Sage Advice from Aunt Egg

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.

Today however we have headed a short distance north-east across London, away from Cavendish Mews and Mayfair, over Paddington and past Lisson Grove to the comfortably affluent suburb of Little Venice with its cream painted Regency terraces and railing surrounded public parks. Here in Clifton Gardens Lettice’s maiden Aunt Eglantine, affectionately known as Aunt Egg by her nieces and nephews, lives in a beautiful four storey house that is part of a terrace of twelve. Eglantine Chetwynd is Viscount Wrexham’s younger sister, and as well as being unmarried, is an artist and ceramicist of some acclaim. Originally a member of the Pre-Raphaelites* in England, these days she flits through artistic and bohemian circles and when not at home in her spacious and light filled studio at the rear of her garden, can be found mixing with mostly younger artistic friends in Chelsea. Her unmarried status, outlandish choice of friends and rather reformist and unusual dress sense shocks Lettice’s mother, Lady Sadie, and attracts her derision. In addition, she draws Sadie’s ire, as Aunt Egg has always received far more affection and preferential treatment from her children. Viscount Wrexham on the other hand adores his artistic little sister, and has always made sure that she can live the lifestyle she chooses and create art.

As Lettice pulls the well worn brass hand that triggers the doorbell next to the brightly painted red front door, she stands beneath the columned portico of her aunt’s house and admires the terracotta pots of brightly coloured tulips that flank the front doorstep, which make her terrace stand out from all the others in the row. A faint female voice with a Germanic accent calls from within before the door is answered by Augusta, Eglantine’s Swiss head parlour maid, dressed in her formal black uniform with a white lace trimmed apron and with a large black bow in her hair.

“Good morning, Augusta,” Lettice greets her brightly. “Is my Aunt home?”

“Good morning, Fräulein Chetwynd.” Augusta answers politely. “Please do come in. Ya, your Tante is in ze studio.”

Lettice steps across the threshold of her aunt’s terrace and is immediately enveloped in the rich mixture of exotic scents that she has always associated with the artist: a blend of heavy floral perfumes, cigarette smoke and oil paint. She sighs as she inhales the welcome smell and shirks off her dark blue coat with a mink collar into Augusta’s waiting hands. “Don’t bother to introduce me, Augusta. I’ll just show myself through to the studio.” she says.

“Ya! Ya!” the parlour maid enthuses as she watches Lettice disappear down the hall, which like the rest of the house, is filled with ornate, yet artistic, furnishings, paintings and a general jumble of clutter which keep her and the three maids under her very busy cleaning and dusting all year round.

“Aunt Egg! Yoo-hoo, Aunt Egg!” Lettice calls as she approaches the ivy covered studio at the rear of the rambling cottage garden filled with a hotchpotch of brightly coloured spring blooms.

She pushes down on the latch and opens the door to the studio, the familiar earthy smell of potter’s clay, oil paint and linseed oil greeting her as she does. The studio is flooded with light thanks to a large, almost full length window of plate glass that fills the northern wall. The space is filled with benches and shelves cluttered with everything from pieces of ceramics in different stages of completion to canvases to books on art. A sink stands at the rear of the studio with a row of fine Royal Doulton Art Nouveau tiles of white irises above it. An easel leans, unused against a bench next to it. And sitting at the large wooden table covered in a panoply of paints, brushes and ceramics that dominates the middle of the studio, is her beloved Aunt Egg.

“Well,” the older woman beams as she looks up from the pottery jug she is painting. “If it isn’t my favourite niece.”

“I’m sure you say that to Lally and all our female cousins.” Lettice replies as she walks over to her aunt’s seated figure and kisses her first on one proffered cheek and then the other.

“Well, you’ll never know, will you my dear,” the older woman answers with a cheeky smile and alert green eyes. “I like to keep you all guessing who will inherit my jewels when I die.”

“Oh Aunt Egg!” Lettice scoffs. “You mustn’t talk like that.”

