Temple of Wings: Ann and Gordon Getty’s Greco-Roman retreat in the Berkeley Hills
Taking cues from the architectural splendour of the historic house, Ann Getty created a dazzling interior based on late-19th-century aesthetic ideals
Hidden high in the Berkeley Hills of California, Temple of Wings is a dreamlike structure of Greco-Roman inspiration. Originally built in 1914 as the house and dance studio of the artist and educator Florence Treadwell Boynton, Temple of Wings was conceived as an ode to the harmony between art and life. In the studio, Boynton educated generations of Berkeley children in the theories and techniques of the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan, who was a childhood friend.
The open-air Greco-Roman building was conceived by famed architect of the Classical Revival Bernard Maybeck. Though the house was destroyed in a 1923 fire, Mrs. Boynton had it rebuilt around the original columns. It was later purchased by Ann and Gordon Getty in 1994.
Under Mrs. Getty's stewardship, Temple of Wings was painstakingly restored and furnished with fine and decorative arts that honour the rich eclecticism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. ‘The house is a fantasy of a specific moment in time, with many different artistic movements all united in one space,’ says Jonathan Rendell, Deputy Chairman at Christie's Americas. ‘It’s taking us to a world in which art and music and literature and painting are elevated as a way of life.’
This June, over 400 works from Temple of Wings will be offered at Christie’s in New York. The auctions mark the second chapter of the Getty’s storied collection of fine and decorative art, following a landmark series of sales that achieved over $150 million this past October.
Drawing on her archaeological background and bold personal style, Mrs. Getty’s interiors were known for their layered maximalism. Along with her husband, the philanthropist and composer Gordon Getty, she built one of the most important collections of fine and decorative art in the last fifty years.
Bringing the outside in
Originally built open to the elements, the house was meant to coexist with the natural world. Honouring the architectural design and inspired by the Arts and Crafts belief in material beauty, Mrs. Getty further brought the surrounding landscape into the interiors.
Greatly influenced by both the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, Louis Comfort Tiffany distilled the organic shapes of nature into static forms, and his work is represented in depth throughout Temple of Wings. Across lighting, windows and glass objects, his diverse and exquisite range of craftsmanship is highlighted in each room of the residence.
Tiffany’s stained-glass windows were a renowned element of his oeuvre, and he was commissioned by countless prominent institutions and individuals to adorn their interiors with these works. In Cypress Trees and Flowers (circa 1908), originally commissioned for the Hudson Valley estate of Charles Rushmore — the namesake of Mount Rushmore — Tiffany captures the gradations of light across a rolling landscape. The effect is created without paint or glaze, showcasing the Favrile technique developed by Tiffany that embedded colour directly into the glass.
The Tiffany Studios Wisteria Lamp is another example of the dialogues Mrs. Getty created between the indoors and outdoors. Mirroring the trailing wisteria that grows along the house’s outside columns, the object reflects the beauty of nature in an interior space.
The lamp itself was a central design of Tiffany Studios, comprised of thousands of hand-selected pieces of glass. Reminiscent of an Impressionist painting, the work features a range of lush colours, from light green to dark lavender. Through precise nuances in hue, Tiffany evokes the impression of sunlight filtering through blooms of wisteria, a favoured motif of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Another defining image of the era was the sunflower, which was brought back into style in the late 19th century. Widely used by leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement like William Morris, the flower appeared across wallpapers, textiles, metalwork and more.
A pair of sunflower andirons by English architect Thomas Jeckyll were part of the famous ‘Peacock Room,’ designed by Jeckyll and James McNeill Whistler for the Kensington home of the British shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland. The andirons were celebrated at exhibitions across the world, including the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia and the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle. Manufactured by renowned ironmongers Barnard, Bishop and Barnard, the andirons underscore the influence of flora on the era’s craftsmen.
Their place in history
‘The interior of Temple of Wings showcases Mrs. Getty’s ability to recognise objects of beauty as well as their place in history,’ says Annsley McKinney, Junior Specialist for Christie’s Decorative Arts department. ‘The way she arranged objects throughout the house creates a conversation. She was very thoughtful about each space. Everything was done with intent.’
These historical through lines resonate throughout the house. Like the decorative elements of Temple of Wings, the furniture was also inspired by organic forms. A pair of inlaid and parcel-gilt ebonized cherrywood side chairs are embellished with sunflower textiles and designs.
The chairs were commissioned by the Astor family from the Herter Brothers firm, producers of unique items of furniture and the preferred craftsmen of America’s prominent captains of industry. They were likely made for the Astor’s mansion at 338 Fifth Avenue, later the site of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and, today, the Empire State building. Similar examples are held in the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Another commission from the Herter Brothers for the Astor family was a cherrywood cabinet in the popular Anglo-Japanese style characteristic of the Aesthetic movement. The custom cabinet, likely once part of a pair, includes unique details like a brass-inlaid garland and a frieze decoration that Mrs. Getty reproduced along the ceiling of the parlour at Temple of Wings.
Presumably made for John Jacob Astor III, the cabinet was inherited by his son William Waldorf Astor, who relocated to England at the turn of the century and was bestowed the title of Viscount Astor by King George V. The cabinet’s mate was later owned by Mrs. Henry Ford II, whose collection was sold at Christie’s London in April 2021.
Additional works of exquisite provenance include a set of nine ‘jewel’ stained glass roundels that were originally held at Cardiff Castle, a residence of the Third Marquess of Bute. Created by the English architect and designer William Burges, the roundels were crafted around the theme of mineral wealth, a nod to Lord Bute’s success in the coal industry. In the centre of each circular window is a rendition of a precious gem, including ruby, sapphire, emerald, topaz, diamond and pearl. Incredibly rare, this group of nine is one of only four complete sets still in existence.
The best of everything
‘Mrs. Getty gravitated towards the best of every category,’ says McKinney, particularly her collection of fine art. Throughout Temple of Wings, the carefully chosen paintings evoked a romanticised reimagining of Classical themes.
One of the centrepieces of the house, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s A Coign of Vantage (1895) echoes the architectural splendour of its surroundings, evoking a Roman villa maritima. The views of the San Francisco Bay from Temple of Wings draw parallels to the maritime scenery represented in Alma-Tadema’s painting.
One of the artist’s quintessential masterpieces, A Coign of Vantage is an illustration of fantastical luxury and escapism. Depicting three beautiful women looking out from what is believed to be the current site of Villa San Michele on Capri, the painting reflects the idealisation of the ancient empires favoured by Victorian Britain.
Alma-Tadema’s friend and contemporary Frederic, Lord Leighton was also captivated by Classical subject matter. In the twin paintings A Dancing Girl with Cymbals in a Green Robe (circa 1869) and A Dancing Girl with Cymbals in a White Robe (circa 1869), flawless beauties in draped dresses are rendered against a background of gold.
Once part of a sequence of five decorative paintings made by Leighton for the London house of the Honourable Percy Wyndham, the paintings reflect the aesthetic tastes of the day. Wyndham and his wife, Madeline, were renowned patrons of the arts and part of a cultured aristocratic set known as ‘The Souls.’ Like Mrs. Getty, Madeline Wyndham, herself an artist, was a notable tastemaker of her day, approaching objects with scholarly depth.
With its intricate interior built around many artistic movements, Temple of Wings is a hilltop hideaway dedicated to the ideals of beauty. ‘That's really what Temple of Wings is about,’ says Rendell. ‘It's an extraordinary piece of music that you wander through. You don't run through Temple of Wings, you meander, you experience it, you look out, you smell the gardens of the Berkeley Hills and appreciate its unique beauty.’
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