THE WINDSOR COMMODES
By James Archer Abbott
More than any other decorating firm of the late-19th and 20th centuries, Maison Jansen was the creator of history's greatest public and private stage sets. And more than any other "players" included in this firm's celebrated clientele, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor utilized the unrivaled talents of Jansen's designers and artisans to define a very personal esthetic - one that became known as the Windsor Style. "The Duchess," as fellow Jansen patron Jayne Wrightsman remembered, "had the best taste of all" (Mrs. Charles B. Wrightsman to James Abbott, interview held in London, 28 August 2000). This pair of trompe-l'oeil painted commodes is supremely representative of that taste. With naturalistic butterflies, pearl-fastened ribbons, and highly symbolic - in part because they are inaccessible - bejeweled gilt crowns resting atop pristine Prince of Wales plumes ("Badge of the Heir-Apparent"), these most important representations of Jansen design have no true rival - not in quality of design, level of execution, nor historical importance.
From its founding by Jean-Henri Jansen (1854-1928) in 1880, Maison Jansen became recognized through word of mouth among a burgeoning upper class in France's still-young Third Republic. By the turn of the century however, Jansen had excelled beyond being just a successful Parisian enterprise, counting European monarchs among its elite patrons. King Willem III of the Netherlands and Spain's exiled Queen Isabella II were presumably the firm's first royals in the 1880s. Isabella's son Alfonso XII and his own posthumous son and heir, Alfonso XIII, grandfather of the current king, would eventually be counted among Jansen's most important clients; their Royal crest was included in the firm's letterhead long after Alfonso XIII was exiled from Spain in 1931. Following a devastating 1890 fire that destroyed much of Belgium's Château de Laeken, King Leopold II initiated a near eighty year relationship with Jansen. Among the last royal houses to fall fully into the fold was that of England. After the 1901 death of Queen Victoria, Jansen was called upon by Edward VII to freshen the interiors of Buckingham Palace. His grandson, Edward VIII, repeated the call for his own short tenure in 1936.
And following Edward's December 1936 abdication and subsequent marriage the following spring to American Wallis Warfield Simpson - whose prior divorces had made her ineligible to share the throne - the newly classified Duke and Duchess of Windsor employed Jansen to create memorable sets to satisfy all expectations for the "love story for the ages." Jansen would eventually decorate four houses for the Windsors, transmitting to each 18th-century Bourbon grandeur intermingled with not always subtle degrees of Hollywood-like glamour for the benefit of an ever scrutinized shared life. But the first remained the model for the three subsequent residences - 24 boulevard Suchet in Paris (1938); the Moulin de la Tuilerie (1952); and 4 Route du Champ d'Entrainement in Paris's Bois de Boulogne (1953). Indeed, all future Windsor homes adhered to the "very elegant stage for a very elegant play,"
'Château de la Cröe,' in Antibes, France (Claude Mandron to James Abbott, interview held in Paris, 5 February 1999).
The Duke was well aware of the importance to be given to this first shared residence. He personally approached Jansen's new head,
Stéphane Boudin (1888-1967) regarding the decoration of the classical white house overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, originally designed by the architect Armand Albert Rateau for the newspaper magnate Sir Pomeroy Burton in 1927 and then leased from 1938-1949 by the Windsors. Boudin had joined Jansen in the early 1920s, and by 1936, had assumed leadership. Known simply by his surname, he was already a heralded tastemaker, designing rooms immediately deemed iconic. Indeed, his 1935 Bavarian Rococo dining room in the London townhouse of American expatriate Henry 'Chips' Channon earned him society's title of "the greatest decorator in the world," as well as the admiration of frequent Channon dinner guests, the then Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson (see R. Rhodes James ed., Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon, London, 2003, p. 38).
In May 1938, the celebrated Boudin was summoned to Antibes. The meeting was a great success, and on 2 June, 1938 the Duke forwarded to Jansen the following note: "I enclose a cheque for: One hundred and fifty thousand Francs, (F. 150,000.00) on account, against the work that is being done by your firm at LA CROE. The Duchess and I take this opportunity of thanking you for the help you have given us personally, and would, at the same time, ask you to tell your workmen, how much we appreciate their co-operation." (A deposit seems out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was the Duke who insisted upon this; even at this early time there were unfounded rumors of bills being left unpaid.)
