European elegance in San Francisco

Photography by Aya Brackett | One of California's finest collections of eighteenth-century English and European decorative arts is to be found in San Francisco in a large Queen Anne revival house in Pacific Heights. Carefully chosen to evoke the atmosphere of an English country house or a French château, these objects shine brilliantly against the dark brown paneling in the main rooms. When the eminent San Francisco decorator Michael Taylor (1927-1986) worked here in the 1960s, the first thing he wanted to do was bleach the paneling to off-white tones, but the owners persisted with their original idea of preserving the dark character of the walls to act as a foil for their collections. The results are extremely effective. These rich and jewellike interiors were achieved with the services of another notable San Francisco decorator, Anthony Hail (1925-2006). They work most beautifully at night when warm subtle lighting provides an entrancing background for the objects.

What strikes the visitor most about the main rooms is the owners' extraordinary facility for choosing fine objects and putting them together in striking groupings. This singular talent was found most famously in the work of John Fowler (1906-1977), the English designer who did so much to create English country house taste after World War II. Almost as famous, and certainly as influential on the Continent, were the interiors of the amateur Carlos de Beistegui (1895-1970). Beistegui's Proustian evocations of the past at the Château de Groussay outside Paris beginning in the 1940s were more formal than Fowler's, although they retained the relaxed ambience of the English country house.1 But it was the Wrightsman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that most directly influenced these collectors. They were so impressed by the installation of those galleries in the 1960s that they asked Hail to use them for inspiration in their house. In the last ten years the owners have made a series of acquisitions that have added another dimension to the interiors. The main rooms all combine comfort with a measure of formality, but it is the arrangements of objects that give them scale and richness. 

This talent for grouping objects is immediately apparent in the entrance hall. On one side a large carved gilded wood jardiniere from the Italian Piedmont, in the manner of Turin's most famous neoclassical woodcarver Giuseppe Maria Bonzanigo (see Fig. 4), is flanked by a pair of silvered rococo Venetian armchairs and positioned under a painting of an English man-of-war by Peter Monamy (1681-1749). The painting in turn is set between a pair of rococo looking glasses from the well-known Irish collection of Aileen Plunket at Luttrellstown outside Dublin.2 This composition of objects from different countries is a recurring feature of the collection. On the other side of the entrance hall is another careful assemblage (see Fig. 5). It begins with a grand pair of white and gold looking glasses in the Palladian style from Spencer House in London. They are attributed to John Vardy, the architect who worked on this town palace between 1755 and 1758, and provide the principal architectural focus to the room. The looking glasses are placed in an unusual, yet successful, combination with a pair of French neoclassical console tables bearing the partial stamp of Georges Jacob. Decorated in white and gold, the tables were formerly in the vestibule of Rose Terrace, the spectacular eighteenth-century style mansion at Grosse Point, Michigan, created for Anna Thompson Dodge (1871-1970) in the early 1930s.3 Then, in a complete change of pace, a set of four chinoiserie wall sconces originally from the Chinese sitting room of Government House in Cape Town, South Africa, hang alongside the looking glasses. Dating from the early twentieth century, the rococo revival sconces with their reverse-painted decoration introduce a pleasing air of informality.

There are also other lighthearted moments in the house, which act as counterweights to the serious nature of the main objects. A cast-iron stove in the shape of an enormous snail, made in Reims, France, about 1866, for example, stands at the bottom of the staircase.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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