The private world of Fleur Cowles — founder of Flair and friend of the famous

The art and objects, from Dior hats to Picasso drawings, that decorated the London home of the legendary editor and society figure, whose collection is offered at Christie’s on 23 November

A renowned journalist, author, artist, patron and fashionista, Fleur Cowles maintained a position as a doyenne of both New York and London society for the best part of a century, and was the creative force behind the influential Flair magazine of the early 1950s.

Fleur Cowles shared two ‘sets’ at the Albany — as apartments are known in the prestigious London residential complex — with her fourth husband, Tom Montague Meyer. She lived there for more than 50 years, creating a private world for a collection that included everything from 1950s Dior hats to Picasso drawings, Outsider art, furniture and sculpture. 

The July 1950 issue of Flair magazine, which existed for just 12 months but was hugely influential

The July 1950 issue of Flair magazine, which existed for just 12 months but was hugely influential

Cowles had first become famous in the USA while married to her third husband Mike Cowles, the owner of Look magazine. In 1950, she launched Flair, an extravagant and innovative magazine for the elite. Flair combined cut-out covers and varied paper stocks with stories by the likes of W. H. Auden, Jean Cocteau and Tennessee Williams, and illustrations by Picasso, Dalí, Lucian Freud and even Winston Churchill. Its 12 loss-making issues have inspired generations of magazine editors and are now collectors’ items. 

She cultivated friendships with royals and the rich and famous, including American presidents and the Queen Mother (described as her best friend) at fabulous dinner parties

Cowles was President Eisenhower’s special envoy at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and moved to London when she married Meyer in 1955. Her friend Cary Grant was best man. From first one set, then two overlooking the Albany’s central courtyard, she cultivated her friendships with royals, the rich and the famous — including American presidents, foreign heads of state, HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (described as her best friend) and film stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor — and was renowned for hosting fabulous dinner parties.

One of Fleur Cowles’ apartments at the Albany, London

One of Fleur Cowles’ apartments at the Albany, London

Cowles decorated her first set on a 1950s Georgian theme. This centred on a Wedgwood-blue drawing room with white highlights, and a tented bedroom that led off it. The second set, communicating with the first by a simple jib door, led into the ‘pink room’, a large drawing room where Cowles painted, and her ‘yellow study’, a replica of which is in the Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities in Austin, Texas.

Photographs from Fleur Cowles’ home in Albany, London
Photographs from Fleur Cowles’ home in Albany, London
Photographs from Fleur Cowles’ home in Albany, London
Photographs from Fleur Cowles’ home in Albany, London

Cowles’s favourite flower was the rose and she painted it many times. Her paintings also featured creatures of the jungle, birds and huge sprawling blooms, often placed in dreamlike settings. 

‘I have an idea a minute,’ Fleur Cowles once said. ‘I’m a born idea myself.’ She was an unforgettable figure with her pale blonde hair and emphatic, black-framed glasses, as pictured in her portrait by René Gruau (below), and her dresses designed by Joan Miró, among the many artists who contributed to Flair. The furnishings and decorative pieces offered in our Interiors sale sale on 23 November give some idea of the mercurial woman who created these notable living spaces, as our specialists explain below. 

  • 1
  • The formal and informal

Of Ronald and Nancy Reagan interest; Two photographs and an American silvered metal compact. Late 20th century. The compact 2⅞ x 2 ½ in (7.3 x 6.5 cm). Estimate £800-1,200. This lot is offered in Christies Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Of Ronald and Nancy Reagan interest; Two photographs and an American silvered metal compact. Late 20th century. The compact: 2⅞ x 2 ½ in (7.3 x 6.5 cm). Estimate: £800-1,200. This lot is offered in Christie's Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

‘These photographs offer a fantastic insight into the intimate friendships the magnetic Fleur Cowles made — the formal portrait countered by a second, more unexpected image.’ Adrian Hume-Sayer, Private Collections Specialist

  • 2
  • Glamour and sophistication

René Gruau (French, 1909-2004), Portrait of Fleur Cowles. Oil on canvas, 28 ¾ x 23 ¾ in (73 x 60.4 cm). Estimate £10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Christies Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

