‘Style and collecting on a grand scale’ — the collection of Mrs Henry Ford II
The fine and decorative art that adorned the gracious homes of the Ford founder’s grandson and his wife Kathleen offer a glimpse into the ‘private world of one of America’s most celebrated dynasties’
Kathleen DuRoss Ford, who died in 2020, belonged to a generation of Americans who had the wealth and flair to evoke the English country-house style in their homes — in this case on both sides of the Atlantic.
A former model and accomplished photographer, Kathleen Ford was married to Henry Ford II, a former CEO of the motor company founded by his grandfather and namesake.
Her husband was a passionate collector whose previous home in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, was celebrated for both its interiors and unrivalled collection of fine and decorative arts. Henry Ford II died in 1987, but the beautiful homes Kathleen Ford created — in Palm Beach, Florida and Eaton Square, London, as well as at Turville Grange, a listed 18th-century manor house near Henley-on-Thames that Henry had owned since the 1970s — continued to reflect the connoisseurship and elegant lifestyle the couple had shared.
‘The collection is noted for its masterpieces of 18th-century English furniture-making’ — Adrian Hume-Sayer, Christie’s director of Private Collections
According to Charles Cator, Christie’s deputy chairman, the sale of Kathleen Ford’s collection — on 30 March in New York and 15 April in London — will be a highlight of the auction season. ‘The Fords are not only synonymous with the creation of the automotive industry but with style and collecting on a grand scale,’ he says. ‘Kathleen Ford’s collection offers a glimpse into the private world of one of America’s most celebrated dynasties.’
Together, the sales comprise almost 600 lots, with highlights including pieces by the pre-eminent craftsmen of 18th-century Britain and France, as well as Impressionist and modern art, silverware, decorative objects and furnishings.
Many of the pieces were central to the genius loci of the couple’s homes, where Kathleen Ford brought her photographer’s eye to collaborations with the architects and designers David Easton, Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, and Grant White.
Palm Beach, Florida
The New York sale focuses on works from Kathleen Ford’s house in Palm Beach, featuring fine examples of 18th-century English cabinetmaking dramatically placed throughout its high-ceilinged rooms.
Many of the key pieces had come from Henry Ford II’s house at Grosse Pointe Farms, which had been decorated in the 1950s by the storied American interior design firm McMillen Inc. According to Erica Brown, author of Sixty Years of Interior Design: The World of McMillen (1982), it was by far the company’s most important commission of the period.
Both there and at Palm Beach, the standout item in the hallway was a lavish ormolu-mounted marble clock made by Benjamin Vulliamy (below left), clockmaker to King George III, in circa 1791-93, with Derby biscuit porcelain figures by John Deare and a pedestal by Thomas Brownley. Only two other such clocks are known, one of them in the British Royal Collection.
Recalling an arrangement created half a century earlier at Grosse Pointe Farms, the reception room at Kathleen Ford’s Palm Beach residence featured an Aristide Maillol bronze, Eve à la pomme, atop a George III inlaid mahogany rent table from circa 1780.
Installed in the living room, the magnificent George I scarlet, gilt and black-japanned bureau cabinet from circa 1725-30 (below) is an early and extremely rare survival attributed to Giles Grendey. The Ford family acquired the secretary in early 1957 during an antiquing tour of England with Marion Morgan, a McMillen expert on 18th-century design.
According to Ann Pyne, president of McMillen, the Fords were drawn to the secretary’s striking shade of red. ‘It complemented the colour scheme of the library at Grosse Pointe Farms, which was being keyed around Degas’s Payan et le Père de Degas,’ she says.
‘You could say that matching decoration to a painting is clichéd,’ she adds. ‘But there was nothing clichéd about Mr Ford’s library. To the contrary, I think the ‘‘matching of reds’’ seemed to fold the art and furniture into something more important — a home.’
Other notable items from Grosse Pointe Farms include a pair of late-Louis XV lacquer cabinets from circa 1770, attributed to the great ébéniste Joseph Baumhauer and previously owned by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington; and a pair of Regence ormolu-mounted Chinese and Japanese porcelain potpourris, the bases late-18th to 19th century, the bodies Edo period.
Also coming to auction are a pair of Louis XV ash fauteuils, a Regence caned fauteuil from circa 1720, a French scarlet and gilt-japanned low table and assorted English and Chinese 18th- and 19th-century porcelain.
Eaton Square and Turville Grange
The London sale is led by Edouard Vuillard’s remarkable Autoportrait en pied (below) from circa 1900, and a series of works by the Scottish Colourists Samuel John Peploe, John Duncan Fergusson and George Leslie Hunter.
Also offered are silverware, porcelain services, carpets, decorative furnishings, handbags by Chanel and Hermès, and English, European and American furniture. More personal items include engraved silverware from Henry Ford II’s yacht, Santa Maria (the New York sale includes a bespoke porcelain dinner service), and his desk from the library at Turville Grange.
As in Palm Beach, both of the couple’s British homes were infused with Kathleen Ford’s personal warmth and instinct for entertaining. When the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990 after 11 years at Downing Street, Kathleen Ford generously lent her the Eaton Square apartment. The engraved silver armada dish that Mrs Thatcher sent as a gift to mark this kindness is included in the auction.
Decorated by Colefax & Fowler, it was full of interesting objects, ceramics and furniture, including a striking George III marquetry Pembroke table from circa 1770, attributed to Thomas Chippendale (below).
‘The collection is noted for its masterpieces of 18th-century English furniture-making,’ says Adrian Hume-Sayer, Christie’s director of Private Collections. ‘We were delighted to find this table in the dining room of Mrs Ford’s Eaton Square home.’
Henry Ford II had bought Turville Grange from Lee Radziwill, the younger sister of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and her husband Prince Stanislas. As at Eaton Square, Colefax & Fowler were instrumental in creating the interiors.
‘Their influence is perhaps most evident at Turville Grange,’ notes Hume-Sayer, where the new interiors ‘sit in sharp contrast to the Lorenzo Mongiardino interiors inherited from Lee Radziwill’.
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The library was dominated by a Victorian mahogany desk, its presence ‘an evocative insight into the private world of this great man’, adds Hume-Sayer. ‘Every great leader of industry has a substantial desk and Henry Ford II was no exception.’