Faint Heart and All That

Cavendish Mews is a smart set of flats in Mayfair where flapper and modern woman, the Honourable Lettice Chetwynd has set up home after coming of age and gaining her allowance. To supplement her already generous allowance, and to break away from dependence upon her family, Lettice has established herself as a society interior designer, so her flat is decorated with a mixture of elegant antique Georgian pieces and modern Art Deco furnishings, using it as a showroom for what she can offer to her well heeled clients.

Friends of Lettice and Gerald, newlyweds Margot and Dickie Channon, have been gifted a Recency country “cottage residence” called ‘Chi an Treth’ (Cornish for ‘beach house’) as a wedding gift by the groom’s father, the Marquess of Taunton. Margot in her desire to turn ‘Chi an Treth’ from a dark Regency house to a more modern country house flooded with light, has instructed Lettice to dispose of some of the darker historical pieces of furniture from the house and replace them with newer, lighter pieces. This idea rather upset Lettice, who has a very strong sense of history. Fortunately, Gerald came up with the idea that she can repaint and re-purpose a few pieces, thus satisfying Margot’s desires for lighter and newer pieces, whilst also keeping the history of furnishings intact within ‘Chi an Treth’.

It is evening and Lettice is standing on a white drop sheet, considering a Regency demilune table* that she has painted creamy white before her. Whilst she contemplates, her old childhood chum, Gerald, also a member of the aristocracy who has tried to gain some independence from his family by designing gowns from a shop in Grosvenor Street, is draped languidly across one of her Art Deco tub arm chairs with a half drunk glass of champagne in one hand and a half finished jacket of fetching navy blue and white lying across his lap as he carefully stitches red piping along the Peter Pan collar**. Not uncommonly the two keep each other company as they work. For Lettice, it is companionable time spent with her dear friend, and for Gerald, whose finances are somewhat straitened, it saves him money using Lettice’s electricity and dining, quite literally, on her largesse.

“You know it won’t paint itself Lettuce Leaf.” remarks Gerald as he looks up from his work, pulling up a long red thread between his fingers.

“Don’t call me that Gerald!” Lettice quips at her friend. “We aren’t children anymore. You know I don’t like it.”

“I’ll stop calling you Lettuce Leaf when you start to paint that table, rather than prevaricating and procrastinating.”

“Do you promise, Gerald?” Lettice asks, looking back at her friend over her shoulder.

“No,” Gerald admits as she begins to stitch again. “Of course I don’t.” He pauses and looks up at Lettice again. “But you have to paint that table, come what may. Margot has agreed that you could re-purpose any pieces of furniture from ‘Chi an Treth’ that you like.”

“Oh I don’t know, Gerald.” Lettice groans in reply as she runs her hand over the smooth pearlescent white surface. “What if I’ve made a mistake and just ruined a perfectly beautiful piece of furniture with some white house paint.”

“Nonsense, darling girl!” he scoffs in reply. “You’ll only ruin it, if you don’t paint it.”

“I wish you’d never talked me into the idea of hand painting Margot’s furniture, Gerald.”

“I’m beginning to wish the same myself,” Gerald mutters in reply as he observes his friend surrounded by her paints and palette gripped by stifling indecision.

The sight of his best friend biting her left thumbnail distractedly as she gazes painfully at the table fills Gerald with a mixture of pity and resolve. He roughly stabs his needle into a piece of completed piping on the collar, sighs and puts the jacket aside on the black japanned coffee table between his chair and Lettice’s usual seat. With a groan, he manoeuvres himself in his seat until he is in a position where he can get up easily from it. He meanders around the table and over to Lettice where he drapes an arm around her shoulder comfortingly. She leans into him and places her head against his collarbone.

“I don’t know why you are being such a silly goose and doubting yourself, Lettuce Leaf.” His remark is rewarded with a flapping sulky slap to his left hand as it hangs loosely by his side. He steps away slightly, dropping his arm from around her and grasps her upper arms with his hands. Crouching slightly so he can catch her downward glance beneath Lettice’s fringe he continues, “You have so much talent. You know you do. Look at all the fine interiors you have done so far. You convinced Mrs. Hatchett not to have floral chintz wallpaper.”

“Pity I couldn’t convince her not to have her soft furnishings upholstered in the stuff.” Lettice counters poutily.

“You gave Wanetta Ward a flat that every moving picture star either side of the Atlantic Ocean would kill to have.”

Lettice allows the briefest of smiles to grace her lips.

Gerald smiles and continues softly, “That’s your artistry at work. You know you have the skill. Even if you didn’t, you have your Aunt Eglantine and I telling you how bursting with artistic strength you are. Faint heart and all that, eh?” He glances over at the untouched table.

“Oh, very well Gerald. I’ll do it!”

“That’s my Lettuce Leaf!” Gerald sighs proudly as he embraces her. “Now, show me the design again.”

She picks up a piece of paper, slightly worried at the edges by constant fingering, and hands it to her friend.

“So you see,” she points. “I have a central footed urn from which I have snaking acanthus leaves sprouting to either side. It harks back to Regency designs.”

“But against a pale background, and with a lighter touch, it will suit Margot’s more modern tastes, whilst at the same time being truthful to ‘Chi an Treth’s’ origins.” Gerald says with a knowing look.

“Exactly.” Lettice sighs.

“Well then!” Gerald says matter-of-factly, holding the sheet back out to her. “Best get on with it!”