“We all of us are going to die one day, Lettice. Anyway, you are probably the most like me out of all of you girls, with your artistic attributes, so why shouldn’t you be my favourite?”

Lettice pulls up a small stool and sits opposite her aunt. When she was young, Eglantine had Titian red hair that fell in wavy tresses about her pale face, making her a popular muse amongst the Pre-Raphaelites she mixed with. With the passing years, her red hair has retreated almost entirely behind silver grey, save for the occasional streak of washed out reddish orange, yet she still wears it as she did when it was at its fiery best, sweeping softly about her almond shaped face, tied in a loose chignon at the back of her neck. Large emerald coloured glass droplets hang from her ears that match the green glass necklace about her neck that cascades over the top of her white paint splattered dust coat. Lettice doesn’t need to see beneath it to know that her aunt is wearing her usual uniform of a lose Delphos dress** that does not require her to wear a corset of any kind, and a silk fringed cardigan of some description, both in beautiful colours.

“I hope Augusta brings us some tea soon,” Eglantine remarks as she focuses her attention once again on the task at hand a she paints a long green frond onto the jug with her adept hands, heavily bejewelled with an array of sparkling stones and gold.

“Shall I go and ask her, Aunt Egg?”

“No, no.” Eglantine says with a settling wave, her paint brush held in place by her interwoven fingers. “She’s been serving me for nigh on thirty years now. She knows when to serve tea.”

“What are you doing, Aunt Egg?” Lettice asks as she stares at her aunt’s delicate hands as they move up and down the bulbous body of the jug.

“I’m painting the ceiling, my dear,” she replies sarcastically without so much as a blink in her lowered eyelids. “Must you ask such obvious questions?”

“I’m sorry, Aunt Egg,” Lettice apologises, remembering that however much her aunt loves her, she cannot abide dull conversation and obvious questions, owing to the amount of time she spends with interesting and witty people. “I meant, what is the purpose of the jug you are painting? Where is it going?”

“Then that is what you should ask, Lettice.” Eglantine chides mildly, still not lifting her eyes from her task. “You will never succeed in business if you whitter away like most women do. Be clear, polite, and direct. Ask what you want to know without fear.”

“Yes, Aunt Egg.” Lettice replies, suitably chastened.

“Its not for anyone, yet. I’ve been inspired by the painted pottery of Capula*** in Mexico, and I also saw some of Carrington’s**** pottery recently. When I was visiting the Slade*****. I’m exploring the naïve style of folk art. What do you think?”

“I think it looks very beautiful Aunt Egg.”

“And how go your artistic pursuits, Lettice my dear?” Eglantine adeptly mixes a little more white paint into a pool of the gleaming dark green she shas been using and applies a thin line up the leaf’s middle to highlight a stem.

“My artistic pursuits?”

“Yes! How is the interior design business going?”

“I’d hardly call my business an ‘artistic pursuit’ Aunt Egg.” Lettice laughs.

“Nonsense my dear! Your interiors are just as artistic as my ceramics. It’s just your canvas is much bigger than mine, and involves many different facets.”

“Well, if you ask Mater, she’d say dreadfully.”

“Ahh,” the older woman sighs as she paints faint spiderweb thin veins coming off the stem of her leaf. “But I’m not asking Sadie, thank goodness. I’m asking you, Lettice. However, if Sadie says it’s not going well, that must mean business is flourishing. Is it?”

“It’s going swimmingly, Aunt Egg!” Lettice gushes. “I don’t need Mater to introduce me to people like the Duchess of Whitby anymore. I’m finally starting to develop a name for myself.”

“Good! Good!” replies Eglantine. “I’m pleased to hear it.” She dips her brush in the lighter coloured green again. “I’m not surprised of course. You’re very talented. However, I’m glad to hear it from your own lips. Too many people with talent are neglected, whilst ones with no talent get the recognition they don’t deserve.”

