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JANSEN, BOUDIN, DELBEE
A LEGACY OF STYLE
The objects being offered in this sale were all assembled by the decorator Pierre Delbée (1900-1974) of the illustrious Parisian firm of Jansen for a family that so esteemed his connoisseurship that after his death in 1974 they purchased the contents of his Avenue Foch apartment lock, stock and barrel - that is, down to the last exquistite bibelot. A fitting tribute, as the finest work of this now forgotten decorator's career were the interiors created in the late 1960's for the family's hôtel particulier. There he mixed the finest 18th century French Furniture, by such eminences as Weisweiler, Carlin, Riesener and Jacob, with some of the most stylish and original work ever fabricated by the skilled craftsmen employed in Jansen's workshops. In the pavilion at the rear of the garden, for instance, against a backdrop of trellised and mirrored walls stood four Chelsea figures of the Continents (lot 56) luminated by eight Jansen sconces made entirely of shells, each of different design (lots 6 & 7). Below a retractable roof, mosaic floors of cavorting dolphins that harked back to the villas of ancient Pompeii surrounded the white marble swimming pool. Trompe l'oeil faïence stools imitating fabric cushions, and bronze chaise longues and chairs upholstered with real cushions, took their places among monumental tables shouldering massive Italian inlaid-marble tops (lots 186 & 187). At night, the pavilion could be converted into a ballroom at the touch of a button when the mahogany dance floor slid silently over the pool.
This brilliant fantasy of a pavilion calls to mind another ballroom - one created by Delbée's predecessor at Jansen, Stéphane Boudin, for Lady Mendl - and serves to show how the standard of the firm had been maintained over time. On the first Saturday of July 1938, more than two hundred liveried chauffeurs and seven hundred couture-clad and dinner-jacketed guests had set out from Paris to dance the night away - and the early morning - at Lady Mendl's 'Circus Ball' at her Villa Trianon in the fabled town of Versailles. This fête was to christen the latest addition to her ever expanding pleasure dome: a vast ballroom of iron and glass whose interior was painted in festive circus-tent stripes and whose decor was so over-the-top that it flirted with surrealism. The supporting columns were sheathed in sheet-metal crafted to imitate leafy trees, banquettes were surmounted with sculptures of blackamoors sporting parasols, and the neo-rococo plasterwork fireplace was mounted to an antiqued-mirror-paved wall. Although Lady Mendl had made her name in America as the interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe, she was now too grand to decorate, even for herself, and had hired Stéphane Boudin, who had joined Jansen in 1923 and become its director thirteen years later, to do it for her.
His career and the fortunes of the firm were soon to be greatly enhanced by Lady Mendl when she arranged for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to engage them to decorate the couple's spectacular residence-in-exile, the Château de La Croë on the Cap d'Antibes - the first of three commissions executed for these ferocious style-setters. It was indubitably Lady Mendl who was instrumental in encouraging her friend Coco Chanel to use the firm to embellish her lair on the rue de Rivoli. The golden age of Jansen had begun.
When the young Pierre Delbée had joined the firm in 1930, there was no better place to be for instruction in decoration and connoisseurship. The firm was no recent arrival on the decorating scene. In 1880 Henri Jansen left his native Holland and set up shop at number 9, rue Royale, selling furniture and furnishings; he was soon also making furniture and creating decors in the sinuous Art Nouveau style. The results were exhibited in the World's Fairs of the day, including the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. By the early 20th century, however, when Elsie de Wolfe was making her first acquistions among the potted palms of Jansen's Paris showroom, the firm had become less innovative, concentrating on antique furniture and reproductions, and producing period Louis-Louis interiors that matched the conservative tastes of both its robber-baron clientele (Vanderbilts and Rockefellers) and its aristocratic patrons (Boni de Castellane and King Leopold II of Belgium). It wasn't until Boudin took the reins that Jansen became as chic as it was grand.
The firm over which he presided, and in which Delbée played an increasing role, was awash in prestigious projects - such as those for 'Chips' and Lady Honor Channon in Belgrave Square, Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, Mrs. Ronald Tree (the decorator Nancy Lancaster) at Ditchley Park, the Antenor Patiños at Estoril, and the John F. Kennedy's in The White House. And later an unprecedented request came from the great American collectors Charles and Jayne Wrightesman - to arrange the 18th century period rooms that they were donating to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When Boudin retired in 1967, it was Pierre Delbée who picked up the master's baton to become, in John Cornforth's words, 'the conductor for the well-trained symphony orchestra that was Jansen'. A brilliant draughtesman, charismatic, with piercing blue eyes and an inventive and spirited mind, Delbée was fascinated by the world of fantasy and whimsy, as well as by the magic of natural materials. His interiors often evoked the cabinets d'amateur depicted by Dutch artists of the Golden Age and he was not afraid to hang pictures towering four or five high, as he did with the collection of maritime pictures, nor did he think twice about devising architectural niches for a group of Buen Retiro porcelain figures and paperweights.
Under Delbée, projects were undertaken for the Elysée Palace and for the Shah of Iran's tented city built in the shadow of Persepolis to celebrate and commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of continuous rule by monarch's in Persia; for Prince Bao Dai of Vietnam; for the Giovanni Agnellis at the Villa Lépolda on the Cap Ferrat; and finally for the family for whom Delbée found and designed many of the extraordinary objects and furnishings that grace these pages.
R. Louis Bofferding
New York 2003