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Elsie and her Bibelots

March 10th, 2009

Daniel Pontius

Above is a much published photo c 1890 of Elsie de Wolfe in her Turkish Room at 49 Irving Place, NYC. This is the essential before shot; before she became a decorator; before the new century. It was the ending of the Victorian Age and she was at the end of her acting career. She was going to have to do something. Check SpellingIn this before picture, she had not yet decorated 49 Irving Place, which helped to jump start her path (nothing new is what she said of decorating; woman have always done it). In the before photo she is in her late 30’s and living the Sapphic life and by 1905 at 40– she had received her first commission and off she went– and that, as they say, was that.

Bibelots has attempted to get permission to use a photo of Elsie de Wolfe by Cecil Beaton taken in the 1930’s. It is the quintessential after photo. Elsie de Wolfe at her most personal reinvention. Bibelots was told that “in theory” permission could be given for a fee…Well, enough said. You Dear Reader can see the image on your own at the National Portrait Gallery Website at this link: AFTER.

Elsie, I’m almost overwhelmed with a lack of words to describe this image. Elsie, the gilt! Never again will this be done so well. Is this your in-town home at 10 Avenue d’Iena or is it Villa Trianon, Versailles? 

I would like to imagine it is your Paris apartment, although I think it is Trianon. You were enraptured in the new found social status of your mariage blanc to Sir Mendl. You had stepped out as the newly fashioned Lady Mendl, New York behind you, it is at Avenue d’Iena that has always felt to me the culmination of your career:

“Throughout this period, the decorator became identified with conspicuous connoisseurship through the adoption of extravagant bibelots, particularly crystal obelisks and miniature jade and crystal animals. Her embrace of these, rather than Giacometti sculptures and Neo-Romantic paintings, further served to distance her from the interiors du jour of her contemporaries.

These treasures–including a small 18th-century gold-and-diamond coach and a magnificent crystal ship in full sail–were frequently used as centerpieces on her dining table”(257, Sparke).


Post a comment
  1. Anonymous #
    March 11, 2009

    What a sorceress, Lady Mendl was. That face, that glitter, that odd “nurse” in the background.

  2. March 11, 2009

    Everyone should have a dour french maid lurking in the background.

  3. Anonymous #
    March 13, 2009

    What I love about Elsie, especially as she lay languidly across that pile o’pillows is that she looks like someone who thinks herself beautiful. And she isn’t. But she is.

    p.s. I thought you were going to update this more regularly. Like daily almost.

  4. March 13, 2009

    You’re right Anonymous, she wasn’t beautiful, but it is something she new about herself, which she said was the driving force behind wanting to make what was around her beautiful.

    PS The days do go quickly when you spend them lounging on stacks of cushions.

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