Windows on the past: Watercolors of long-vanished houses and gardens

The Thaw Collection is comprised of works by both professional and amateur artists, both known and unknown. They were often the work of women members of a family, and they are often wonderfully accomplished. Thaw points to a picture in the collection by Anna Alma-Tadema, the daughter of the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, of the library in her father’s London house done when she was about nineteen (Fig. 4). “It was a revelation to my wife and me to see an artist of that caliber, who never had a career. She brought off a very complicated view of a room full of objects and textures like fur and wood grain. You can lose yourself in all the detail.”

Many of the paintings give us a last glimpse of grand palaces—views of the extravagant circular dining room at Carlton House, the London residence of the Prince Regent (later George IV; r. 1820–1830) in 1819 (Fig. 1); of the study of Czarina Alexandra Féodorovna (1798–1860) in 1835 in the Hermitage, in Saint Petersburg, before parts of the palace were destroyed in the fire of 1837 (Fig. 10); and of the cozy, toy-strewn sitting room of Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901) in Buckingham Palace in 1848 (Fig. 5). Another watercolor provides evidence of the famous painting collection in the Vienna palace of the nineteenth-century connoisseur Karl, Count Lanckoro´nski (Fig. 7).

“Such pictures of vanished spaces are ex-treme-ly important documents,” Thaw says, “but I was always most attracted to rooms that I think I could actually live in. It’s the more bourgeois rooms that I love. There’s a painting by Otto Wagner of a salon in the Leuchtenberg Palace in Munich. With its solid Biedermeier furniture and that big porcelain stove on the right, that’s a room I’d like to spend time in” (Fig. 8). Other images in the collection show a Russian winter garden, with an abandoned shawl evocatively tossed over a chair (Fig. 9), a student’s room at Oxford from 1853, and the library of a New York town house (the only American interior in the collection) (Fig. 11). The most recent work in the collection and in the exhibition, Alexandre Benois’s impressionistic view of the bedroom of Czarina Maria Alexandrovna in the Gatchina Palace, Saint Petersburg, of about 1900, illustrates how changing styles in other artistic fields eventually influenced these kinds of documentary pieces (Fig. 12).

When the paintings include human figures, they are often in the background, and rarely rendered with as much loving specificity as the furnishings. In fact, Plante says, most collectors prefer the unpopulated rooms. “I, myself, love them cold and distant and austere, so the furnishings and decoration can speak for themselves.” Praz was of the same opinion: “It is the absence of the human form, or its presence only as a mere figure or mannikin or as a framed painting on a wall which turns the furniture and the objects into the true dramatis personae.”6

One of the great advantages of studying these paintings, as opposed to later photographs of the same spaces, is that they “enable us to see the decoration of the past through the eyes of the past,” as John Richardson observed in 1983 on the reissue of Praz’s Illustrated History. It was for this reason that Richardson regretted that the book’s “abundant illustrations have doomed this History to be one of the most looked-at but least read books of our time: a decorator’s crib instead of a bible.” He went on to warn that “We ignore the text of Praz’s History at our peril.” 7

Response to the original publication of Praz’s book ranged from exuberant praise in the pages of House and Garden (“a most wondrous treasure trove”) to dismay that such an eminent scholar would devote time to such frivolous matters. Michael Levey, in the New York Review of Books, called the Illustrated History scholarly in detail but was troubled by its “deeply romantic” foundations.8 On the other hand, Edmund Wilson (1895–1972) realized that “One could hardly do justice to this book by attempting to cover its contents.… [It is] a history of social life as well as a history of furnishing. I have found it inexhaustibly interesting.”9 And Hugh Honour pointed out in a posthumous appreciation of Praz that the true subject of this book wasn’t really interior decoration, but rather “the ruminations and memories, the visions and fancies prompted by paintings of interiors.”10 As recently as 2000 David Watkin noted that when it comes to “the study of watercolours of domestic interiors, Mario Praz…is the father of us all. A literary historian rather than an art critic, he used his study of psychology and poetry to explain the extraordinary hold which these drawings have over us.”11

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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