flattering light and shadows. The castle is exactly as she had it as her home. We haven’t added posh stuff!”