Like Colette, we prefer passion to goodness. The great French novelist purrs in The Cat (1933), “The June evening, drenched with light, was reluctant to give way to darkness.” And, “June came with its longer days, its night skies devoid of mystery which the late glow of the sunset and the early glimmer of dawn over the east of Paris kept from being wholly dark.” She too was a lover of “The giddy horizons of Paris.”
Writer and poet Charles Baudelaire caused quite the stir in 1857 with his risqué poem collection Les Fleurs du Mal. One of the tamer pieces is The Swan. Roy Campbell translated it into English in 1952, including the line, “Old Paris is no more (cities renew, quicker than human hearts, their changing spell).” Two years later, William Aggeler also translated it. His version includes, “Paris changes! But naught in my melancholy, Has stirred! New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone, Old quarters, all become for me an allegory, And my dear memories are heavier than rocks.” All those Haussmannian boulevards must have seemed so sharply new.
Nancy Mitford, as always, is right. In Don’t Tell Alfred (1960), the Francophile novelist continues, “… past acres of houses exactly as Voltaire, as Balzac, must have seen them, of that colour between beige and grey so characteristic of the Île de France, with high slate roofs and lacy ironwork balconies. Though the outside of these houses have a homogeneity which makes an architectural unit of each street, a glimpse through their great decorated doorways into the courtyards reveals a wealth of difference within. Some are planned on a large and airy scale and have fine staircases and windows surmounted by smiling masks, some are so narrow and dark and mysterious, so overbuilt through the centuries with such ancient, sinister rabbit-runs leading out of them, that it is hard to imagine a citizen of the modern world inhabiting them.”
Frédéric Dassas, Senior Curator Musée du Louvre, told us at the Remembering Napoléon III Dinner in Camden Place, Chislehurst, Kent, “Walk through Paris with open eyes. We still have Paris in Europe!” We will. We do. We’re full of passion for this city. Especially riding through Paris with the wind in our hair. On the back of a motorbike, weaving through rush hour traffic, speeding down narrow streets, zooming round the uninsurable l’Arc de Triomphe roadway, this is life in the fast lane and the overtaking one too. Sporting Mary Martin London and Isabel Marant of course. Selina Hastings writes in her biography of Nancy Mitford (2002), “She found in beautiful Paris happiness of spirit …” Soon we will be deuxième étage living it up. We’re not always good but we’re always passionate.
The Bond Street auction house gallery is aglow as Pol Roger Champagne and mince pies are served at an exhibition ‘500 Years of European Ceramics’ covering Italian, Meissen, Vienna and Sèvres porcelain to celebrate the book launch on the tercentenary of Madame de Pompadour’s birth. “This exhibition and book launch is organised by Bonhams and The French Porcelain Society,” introduces Nette. “If you’re not a member of the Society, shame on you! Ros wrote a seminal book 41 years ago on The Wallace Collection Sèvres and to her credit it has remained up there with the best of books on the subject. It’s sold out. This new book is of the same canon… ‘Ros’, as she is known to all, is exceptional, generous, charming, persevering and kind.” Addressing the author directly, “You are a demigod of competence darling angel, simply the best; we are all the keenest members of your fan club tonight!”
“We are here to celebrate the 300th birthday of Madame de Pompadour. She kept youth on her side, right to her death,” notes Rosalind. Nancy Mitford rhapsodises in her 1968 biography, “Madame de Pompadour excelled at an art which the majority of humans being thoroughly despise because it is unprofitable and ephemeral is the art of living.” Rosalind again, “This book covers her daily routine and what she bought each year in court. The pieces vary from simplicity to embracing the wildest extravagance – a gamut of some of the best ever produced. You can’t help but be drawn into these beautiful but useful pieces. It is their quality, their specialness, that makes them exquisite. The colours are so unbelievable and unlike textiles they haven’t faded. This is the 18th century staring you in the face!” She points out the beauty of one piece decorated with peacock feathers resembling the Christmas street decorations outside on New Bond Street. And the functionality of another: a cup with a deep wide saucer for drinking hot milk in bed. “Madame de Pompadour was worn to a frazzle trying to keep the whole show on the road. Louis XV couldn’t bear not to have her by his side.”
The work is polished and academic yet entertaining and full of fascinating anecdotes from “Madame de Pompadour helped make bathing popular” to “She remarked on the King’s tenderness towards his children, though she was critical of their looks.” Rosalind writes movingly of the impact of her female subject’s death: “Louis XV outlived Madame de Pompadour by 10 years, but nothing could replace his 19 year relationship with her. Voltaire wrote of how surprising it was that ‘a beautiful woman should die… in the midst of the most dazzling career in the world.” In the words of Nancy Mitford, “After this a great sadness fell upon the Château of Versailles.” The last paragraph pf ‘Everyday Rococo’ sets the scene for the title of these volumes, “She was perfectly in tune with the rococo period in which she lived, and enabled it to evolve and flourish. But mostly she was buying exceptional objects to enhance her everyday life.” Dame Rosalind Savill dedicates her brilliant publication to “my darling daughter Isabella Dove Savill.”
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.
The restaurant takes up the street level of The Club Hotel + Spa in St Helier. The interior of the five star hotel and restaurant is all modern elegance infused with the inherent chilled vibe of the island.
