A love affair with France: The Collection of Elizabeth Stafford

Alexandra Stafford, the collector's daughter, talks to Jody Wilkie, co-chairman of Decorative Arts at Christie's, about her mother’s taste, connoisseurship, and her decoration of two sumptuous apartments in Paris and New York


Elizabeth Stafford in the dining room of her apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York

To enter the Stafford apartments on Avenue Foch in Paris and Fifth Avenue in New York was to be transported to another place and another time — Paris in the mid-18th century when the art of luxury goods reached such an extraordinary apogee.

Colourful Sèvres and Chinese porcelain mounted in lustrous ormolu glistened on exquisite marquetry tables and commodes, while sinuously carved armchairs and settees beckoned in every corner, all set against boiserie panelling.

Fred and Elizabeth Stafford bought from all the best dealers of the day, such as Rosenberg and Stiebel, René Weiller, Samy Chalom, Kraemer and Bensimon, while many pieces came from illustrious collections, such as Henry Ford II, Baron de Lopez Tarragoya, Mrs. Alexander Hamilton Rice, Antenor Patiño and Madame Lucienne Fribourg.

The niche in the Stéphane Boudin-designed New York apartment’s salon, or living room, displayed a selection of the Sèvres bleu céleste that forms the core of the porcelain collection — including an oval bottle cooler from the first service made for Louis XV

An interior from the Staffords’ Paris apartment

Their daughter, Alexandra, recalls that the first question new friends asked when they entered the apartment was, ‘How could you live in such a museum?’ As they hesitated before sitting down on the silk brocade-covered 18th-century gilded chaise à la Reine, she would answer: ‘No problem!’

Here, Alexandra Stafford discusses her mother’s collecting with Jody Wilkie, ahead of a special sale, A Love Affair with France: The Elizabeth Stafford Collection, which takes place on 1 November at Christie’s in New York.

Tell us about your parents’ apartment on Avenue Foch in Paris?

Alexandra Stafford: ‘I was probably seven or eight when we moved in. It was actually an Art Deco apartment, maybe 13 rooms. At that time a lot of beautiful mansions in Paris were being torn down and there were warehouses where decorators and architects would go. My mother would pick out what she liked. I remember being frightened by these two gigantic Chinese Tang wood sculptures we had in the apartment; they scared the daylights out of me. I had to run past them to get to my room.’

And then you moved to New York…

AS: ‘In 1973 we returned to the United States and moved to Metairie, Louisiana, where my grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles lived. After three years my parents still couldn’t find a suitable house and were still trying to sell the French apartment, so it was a very interesting period. All of a sudden, my parents decided to look at New York again. We have friends in New York, and they felt we could start a life there. They were showed the apartment with its parquet de Versailles, moulding and boiserie. It just fitted. My mother was there for 40 years.’

What did she change, if anything?

AS: ‘The most important thing she changed was the fabric on the upholstery because the colours in Paris were so bright — yellows, reds and blues. For the apartment in New York she wanted a lighter colour palette, so she moved into pale blues, floral patterns, paler yellows, and corals instead of red.

‘The living room in the New York apartment was a stage set, a beautiful vitrine of 18th-century decorative arts. My mother had parties and would use all the rooms in the apartment. The Louis XV commode by Roussel was in the living room. She loved it, we put a lot of family albums in it, as well as 18th-century fabrics for her chairs.

‘I think the fact that she was able to make it all work came from her training in France. As an American, she was thrown into that world and I think she made up for the feeling that Americans didn’t know anything by going above and beyond. She adopted that style and brought it back to the US.’

She obviously liked layers of decoration, but flowers were a big part of her aesthetic, too…

AS: ‘She loved flowers. Even at the end of her life, she would have bouquets of flowers everywhere. In France, we would go out to the marché des fleurs  and pick up big trays of flowers that we planted in the townhouse. She always had big bouquets in the salon in Paris.

‘Living in the South, her grandmother had a beautiful backyard with camellia trees, azaleas, crepe myrtles, all the different colours. In France, flowers featured prominently on 18th-century porcelain; it was like having a 365-days-a-year interior garden.’

Once something found a home, was that its home for life, or would your mother change things?

AS: ‘She changed things up quite often. One thing she loved about her furniture was the research on the markings, and who the ébéniste  was, for example. She really enjoyed learning about the different furniture-makers from her many reference books.’

She had really great Louis XV and Louis XVI objects, but there was also a strong emphasis on women in her collection...

AS: ‘Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette were her biggest loves. She collected works of art by women and of women. Most of the portraits, except maybe for two, are of women — fantasy women or portraits of daughters of famous people.’

In the apartments in Paris and New York, this feminine theme was seen in the flowers, the movement, the shapes. There were very few straight lines.

AS: ‘It’s undeniable that my mother liked things that were feminine. She took care of herself, she dressed beautifully, she liked beautiful things and I think the fact that she collected all these feminine portraits catered to that.’

Do you think your mother missed Paris, or did she prefer New York?

AS: ‘She was really happy wherever she was and after her three years in New Orleans, she made the best of her life in New York. After all, she was able to go to all the auction houses!’

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