Living with antiques: No velvet ropes–a collection in New Jersey
Called the last of the Georgians by the architect Robert A. M. Stern, Mott B. Schmidt dared to be unfashionable, stubbornly designing traditional houses for town and country long after they were in favor.* Schmidt's houses in the American Georgian manner usually relied on a restrained combination of red brick, dark shutters, and white trim accented with classical motifs drawn from English precedent. A wrought-iron balustrade or a carved pediment was as flamboyant as the architect got. After the excesses of the 1920s, Schmidt's blue-blood clientele yearned for discretion.
Built in 1936 for the American statesman and financier C. Douglas Dillon, Dunwalke East in NewJersey's Somerset Hills is among the best of Schmidt's country houses, a taut play between grandeur and simplicity accomplished with a master's economy of gesture (see Fig. 2). The house closely resembles Hudson Pines, a 1938 Schmidt commission in Pocantico Hills, New York, for the Rockefeller family, with whom Dillon had lifelong personal and professional ties.
Since 1994 Dunwalke East has been home to Carol Zipkin and Dexter Earle, former New Yorkers who wanted a pastoral upbringing for their son and daughter. The Earles are model stewards of the thirty-three-acre estate, honoring architect and patron while bringing Dunwalke East into the present century with innovations of their own. Inviting in scale, the house provides a fine backdrop for their extensive collection of seventeenth- through nineteenth-century Chinese porcelain, nineteenth-century French and English painting, and eighteenth-century English and American furniture.
The couple's search for a place to live within fifty miles of Manhattan started when their children, now young adults, were toddlers. Their first visit to Dunwalke East in the fall of 1993 began inauspiciously. "It is too much for us," Dexter said as they pulled into the pebbled drive. But after touring the seven-bedroom house with eight working fireplaces, the Earles were smitten. Their contractor supplied further reassurance. "It is the most beautiful house that I have ever seen. Just imagine what you can do with it," he offered. "It is like a diamond ring. The longer you look at it, the smaller it seems," their realtor added encouragingly.
Dexter, who retired as a partner from the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, and Carol, who enjoyed her own successful career in finance, first at Bankers Trust and later at the Ford Foundation and Alliance Capital Management, began collecting in the early 1980s.
"We squished into a little Fiat with a friend who worked at Mallett on New Bond Street and zipped around London. The dollar was king then. We bought a slew of antiques for our New York apartment. It was really the beginning of our interest in English furniture," Dexter recalls.
After moving to NewJersey, Carol formed a close friendship with the antiques dealer Fred B. Nadler, whom she met when he kept a small shop in Bernardsville. A gifted stylist and a connoisseur of the best Chinese export porcelain, Nadler's opulent displays were fixtures of New York's Winter Antiques Show for nearly three decades beginning in the mid-1960s. Nadler supplied well-heeled clients from Pennsylvania to Texas. At the on-site sale of Colonel Edgar and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch's collection at Pokety Farms in Maryland in 1980, the dealer claimed a forty-eight-piece Chinese export partial dinner service in the rare rose Fitzhugh pattern. Years earlier, at one of Ronald Bourgeault's first auctions in New Hampshire, Nadler outbid rivals Horace and Elinor Gordon for a Chinese export porcelain cider jug made for the American market.
Friend and confidante, Nadler advised the Earles not only on what to buy but where to put it. For upholstery, he sagely recommended that they use a favorite Scalamandré silk damask throughout the house, a solution that has allowed the Earles to move furniture from room to room, and from residence to residence, over many years. "Dexter would leave for work and Fred would arrive with treasures and gifts. He never came empty-handed. We spoke morning and night and he visited several times a week. Fred was especially close to our children," Carol recalls.
Unlike the Dillons-infrequent visitors to Dunwalke East who also kept properties in New York, Florida, Maine, and France-the Earles spend much of the year at their New Jersey house, enjoying every season and vista. "When we arrived, there was a huge kitchen garden planted with Douglas Dillon's favorite asparagus and rhubarb, a clothesline, and a cinderblock garage where the limos parked," Dexter says. Clearly, the Dillons rarely visited the rear of the house.
"Our children romped everywhere. No room was off limits," says Carol, emphasizing the informality the family brought to their new quarters. "People wonder how we live with antiques," she continues. "The answer is that it works for us. We have done a great deal of entertaining of all sorts over the years and have always encouraged our guests to enjoy the house as we do. There is no velvet rope." Framed snapshots, children's drawings, and souvenirs of summer sojourns abroad speak to the Earles' devotion to family. Carol's flair is evident in her collection of bespoke fashion created by New York designer Constance McCardle, who often incorporates antique fabric into her wearable art.
* Robert A. M. Stern, "Introduction," in Mark Alan Hewitt The Architecture of Mott B. Schmidt (Rizzoli, New York, 1991), p. x. Hewitt, a practicing architect in Bernardsville, New Jersey, provided additional information on Mott Schmidt and his work for the Dillon and Rockefeller families for this article.
For Carol, objects and memories are inextricably intertwined. When Nadler died in 2003, she acquired a handful of items from his private collection by which to remember him. These mementos include a carved and painted blackamoor nicknamed Curly for his tangled mop of hair and a pair of early nineteenth-century Chinese millefleurs fishbowls that have been pressed into service as planters. With Nadler in mind, the Earles purchased pairs of famille verte Ho-Ho boys, Chinese porcelain figures that the dealer liked to display in his bath.