Whilst her friend wanders back to his perch on her Art Deco tub chair and takes up his sewing, Lettice starts to mix her oil paints. She squeezes a worm of base yellow from a silver tube, before uncapping a deep red. She adds a touch of it to the yellow and smiles with satisfaction as she darkens it. Taking up her tube of blue, she squeezes it onto her palette and carefully adds it a little at a time to the yellow to darken and desaturate it. Satisfied with her shade of ochre, she takes up a thick brush, dabs it in the paint and carefully starts to paint the central footed urn with definite strokes.

Sensing movement in the periphery of his vision, Gerald glances up momentarily to see his friend bent over the table, her palette locked through her crooked left thumb, her right arm moving in sweeping gestures as she starts to paint the tendrils of acanthus. He smiles triumphantly to himself, but allows himself no more celebration until the task is complete, and returns to his own work, remaining silent as he allows Lettice’s artistry to work its magic.

Lettice picks up a tube of russet paint, squeezing a small amount onto her paint covered palette. Discarding the tube on the floor, where its thud is deadened by the drop sheet, she grasps her tube of ebony and dabs the smallest amount next to the russet, before gently mixing a little of the black into the red, deepening it. She sets aside her thicker brush, depositing it into a Victorian jug containing linseed oil and takes up a smaller brush which she uses to make a pattern around the top and down the front of the urn. The droplets look like rubies imbedded in the golden ochre of the pot. Squeezing some white onto her palette, she adds some of the black she hasn’t used to it and mixes up a pale grey.

Unaware that she is being discreetly observed from across the room by her friend, Lettice picks up her tube of ultramarine, she pushes out a small pool of shiny blue paint and carefully mixes it, little by little with the grey until she has a bluish dove grey. Taking up her finer brush again, she paints sinewy strokes between the ochre tendrils to which she then adds more stylised acanthus leaves.

Finally, with a sigh, Lettice discards her bush onto her paint palette. It lands with a clatter against three others she has been using. “There!” she says with a satisfied huff.

“Done, darling?” Gerald asks casually, without looking up from his careful stitching of the red piping around the white collar of the jacket, carefully containing his excitement and apprehension.

“I think so.” Lettice says with a lilt of relief in her voice.

“May I see it, then?”

“Of course, Gerald!” Lettice exclaims. “I want you to be the very first to see it!”

Gerald swivels himself again, and carefully putting the jacket aside, he walks over to where Lettice stands, and he shuffles alongside her. The pair stand in silence for a short while, the Art Deco clock ticking on the mantlepiece the only noise emanating throughout the room.

“Well?” Lettice asks pensively, her hand raising to her lips. “What do you think?”

For a moment Gerald can’t answer. Arching his eyebrow over his left eye he shakes his head slightly and says with a proud smile turning up the corners of his mouth, “I think it’s beautiful.”

“Really?”

“Really, darling,” he responds almost in a whisper of awe. “And, I think Margot is going to love it.”

*Co-opting the French word for “half moon,” the demilune table is an accent table featuring an elegant, rounded front and a flat back. A demilune’s flat back allows it to sit flush against a wall, making it a striking substitution for a standard console table or credenza.

**A Peter Pan collar is a style of clothing collar, flat in design with rounded corners. It is named after the collar of Maude Adams’s costume in her 1905 role as Peter Pan, although similar styles had been worn before this date. Peter Pan collars were particularly fashionable during the 1920s and 1930s.

For anyone who follows my photostream, you will know that I collect and photograph 1:12 size miniatures, so although it may not necessarily look like it, but this artistic scene is in fact made up of 1:12 size artisan miniatures from my collection, including pieces from my own childhood.

Fun things to look for in this tableau include:

The Georgian style demilune table, central to our story is an artisan miniature from Lady Mile Miniatures in the United Kingdom. Painted white and then aged, it has been hand painted with a Georgian style design on its surface.

The Limoges style jug, paints, paint brushes and paint palette on the table and footstool were all acquired from Melody Jane Doll House Suppliers in the United Kingdom.

Lettice’s drawing room is furnished with beautiful J.B.M. miniatures. To the left of the photograph is a Chippendale cabinet which has been hand decorated with chinoiserie designs. It also features very ornate metalwork hinges and locks. To the right of the photograph you can see a chair made of black japanned wood which has been hand painted with chinoiserie designs down the arms of the chair. The chair set has a rattan seat, which has also been hand woven.

The Chinese folding screen in the background I bought at an antiques and junk market when I was about ten. I was with my grandparents and a friend of the family and their three children, who were around my age. They all bought toys to bring home and play with, and I bought a Chinese folding screen to add to my miniatures collection in my curio cabinet at home! It shows you what a unique child I was.

In front of the screen on a pedestal table stands a miniature cloisonné vase from the early Twentieth Century which I also bought when I was a child. It came from a curios shop. Cloisonné is an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects. In recent centuries, vitreous enamel has been used, and inlays of cut gemstones, glass and other materials were also used during older periods. The resulting objects can also be called cloisonné. The decoration is formed by first adding compartments (cloisons in French) to the metal object by soldering or affixing silver or gold wires or thin strips placed on their edges. These remain visible in the finished piece, separating the different compartments of the enamel or inlays, which are often of several colours. Cloisonné enamel objects are worked on with enamel powder made into a paste, which then needs to be fired in a kiln. The Japanese produced large quantities from the mid Nineteenth Century, of very high technical quality cloisonné. In Japan cloisonné enamels are known as shippō-yaki (七宝焼). Early centres of cloisonné were Nagoya during the Owari Domain. Companies of renown were the Ando Cloisonné Company. Later centres of renown were Edo and Kyoto. In Kyoto Namikawa became one of the leading companies of Japanese cloisonné.

The drop sheet to protect Lettice’s Mayfair drawing room floor is really the corner of an ordinary bed sheet.

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