Coming over all Mitfordesque, it’s time to treat ourselves. The menu is a polished blend of Saxon and Norman influences, reflecting the archipelago itself. Even the mineral waters are British Hildon and French Badoit. Cheese is served with English biscuits and French bread. Steve Smith polished his skills under Lavender’s Blue favourite Jean-Christophe Novelli – another Anglo-French success. We want our lovely cake and we want to eat it too, but first there’s:
Strawberry pannacotta with Jersey yoghurt is our cake of choice. Steve explains, “The menu is driven by the seasons and also driven by what we can get consistently and in good supply. Recently, we had a great week for getting hold of John Dory and halibut so those items were on the menu. We will work around what we can get in good supply.” We’re impressed by some seriously synchronised sauce pouring and cloche lifting. It’s a wrap. Pure rhapsody.
Although Clonalis in County Roscommon doesn’t feature in Desmond Guinness and William Ryan’s book, it has been associated with the same family for millennia rather than centuries. Clonalis is the ancestral home of the O’Conors, Kings of Connacht and erstwhile High Kings of Ireland. The most ancient royal family in Europe, no less. Just to be sure, their ancient limestone inauguration stone dating from 75 AD stands proud outside their front door. While the O’Conors’ possession of the land can be traced back over 1,500 years, the house is relatively recent. No surprise they call Clonalis the ‘New House’. In the very grand scheme of things it’s practically modern. Construction was completed in 1878, the year its English architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell (yes, a descendant of the Clapham diarist and a friend of the O’Conor clients) died aged 45. Like most Victorian practitioners he was versatile, swapping and entering epochal stylistic dalliances with ease. Eclecticism ran in Fred’s blood: his grandfather Samuel Pepys Cockerell did design the batty and bonkers Indocolonial Sezincote in the Cotswolds. A rummage through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography one evening in the O+C Club reveals the architect’s Irish connection: he married Mary Mulock of King’s County (Offaly). “A genial, charming, and handsome man, knowledgeable in literature and the arts, his premature death was widely regretted,” records author David Watkins.
Tráthnóna maith daoibh. Fred’s 1 South Audley Street, 1870, the Embassy of Qatar for donkey’s years, is an eclectic Queen Anne-ish Mayfair house with just about every ornament imaginable thrown at its burnt red brick and terracotta façade. Arabesques, brackets, corbels, friezes, masks, niches, putti… he really did plunder the architectural glossary… augmenting the deeps and shallows of the metropolis. If, as architect and architectural theorist Robert Venturi pontificates, the communicating part of architecture is its ornamental surface, then the Embassy is shouting!
His country houses show more restraint. Predating Clonalis by a few years, his first Irish one was the neo Elizabethan Blessingbourne in County Fermanagh. Clonalis is loosely Italianate. Terribly civilised; a structure raised with an architectural competence, spare and chaste. Happens to be the first concrete house in Ireland, too. A few years earlier he’d a practice run in concrete construction at Down Hall in Essex. A strong presence amongst the gathering shades of the witching hour, a national light keeping watch. Every house has a symbolic function, full of premises, conclusions, emotions. Clonalis rests at the far end of the decorative spectrum from 1 South Audley Street. Venturing a Venturesque metaphor: it talks smoothly with a lilt. Symmetrically grouped plate glass windows, horizontal banding and vertical delineation are about all that relieve its grey exterior. An undemonstrative beauty. Rising out of the slate roof are high gabled dormers, balustraded parapets and tall chimney stacks. The central chimneys are linked by arches – whose identity lie somewhere between function, festivity and topography – creating a two dimensional Vanbrughian temple of smoke. Clonalis isn’t totally dissimilar albeit on a grander scale to another late 19th century Irish champion, Bel-Air in County Wicklow. Especially the three storey entrance towers (campaniles, really) attached to both buildings.
Pyers and Marguerite O’Conor Nash accept paying guests (heir b+b?) under the auspices of Hidden Ireland. Furnishings read like a chapter from Miller’s Guide to Antiques: Boulle | Limoges | Mason | Meissen | Minton | Sheraton. If painting and art measure the refinement of sensibility, as Isabel Archer believes in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, we’re in good company. Who needs money when you know your Monet from their Manet? Ding dong dinner gong. Variations of Valkyries veer toward Valhalla. Suavity bound by gravity. A patrician set of gilt framed ancestral portraits, provenance in oil, punctuate the oxblood walls of the dining room. Plus one (romantic dinner). Plus three (communal dining). Plus fours (we’re in the country). Plus size (decent portions). “Farm to fork,” announces our hostess. A whale of a time. Tableau vivant. Our visceral fear of dining on an axis is allayed by a table setting off centre. Phew. Triggers to the soul, spirit arising, the evening soon dissolves into an impossibly sublime conversation of hope and gloss in the library, while at arm’s length, Catherine wheels of a pyrotechnic display implode and disintegrate like embers in the fire. Beyond the tall windows, a flood of summer light had long waned, and the heavy cloak of dusk, to quote Henry James, “lay thick and rich upon the scene”.
“Yes, that’s the bore of comfort,” complains Lord Warburton in The Portrait of a Lady, “We only know when we’re uncomfortable.” We’re happy to embrace boredom in that case. Like the other three guest bedrooms, ours is light and airy thanks to a cream carpet, summery colour scheme and deep penetrations of natural light. Touches of 19th century grandeur (a marble chimneypiece reassures us this was definitely never a servants’ wing) blend with 21st century luxury. Our bedroom would meet with Lord Warburton’s chagrin: carefully curated completely accomplished comfort. Actually, the niches for turf set into the marble fireplaces of the dining and drawing rooms suggest the O’Conors always had one eye on grandeur, the other on comfort. “Blessingbourne has similar fireplaces,” shares Marguerite. “This season is opulence and comfort,” Kris Manalo, Heal’s Upholstery Buyer, informs us at a party in 19 Greek Street, Soho. Clonalis is bang on trend, then. “And £140 Fornasetti candles to depocket premium customers.” They do smell lovely. We’re digressing.