The Earles also wanted pieces by which to remember the Dillons. A pair of eighteenth-century carved and gilded eagle pier mirrors and matching George II style carved and gilded eagle console tables in the entrance hall are original to Dunwalke East, as is the sideboard and serpentine-front corner cupboard in the dining room (see Figs. 1, 11). They have also been acquiring antique eagle garden ornaments of the sort that have long roosted at Dunwalke, the adjacent estate of Douglas Dillon's father, financier Clarence Dillon (1882-1979) (see Fig. 2). The senior Dillon's house was designed by Cross and Cross and completed in 1928.
Furniture collected for their former Manhattan apartment formed the foundation of their new living room, glazed a warm apricot color that is flattering at night and soothing by day (see Fig. 5). A pair of carved mahogany armchairs of about 1765, a recent purchase from Kentshire Galleries in New York, has undulating arms and Chinese fretwork backs. Other treasures include a mahogany bureau cabinet of about 1755. Elsewhere in the house, a marble-topped console table of about 1740 and a carved and gilded looking glass of about 1745 stud an extensive collection of eighteenth-century English furniture. "Function tends to dictate form in furniture but mirrors are an exception. For me, they are the most interesting, most sculptural things you can buy from the eighteenth-century cabinetmaking world," says New York dealer Clinton Howell, who supplied the looking glass.
Antique English, American, and Chinese furniture scaled for children and dolls adds a light touch. Among many intriguing examples is a bombé block-front desk of padouk wood that was made in China for the Western market. Its topmost surface displays two dozen miniature blue-and-white porcelain vases that Carol collected over the years or received as gifts from Nadler.
Two unusual Chinese export plates of about 1735 are each embellished with a single colorful butterfly. The pair, a gift to Dexter, represents Carol's initial foray into porcelain collecting. They were published by David Howard, the late British authority on Chinese export armorial wares.
After much searching on their behalf by Nadler, the Earles acquired a rare long-neck goose porcelain tureen with a brilliantly enameled and gilded body (see Fig. 8). The Chinese Qianlong period piece, among the best examples of its kind anywhere, dates to about 1760 and was probably made for the Spanish or Portuguese market. Nadler also supplied a pair of early nineteenth-century blue-and-white covered tureens in the shape of goats, a rare form (see Fig. 5).
After Nadler's death the Earles refocused their collecting, acquiring singular works of porcelain, much of it sculptural, from the prominent specialists in export china Michael and Ewa Cohen of London. Some of the Earles' recent purchases, such as a pair of nodding-head court ladies of about 1740 and a figure of the demon slayer Zhong Kui of about 1810, have moving components (see Figs. 4 and 6). "These mechanical pieces are a wonderful rarity in their collection," Michael Cohen says.
Working primarily with the Richard Green Gallery in London, the couple has carefully chosen exquisitely rendered late nineteenth-century French and English paintings of everyday life that depict the vitality of the metropolis, the languor of the shore, and the intimacy of the garden enclosure.
"It is fantastically good," Green Gallery researcher Susan Morris says of Sortie du Conservatoire sous la niège by Jean Béraud, one of Dexter's favorite paintings (see Fig. 9). She notes the artist's clever use of a subdued monochromatic palette to depict both the gloom and gaiety of Paris during winter's darkest days.
One of the couple's best paintings is Trouville, une famille sur la plage, an impressionist oil on panel of 1881 by Eugène Boudin, whose delicate flickering brushwork conveys the atmosphere of a breezy seaside day (Fig. 10).
Portraits of innocent children in idealized settings complete the paintings collection. The Earles hunted for years for an outstanding example by a favorite exponent of the genre, William Adolphe Bouguereau. Signed and dated 1895, his Le Gouter charmingly depicts a little girl enjoying a treat (see Fig. 7).
The geometrical precision of Dunwalke East's formal parterre gardens complements Schmidt's crisp architectural silhouette (see Figs. 15, 16). The Earles have taken great pleasure in developing their gardens, even poring over meticulous notes left by Douglas Dillon's first wife, the former Phyllis Chess Ellsworth, who collaborated with local landscape architect John Charles Smith to install a rose garden, peony garden, and an orchard.
Working first with Nadler and currently with Katonah, New York, dealer Barbara Israel, the couple has assembled an imaginative collection of antique garden ornament that ranges from a quartet of carved eighteenth-century gritstone figures of Dutch and Flemish origin (see Fig. 12) to a bronze tortoise fountain cast in Italy by Raffaello Romanelli (see Fig. 16). They recently added a custom-designed greenhouse fabricated by the English firm Alitex and enhanced by antique architectural fragments, from a door salvaged from the old Peacock Alley at NewYork's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to a pair of English carved stone finials fashioned as artichokes of about 1880 (see Fig. 14). The greenhouse accommodates up to five hundred orchids, a passion that the Earles nurture in Hawaii, where they frequently vacation.
After settling into Dunwalke East, Dexter Earle met Douglas Dillon for lunch at Manhattan's Knickerbocker Club, where both were members. "He was a totally engaging person," Dexter says, recalling Dillon's fond descriptions of life at old Dunwalke Farm, where cattle once grazed by the hundreds. The men cemented the bond formed when Carol Zipkin and Dexter Earle accepted the privilege and responsibility of making Dunwalke East the joyful family redoubt that Mott B. Schmidt surely intended.