From Chanel to Churchill, royalty to the Surrealists — Audrey Pleydell-Bouverie and her brilliant friends
A doyenne of transatlantic high society, Audrey Pleydell-Bouverie was as comfortable mingling with Fred Astaire and Salvador Dalí as she was with the future queen of England. Works from her collection are now being offered in London
The aristocratic Bright Young Things who lit up the London gossip columns in the hedonistic interlude between the wars were a glittering antidote to an otherwise austere era.
Their bohemian antics were photographed by Cecil Beaton and sent up in the satirical novels of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford.
Among a social set that included Harold Acton, Stephen Tennant, Lord Berners and Baby Jungman was a pretty, dark-haired debutante called Audrey James.
Her frank personality and love of country sports attracted the attentions of many eligible bachelors, among them Lord Louis Mountbatten and the Prince of Wales.
‘Like most aristocratic women of the period, Audrey was primed for marriage,’ says Christie’s specialist Amelia Walker, ‘but she was also a canny operator who successfully navigated the treacherous waters of the English upper classes and Manhattan’s flinty elite to become a celebrated transatlantic socialite.’
Raised as the youngest daughter of the Anglo-American lumber and steel millionaire William Dodge James (her real father was said to be the Liberal politician Sir Edward Grey), Audrey grew up at West Dean in Sussex.
Her brother, the Surrealist mystic Edward James, described the atmosphere at home as lively but not conducive to children: they rarely saw their mother Evelyn.
‘Weekend parties for 30 people were quite common, and we seemed to have royalty all the time,’ he said.
At 20, Audrey married a wounded war hero, Captain Muir Dudley Coats, who died five years later.
She then wed the fabulously wealthy American department-store heir Marshall Field III and thereafter played the society doyenne in New York, entertaining diplomats, politicians, artists and actors.
‘Audrey was a social grandee who moved in elite circles. But she instinctively understood the artistic temperament and could move in both worlds’ — specialist Amelia Walker
By all accounts Audrey was a generous host, offering her numerous residences to friends. Nancy Mitford lived in her apartment in London, while Winston and Clementine Churchill made use of her house on Long Island.
Her guest books are a Who’s Who of the era, including the likes of Fred and Adele Astaire, Philip and Sybil Sassoon, the Churchills, Cecil Beaton — who made numerous sketches of her — and the Duke and Duchess of Kent.
The marriage, however, was an unhappy one. By the end, according to the Sunday News, ‘the only thing they had in common was their love of horses and dogs’.
After her divorce in 1934, Audrey returned to London. In 1936 she bought The Holme, a beautiful villa in Regent’s Park, which she had remodelled in the Vogue Regency style by the designer Stéphane Boudin.
The interior became a backdrop for her collection of French Impressionist paintings, for which she had developed a passion after visiting the Art Institute of Chicago in 1927.
One of the highlights coming to Christie’s on 8 June is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Prairie, circa 1880, in which the painter’s broad, loose brushwork captures the effects of light on water — a technique that became central to the Impressionistic style. The collection also includes Eugène Boudin’s Marée basse à Trouville from 1865 (below), and a snowscape by Albert Charles Lebourg, Notre Dame sous la neige.
Through her brother Edward, Audrey became acquainted with the French avant-garde. Summers were spent in Corfu and at Coco Chanel’s house, La Pausa, on the Riviera, with fellow guests including Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala, and the artistic muse Misia Sert.
In London she entertained her friend Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who as the wife of George VI was now the Queen.
‘Audrey was a social grandee who moved in elite circles,’ says Walker, ‘but there was also a bohemianism to her. She instinctively understood the artistic temperament and could operate in both worlds.’
Like Edward, Audrey had an eccentric streak, perhaps best reflected in the annual Butlers Ball she established for the staff of grand country houses.
This idyllic life came to an end in 1939 with the outbreak of the Second World War.
Like many who remained in London during the Blitz, Audrey was stoical and unstinting. Having sent her two sons to Canada, she turned her home into a hostel for Red Cross workers.
Her days were spent working with the Red Cross and lecturing on civil defence matters. Her leisure reading was a manual on how to survive a gas attack.
By now Audrey was married to the Hon. Peter Pleydell-Bouverie, youngest son of the Earl of Radnor. In 1940 she bought the Jacobean manor house Julians Park in Hertfordshire, which was also remodelled by Boudin.
‘The furniture is exquisite,’ says Walker. ‘She clearly had a fantastic eye.’
Among the treasures offered at Christie’s are a pair of Queen Anne pier glasses thought to have been made for the Duke of Queensberry, a beautiful Rococo overmantel mirror designed by William Linnell and an Italian micromosaic and marble table, below, attributed to the brilliant sculptor Giacomo Raffaelli.
It is clear from Audrey’s private collection that she chose her paintings and objects carefully. As Walker notes, ‘It came from talking to the right people who were knowledgeable on the subject’ — most notably the art historian Kenneth Clark.
She loaned a number of works to the Tate during her lifetime, culminating in an exhibition of her Impressionist paintings there in 1954.
On her death in 1968 she left one of her favourite paintings, Henri Fantin-Latour’s Azaleas and Pansies (1881), to the Queen Mother. Today it is held in the Royal Collection.
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‘There is a public and a private side to the Julians Park collection,’ says Walker. ‘There are wonderful French Impressionist paintings and important pieces of English furniture, and then there is the personal side: photographs by Cecil Beaton and sketches by Etienne-Adrien Drian, sculptures by Henry Moore and drawings by Dalí — artists she considered her friends, who recognised beneath her aristocratic constraints a vibrant and generous character.’