By mid-summer, Jansen was overseeing the mansion's redecoration. The twenty-five-foot-high entrance hall and adjoining salon were minimally furnished, with large panels of mirrored glass and gilded console tables reflected in highly polished floors of marble and oak. The most dramatic aspect of the formal salon was the three-window bay, elegantly draped in white striped silk and framed by monumental, pilaster-braced wainscot highlighted by Boudin in gold. The restrained elegance of the décor was surely intended to honor the "best dressed" Duchess as the center of any and all gatherings.
The Directoire-inspired dining room served a similar purpose. White plaster walls were accented with canary yellow moldings; Jansen incorporated depth-deceiving moldings to the central alcove to dramatically frame Sir Alfred Munnings's portrait of the then Prince on his horse, Forest Witch. Elegant painted chairs with pale yellow silk upholstery were trimmed with concentric squares of white braid and yards of militaristic fringe. Against this near monochromatic canvas of a room the Duke and his bride reigned over some of society's most celebrated dinners during the last year before world war.
The Duchess came to greatly depend on Boudin. Through an on-going tutorial, the once overwhelmed Duchess gradually attained a confidence in formulating the atmosphere in which she wished herself and her husband to be seen. Occasionally, she demonstrated trepidation, if not political acumen, regarding such proposals as the inclusion of carved swans-a motif associated with the ill-fated Empress Josephine. By early 1939, she found herself at ease with her new role as international trendsetter. "Dear Mr. Boudin, Thank you so much for your visit here yesterday. I believe we thought up some ideas, which will be very attractive when executed. His Royal Highness liked the meuble chinois... and the chairs... I am inclined to think that the design for the two tables in the Salon will work out better from the tree idea than from having swans as their bases, but I am looking forward to seeing the designs when I arrive in Paris. I have already begun to feel the call of the antiquares [sic]!"
Homage to the special relationship between designer and patron was the elegant bedroom created for the Duchess. Boudin devised a fantasy of mostly white-on-white - a characteristic example of Jansen's enveloping female clients in romantic luxury. Delicate peach-and-ivory satin draperies were set within arched windows that overlooked fragrant gardens below, while a sable-like carpet with raised and intertwined 'W's' seemingly sanctified an otherwise ordinary floor. The focus of this very personal domain was the pair of exquisite commodes, finely decorated with the Duke's badge when Prince of Wales, together with butterflies and faultless blossoms-among them is a gathering of clover, honoring her husband, the one-time Edward VIII.
At first glance it might seem surprising that these commodes feature so prominently the badge of the Heir Apparent, the Prince of Wales' feathers, while being used in the first house the Duke and Duchess lived in following the abdication and their subsequent marriage in 1937. The reverse of one also features a label with the cypher 'EP' used by the Duke when Prince of Wales. It is tempting therefore to think that the commodes might have been commissioned from Jansen for the renovations at St. James's Palace by the Duke when Prince of Wales or for Buckingham Palace when King. However, the intensely feminine ornament of the commodes, particularly their prominent use of pearls, makes it much more likely that they were made specifically for the Duchess- especially as they had pride of place not only in her bedroom at La Cröe, but also in the 1950s, in her bedroom in the Moulin de la Tuilerie ("The Mill"). It is also worth noting that the Prince of Wales' feathers continued to be part of the ornamental vocabulary used by Jansen in the Windsors' homes, for instance on the carpet designed for the drawing room of the Bois de Boulogne and as supports on a pair of console tables at La Cröe, while the Duke's bedroom at the Bois de Boulogne featured a tapestry, formerly used in his bedroom at Fort Belvedere, with the coat-of-arms of a Tudor Prince of Wales, while the bedspread was also embroidered with the 'EP' cypher. Moreover, a number of pieces at Bois de Boulogne, clearly acquired after the Duke ceased to be Prince of Wales, featured the same label with 'EP' cypher, leading to the conclusion that following his abdication, the Duke retained a stockpile of these labels.
Specially decorated pieces of furniture such as these were the epitome of Jansen extravagance - included in commissions for the equally legendary Lady Olive Baillie, American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and many others. Of the Windsor commodes, there are no finer examples of Maison Jansen's masterful artistry, let alone more revealing models of their investment in the definition of clients' personae.
James Archer Abbott is Executive Director, Lewes Historical Society, Delaware and author of many publications including JANSEN Furniture Acanthus Press, 2007; JANSEN, Acanthus Press, 2006; Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration' (co-authored with Elaine Rice), Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997; 'A Frenchman in Camelot: The Decoration of the Kennedy White House by Stéphane Boudin', Boscobel, 1995.