Thursday, July 14, 2011

Emily Evans Eerdmans – London Diary, Part 2

Dennis Severs’ House, outside and in.
Emily Evans Eerdmans – London Diary Part 2

It wouldn’t be London without a little soft weather. Sunday morning was no exception and, with umbrella in hand, I was off to Hammersmith for lunch with Nicky Haslam and his creative director Colette van den Thillen at High Road House. The restaurant is owned by the creators of SoHo House and it has the same cool but cozy vibe. Colette was already there with her husband Leo and daughter Eva with a bottle of rose on standby, and it wasn’t long before steak tartare and piles of frites were sailing towards our table.

Partners in crime and style, Nicky Haslam and Colette van den Thillen at High Street House
Not too long after we started tucking in, Nicky arrived looking every bit as glamorous as what one imagines a Hollywood director of the 1920s should look like complete white jodhpurs. He whipped out his latest find: an electronic cigarette which gives the same experience of tobacco smoking but is completely permissible in public anywhere – even airplanes.

We spoke about the society swans of the 1960s (an upcoming project of mine) and he mentioned several of whom I had never heard but were the non plus ultra of the day. One thing is for sure, while many of us have given up and embraced Juicy Couture velour suits, Nicky certainly never will and his enthusiasm for and commitment to style is a joy.

Even though the rain was still unrelenting, Colette was up for an adventure so the two of us hopped in her car and set out to Chiswick House.

Chiswick is a benchmark in the story of 18th century British design and that I hadn’t seen it before firsthand, I am ashamed to admit. It was built in the 1720s to showcase the grand tour spoils of Richard Boyle, 3rd Lord Burlington and was modeled after the villas Burlington had seen by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in the Veneto.

This was one of the first Palladian villas in Britain and Burlington, who handplucked designer William Kent to realize his visions, launched an architectural style that dominated throughout the century. One of the astonishing things about Chiswick is that it wasn’t intended to be lived in – it was the ultimate walk-in closet – a majestic pavilion just for statuary, pictures, and objets. The gardens surrounding the house are also wonderful with many of Kent’s original landscaping still preserved thanks to English Heritage.
EEE at Chiswick. Colette van den Thillen at Chiswick.
Kent himself is a fascinating figure who designed everything from beds to costumes for fancy dress balls. Colette is sure they would have been great friends, which made me jealous as I couldn’t think of one British designer who could be my great friend: Robert Adam seems too uptight, John Soane apparently curmudgeonly.

Meanwhile it was time to see a 21st century friend, and with Oriel’s, our old stand-by in Sloane Square, closed (because the Earl of Cadogan didn’t think the food was good enough to renew their lease), we found our way to Como Laria, a delicious Italian ristorante, where we had lobster linguine and a bottle of Nero d’Avolo.
Original Kent sphinx at Chiswick. A room at Chiswick House stockpiled with new acquisitions.
While my colleagues Tim Corfield and Daniel Morris were up to their elbows in mahogany and ormolu, I was immersed in a sartorial panic. My friend royal biographer extraordinaire Hugo Vickers had sent me a ticket to the annual Order of the Garter ceremony, and only at the last minute did I realize a hat was required. Perhaps I did have a few occasions before the last minute to sort this out, but dare I admit that slumber won over shopping? My hostess Lavinia came to the rescue with her closetful of millinery confections and a red straw Breakfast at Tiffany’s creation that perfectly matched my Roger Viviers was sprung from its box for the day.

At last respectably attired for a royal event, off I went to Windsor Castle. The Order of the Garter, founded in 1348, is the highest order of chivalry in England and it's most exclusive, comprising only 26 knights and ladies, most of which are members of the royal family.
Ascending the hill within Windsor Castle’s walls to the chapel. Just arrived – EEE in red hat.
Like most of the world, I had been swept away by the pomp and pageantry of the Royal Wedding and Hugo promised that this ceremony would knock my socks off. With a seat in St George’s nave right next to the West door through which the procession entered and flanked by the all-knowing Veronica and Jean who acted as my own private BBC commentators, he was right.

Just feet away, after the beefeaters, the grenadiers, the trumpeters, and more, the knights and ladies of the Garter processed by.

The crowd curtsied as the Queen walked by soon to be followed by a collective singing of God Save the Queen. I won’t pretend to be blasé about seeing the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – he much taller and more handsome than one would think and she rail thin and very smart. While some may think the monarchy an irrelevant institution, observing it in full regalia that afternoon made it clear to me how invigorating it is for the country’s spirit.
The view from inside the chapel looking out the West Gate after the ceremony. Top Hats and Trumpeters.
Another scene from Garter day.
On my last visit to London, Colette had told me about her very favorite place: the Dennis Severs’ House. Dennis Severs was an American who bought a Georgian terraced house in the 1980s.

He set about stripping out all signs of modern life, including electricity, and then decorated/curated each room to tell a story about the life of several generations of a Huguenot family of silk-weavers he imagined had originally lived there. One of the incredible facets of the house is that it stimulates all the senses – there is a soundtrack of clopping feet, chirping birds, and different smells waft through the space all lit by candlelight.
Inside Dennis Severs’ House.
The result is a feeling of life, as if someone has just left the room. You are not allowed to talk as you walk through – this was enforced quite vehemently as to send me and my companions Maeve and Bridget into giggles – but it is a mesmerizing experience.

If you decide to go, it is only open on Monday evenings and it is absolutely worth organizing around it.

Pigeon at St. John
There could be no better way to round off this most British of days than a plate of pigeon. Maeve took us off to the restaurant St. John Bread and Wine.

The original location in Smithfield has gotten raves for its seasonal, local ingredients and philosophy of feasting on “the whole beast” or “nose to tail” eating, while the Spitalfields one emphasized sharing small plates.

We went for potted pork and pigeon with pickled red cabbage which was delicious.

Dessert was fresh out-of-the-oven madeleines, and indeed it was a Proustian day I’ll remember for time to come.

The next morning, I waved goodbye to Lavinia who was taking her daughters, the Shabsters, to their first Royal Ascot. As a newly inducted Shabs, I’ve been promised an invitation to next year’s races which will leave me plenty of time to find the perfect hat

- Tally-ho!
Emily Evans Eerdmans is a design historian and head of Corfield Morris New York. Visit her here.

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