“I’m sure they wouldn’t agree, Aunt Egg. After all, weren’t you the one to teach me that art appreciation is a subjective thing?”

“Very good Lettice.” She looks up from her work and smiles broadly at her niece, her eyes gleaming with pride. “I’m glad to see all those afternoons at the Slade and Omega Workshops****** weren’t wasted, or smothered by your mother’s lack of imagination.” She looks back down and begins to work again, the concentration etched in the furrows that line her forehead. “So, it’s going well then?”

“Oh yes! I’m actually in the process of designing a few rooms for Margot Channon.”

“Ahh yes!” Eglantine gasps. “Little Margot de Virre finally grew up and got married, to the Marquess of Taunton’s son.”

“Yes, Dickie Channon.”

“Poor dear. No doubt a match made by her own meddling mother.”

“You have a very poor opinion of marriage, Aunt Egg.” Lettice opines.

“Well, as you can see, my dear, I’ve never needed the institution of matrimony myself to feel fulfilled.”

“Oh, but Margot and Dickie are in love, Aunt Egg. They met, well through me really, at the Embassy Club. Mrs. de Virre had no hand in their matrimony.”

“Oh well. I suppose that’s alright then. I read about their wedding in The Times. St. Mark’s******* wasn’t it?” She waits for Lettice to affirm with a nod. “And I saw that Gerald Bruton designed her gown. I’m pleased to see that he developed some independence like you, and that he’s making something of himself too.” She pauses before continuing. “I don’t object to people marrying for love: another point, one of many, about which Sadie and I will never agree. Which is why I refused to come to the Hunt Ball this year, knowing it was intended as a marriage market for you, my dear.” She pauses and puts down her brush onto her palette, thickly coated in layers of dried oils and reaches out to her niece, clasping her smaller hand in her larger gnarled one, giving Lettice’s a friendly squeeze. “I don’t mind if you marry for love. However, the amalgamation of two great families through the marriage bed, simply for the sake of ‘good breeding’, whatever that is, I find quite repugnant.”

“Well, “ Lettice blushes as she casts her eyes down onto her aunt’s hands, where she gazes at her winking jewels in their gold and platinum settings. “I did meet someone, actually. I wouldn’t say that we’re in love, but we’ve agreed to see one another when his next visit to London coincides with me being available. I told Pater and Mater that I wanted to do this my own way, and not have any interference.”

“No doubt Sadie was furious about that, and probably blames me for putting such independent ideas into your head”

“Were you a fly on the wall of the morning room, Aunt Egg?” chuckles Lettice.

The older woman withdraws her hand, picks up her brush and sets to work highlighting the leaf again. “I don’t need to. I know what cloth your mother is cut from. So, who is it, then?”

“Selwyn Spencely.”

The older woman pauses again and stares off into the distance, out the window, lots in her own thoughts. “Selwyn Spencely. Selwyn Spencely. I vaguely know that name.”

“He is the son of the Duke of Walmsford. He used to come to Glynes******** when we were children. He’s only a few years older than me.”

“Well, whoever he is, just don’t let him come between you and your design business, will you? As you say, you’ve worked hard to build yourself a name, Lettice. Don’t throw it all away for a marriage not of your making, or a marriage for the wrong reasons.”

“I promise, I won’t Aunt Egg.” Lettice assures her aunt.

“You’re a lucky girl, Lettice. You have choices in life”

“Try telling Mater that.” Lettice replies disparagingly.

“Oh pooh Sadie and her blinkered ideas that she infects you and your father with!” Eglantine spits hotly. “You’re an independent woman now you’re of age Lettice. You have a sizable allowance, thanks to your forward-thinking grandfather, which no-one can take from you, and now you have your own money from your business. That’s more than a lot of women have. Don’t waste the advantages you have and whatever you do, be it in love, work or marriage, be true to yourself.”

A quiet tapping on the glass panes of the door interrupts the two women. Looking to the entrance, they see Clotilde, the second parlour maid looking hopefully through the glass.