René Gruau (French, 1909-2004), Portrait of Fleur Cowles. Oil on canvas, 28 ¾ x 23 ¾ in (73 x 60.4 cm). Estimate: £10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Christie's Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

‘René Gruau was one of the main contributors to Flair, the magazine Fleur Cowles founded in 1950; this elegant portrait captures her glamour and sophistication.’ James Richards, Pictures Specialist

  • 3
  • She made friends and kept them

A group of ten autographed photographs of royalty, politicians and actresses, second half 20th century. The first 12 ½ in (32 cm) high. Estimate £1,200-1,800. This lot is offered in Christies Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

A group of ten autographed photographs of royalty, politicians and actresses, second half 20th century. The first: 12 ½ in (32 cm) high. Estimate: £1,200-1,800. This lot is offered in Christie's Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

‘Nothing sums up Fleur Cowles’s social life like this collection of signed photographs. The title of her autobiography, She Made Friends and Kept Them, certainly resonates here.’ Benedict Winter, Private Collections

  • 4
  • Dreamlike compositions

Fleur Cowles (American, 1908-2009), Lion Amongst Poppies and Butterflies. Oil on board, 21⅔ x 30 in (55.3 x 76.2 cm). Estimate £800-1,200. This lot is offered in Christies Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Fleur Cowles (American, 1908-2009), Lion Amongst Poppies and Butterflies. Oil on board, 21⅔ x 30 in (55.3 x 76.2 cm). Estimate: £800-1,200. This lot is offered in Christie's Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

‘Stylised flowers and wild beasts in dreamlike compositions are at the heart of Cowles’s own oeuvre. This one is both highly original and beautifully balanced.’ Krassimira Kuneva, Pictures Specialist

  • 5
  • A patron of originality

Six painted hessian panels, By Federico Pallavicini (Swiss, 1909-1989). Each panel 117 x 18⅜ in (297.2 x 47.3 cm) overall. Estimate £2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in Christies Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Six painted hessian panels, By Federico Pallavicini (Swiss, 1909-1989). Each panel: 117 x 18⅜ in (297.2 x 47.3 cm) overall. Estimate: £2,000-3,000. This lot is offered in Christie's Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

‘These dazzling wall panels are a wonderful example of Fleur Cowles’s patronage of originality. She discovered the artist while establishing her short-lived but visionary magazine, Flair.’ Pippa Green, Furniture & Works of Art Specialist

  • 6
  • Lavish production values

A painted glass, white-painted and pleated material six-fold screen, late 19th century. Each panel 72 ¾ in (185 cm) high; 24 in (61 cm) wide. Estimate £1,200-1,800. This lot is offered in Christies Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

A painted glass, white-painted and pleated material six-fold screen, late 19th century. Each panel 72 ¾ in (185 cm) high; 24 in (61 cm) wide. Estimate: £1,200-1,800. This lot is offered in Christie's Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Flair  was known for its brave and lavish production values, and this screen has the same outlandish feel, capturing the genius of Fleur Cowles and her remarkable taste.’ Lee Belcher, Art Director

  • 7
  • Picasso — a contributor to Flair

Pablo Picasso (French, 1881-1973), Taureau. Indian ink on paper, 8 ¼ x 10⅝ in (21 x 27 cm). Estimate £20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Christies Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Pablo Picasso (French, 1881-1973), Taureau. Indian ink on paper, 8 ¼ x 10⅝ in (21 x 27 cm). Estimate: £20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Christie's Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

‘This calligraphic work has the confidence and gusto of gesture that captures the forceful stance of the bull, a significant motif in Picasso’s oeuvre.’ Imogen Kerr, Impressionist & Modern Art Specialist

  • 8
  • Man Ray on her walls

Man Ray (American, 1890-1976), Natural Painting. Acrylic on masonite, 7 x 5⅛ in (17.9 x 13.1 cm). Estimate £6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Christies Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Man Ray (American, 1890-1976), Natural Painting. Acrylic on masonite, 7 x 5⅛ in (17.9 x 13.1 cm). Estimate: £6,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Christie's Interiors on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

‘In his Natural Paintings, Man Ray abandoned his brushes and palette knives to experiment with applying pressure to fast-drying acrylic, obtaining astonishing results.’ Astrid Carbonez, Impressionist & Modern Art Specialist