“I’ll go.” Lettice says as she leaps up from the stool and hurries over to open the door.

“Danke schön, Fräulein Chetwynd.” Clotilde says gratefully as Lettice opens the door, to reveal the girl in her morning print dress and cotton apron carrying what looks like a heavy tray laden with tea things.

True to her independent form, when the Great War came and there was much resentment towards people of Germanic heritage in Britain, Eglantine refused to dismiss her three Swiss parlour maids, even though they all spoke German fluently and preferred to speak it in the household. She simply packed herself and her servants off to her brother’s estate of Glynes in Wiltshire, where they could live a sheltered life of safety with her in the disused Glynes Dower House, seeing very few people and not being subjected to bigotry. In spite of her immense dislike of her sister-in-law, whom she inevitably crossed paths with when she went up to the estate’s Big House, she had a pleasant enough war growing vegetables in the garden to help supplement their diet and assist with the war effort, without having to actually involve herself in the war, being a pacifist. It was also during this time that she had her greatest influence on Lettice, preparing her niece for the more independent life of a women after the war ended.

“Bitte schön,” Eglantine replies to Clotilde, standing herself and clearing a space on the crowded work space for the tea tray, a cloud of glowing dust motes filling the air around them as they tumbled through the spring sunbeams pouring through the window of the studio.

After Clotilde closes the door behind her and retreats to the house, Lettice and her aunt resume their conversation.

“So, you said you were decorating the new Mrs. Channon’s house then, Lettice?” Eglantine picks up the conversation.

“Well yes. Lord de Virre and I came up with a plan. Since Margot is used to new things, but their country house in Cornwall is quite old, and poor Dickie hasn’t enough money to pay for refurbishment, Lord de Virre is footing the bill for electrification, new plumbing and for a connection to the telephone exchange. He also suggested that I might redecorate a few of the principal rooms of the house.”

“Which rooms?” Eglantine asks, setting out the tea things.

“The drawing room, the dining room, their bedroom and what must have been a sunroom, which they want to use for cocktail parties and dancing. Which is why I’ve come to see you, Aunt Egg. I need your advice.”

“Advice on what, my dear?” Eglantine pours tea into their cups, to which they both add milk and sugar.

“Well, Margot wants all new furnishings, which as you know isn’t my style. I prefer a mixture of old and new. Gerald came up with the perfect solution, which is to paint some of the old pieces and present them in a new style.”

“Very clever, Gerald. So how can I be of assistance, Lettice?”

“I need to know what sort of paint I should use on wooden furniture. I thought that if anyone would know, you would.”

“Ahh, well.” Eglantine starts to stir her tea. “There I can indeed be of assistance. Tell me, do you have any house paint lying around at Cavendish Mews?”

Aunt and nice sit together over the tea at the bench and discuss priming wood, coats of paint and varnish, all the while bathed in beautiful sunlight as the disturbed dust motes continue to play around them, dancing and swirling in the sunbeams that pour through the window of the studio.

*The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (later known as the Pre-Raphaelites) was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner who formed a seven-member "Brotherhood" modelled in part on the Nazarene movement. The Brotherhood was only ever a loose association and their principles were shared by other artists of the time, including Ford Madox Brown, Arthur Hughes and Marie Spartali Stillman. Later followers of the principles of the Brotherhood included Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and John William Waterhouse. The group sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian art. They rejected what they regarded as the mechanistic approach first adopted by Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. The Brotherhood believed the classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael in particular had been a corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art, hence the name "Pre-Raphaelite".

**The Delphos gown is a finely pleated silk dress first created in about 1907 by French designer Henriette Negrin and her husband, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. They produced the gowns until about 1950. It was inspired by, and named after, a classical Greek statue, the Charioteer of Delphi. It was championed by more artistic women who did not wish to conform to society’s constraints and wear a tightly fitting corset.

***Capula is a small village in Mexico in Michoacan state with a pre-Hispanic pottery tradition. Clay tableware delicately decorated with flowers and fishes, kitchen plates painted with the town’s unique dotting style.

****Dora de Houghton Carrington, known generally as Carrington, was an English painter and decorative artist, remembered in part for her association with members of the Bloomsbury Group, especially the writer Lytton Strachey. From her time as an art student, she was known simply by her surname as she considered Dora to be "vulgar and sentimental". She was not well known as a painter during her lifetime, as she rarely exhibited and did not sign her work. An accomplished painter of portraits and landscape, she also worked in applied and decorative arts, painting on any type of surface she had at hand including inn signs, tiles and furniture. Her naïve pottery, like all her art is now described as progressive, because it did not fit into the mainstream of art in England at the time.

*****Established by lawyers and philanthropist Felix Slade in 1868, Slade School of Fine Art is the art school of University College London and is based in London, England. It has been ranked as the United Kingdom’s top art and design educational institution. The school is organised as a department of University College London’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Two of its most important periods were immediately before, and immediately after, the turn of the twentieth century. It had such students as Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, C.R.W. Nevinson and Stanley Spencer.

******The Omega Workshops Ltd. was a design enterprise founded by members of the Bloomsbury Group and established in July 1913. It was located at 33 Fitzroy Square in London, and was founded with the intention of providing graphic expression to the essence of the Bloomsbury ethos. The Workshops were also closely associated with the Hogarth Press and the artist and critic Roger Fry, who was the principal figure behind the project, believed that artists could design, produce and sell their own works, and that writers could also be their own printers and publishers. The Directors of the firm were Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

*******St. Mark’s Church Mayfair, is a Grade I listed building, in the heart of London’s Mayfair district, on North Audley Street. St Mark’s was built between 1825 and 1828 as a response to the shortage of churches in the area. The population in Mayfair had grown with the demand for town houses by the aristocracy and the wealthy, as they moved in from the country. The building was constructed in the Greek revival style to the designs of John Peter Gandy. In 1878 the architect Arthur Blomfield made significant changes to the church, adding a timber roof, and introducing Gothic style features. The thirty-four feet (ten metre) façade, together with the elegant porch, is known as one of the finest in London. Being in Mayfair, it was a popular place for the weddings of aristocratic families. It was deconsecrated in 1974, and today it is used as a mixed use venue.

********Glynes is the grand Georgian family seat of the Chetwynds in Wiltshire, and the home of Lettice’s parents, the presiding Viscount and Countess of Wrexham and the heir, their eldest son Leslie.

This rather delightfully chaotic artist’s studio scene may look very real to you, yet it is in fact made up of pieces from my 1:12 miniatures collection, including some very special pieces that are very close to my heart.

Fun things to look for in this tableau include:

The painted and glazed jug in the centre of the image, the brown one in the foreground, the jug standing on the edge of the trough, and the green and the white jugs on the bench all come from Mick and Marie’s Miniatures in the United Kingdom. The white jug is Parianware and is mid Victorian. The brown glazed jugs and pots are individually made and are impressed with Art Nouveau images, which is very apt considering that they were made as children’s toys in the early 1900s.

The unglazed pots on the table and the bench in the background were made by a Polish miniature potter and were given to me some twenty five years ago by one of my closest girlfriends as a gift for helping arrange her kitchen for her when she moved house. They are such beautiful pieces, and hold great sentimental value for me.

The trough on brick legs with its silvered taps and the easel leaning against the bench in the background come from Kathleen Knight’s Doll House Shop in the United Kingdom.

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

The ladderback chair to the left of the photo is a recent 1:12 miniature which has a hand-woven rattan seat. It was acquired from an estate of a miniature collector in Sydney and dates from around the 1970s.

The tile frieze that appears along the back wall above the sink is an Art Nouveau design from the Lambeth works of Royal Doulton and features white Irises.

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