John Richardson sitting on the fireplace club fender in the living room of his New York brownstone apartment as photographed by Derry Moore in 1986.
Much has been written lately about Sir John Richardson, the nonagenarian British art historian and foremost Picasso biographer. The New York Times blog, T Magazine, recently interviewed him at his Connecticut country house, and fellow decor hounds such as myself have posted photos of that residence’s guest house, featured in House & Garden in the 1990’s. Most recently interior designer and blogger Mark D. Sikes shared photos of Richardson’s New York apartment featured in a 1999 issue of Vanity Fair. I have included links to these articles at the bottom of this post.
Nineteenth-century Aubusson tapestries made for an English family frame the door leading from the living room into the front hall. A needlepoint coat of arms of Queen Anne hangs in center. A Baroque 17th-century Florentine bust sits left of a marble model of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. Against the yellow faux-marbre walls of the hall painted by English wood-grainer Malcolm Robson is one of a pair of 18th-century lead urns. Photo by Oberto Gili.
As you know, if you follow my blog, I have hundreds of shelter magazines that date back to the 1970’s, and a few even beyond. When I saw Mark’s post on Richardson’s New York apartment it rang familiar; I knew I had seen these rooms, or some version of them, before. So I consulted my library catalog (yes, I have created a system to locate articles and features by designer, style or some such other category) to see what I could find. And there they were, four entries for John Richardson: one for his Connecticut guest house blogged about numerous times recently, an earlier House & Garden from 1987 featuring his Palladian-style Connecticut home, and two entries for his New York residence – the one he inhabited before moving sometime in the 1990’s to a more spacious loft apartment, as photographed for Vanity Fair.
In the living room next to a cinnabar lacquer vase on the table in the foreground is a painting of green foliage by Simon Bussy. On the table in front of 18th-century blue brocade curtains made for an English country house is a collection of antique sculpture and bronzes, among them the large 1st-century bust of a man from Asia Minor. On the right a mirror contrived of carving after Grinling Gibbons hangs behind two Tibetan copper-and-brass horns and 19th-century Chinese vases. Photo by Oberto Gili
Richardson opened the doors of his lower-level brownstone apartment on East 75th Street in New York to photographer Oberto Gili in 1985 for publication in House & Garden magazine and to photographer Derry Moore at about the same time, before it appeared in The Englishman’s Room published in 1986. Sir Richardson wrote the features for both publications; in fact, his story for The Englishman’s Room was taken straight from the House and Garden feature.
The heraldic tapestry emblazoned with the red hand of Ulster is guarded by a savage cheetah. Photo by Derry Moore.
The brownstone Richardson settled on, which he described as seedy, had to be furnished on a shoestring budget – which he had no idea of how to go about doing. He did know that he didn’t want a churned out facsimile of yet another Colefax & Fowler style interior – what he refers to as his reaction against “Fowlerism”. “I was sick of the way house after house in England was falling victim to fashionable gentility. Austerely masculine rooms were being cosied up and prettified — too often emasculated in the process” wrote Richardson for The Englishman’s Room. To his further dismay he discovered, upon landing in New York, that this very same style was becoming embraced by American interior designers — a look Richardson describes as “a spurious English look — syntheticized beyond recognition.”
John Richardson and his dog Rosie in front of drawings by Simon Bussy, Hans Bellmer, and Drian, among others. Photo by Oberto Gili.
Instead, Richardson left the decoration of his new home in New York in part to chance, beginning with a “wrecking party” that included several benevolent artists and craftsman, as well as a few synchronistic discoveries of his own volition. Soon his home filled up with cast-off treasures he discovered combing the streets of the Upper East Side and art given to him by Braque and Picasso, whom he knew when he lived in France in the 50’s, as well as art by Warhol, Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg. Ellsworth Kelly even frescoed the dining room with monumental still lifes that eventually faded (they were executed in Worcester sauce, ketchup mustard and Tabasco). And it didn’t hurt that he landed a job running the U.S. branch of Christies, affording him access to many more treasures, some at bargain prices.
On the mahogany colored flocked wallcovering in the living room a collection of drawings and prints by Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, Nadia Legér, and Mucha are to the left of the fireplace. Photo by Oberto Gili.
The dining table is surrounded by architectural drawings and a photograph of Queen Alexandra can be seen at the foot of the Empire bed. Photo by Oberto Gili.
An 18th-century Sicilian sofa of verre églomisé faces the dining room table and, behind, a pair of 1st-century Roman busts of members of the Imperial family frame the French doors leading to a garden. On the right is a Second Empire painted screen in the style of Bérain.
As Richardson’s collections expanded he fashioned for himself something of an aesthetes lair, insulated from the cacophony of city life outside his windows. Dark and cozy spaces with walls covered in mahogany-colored velvet overlaid with decadently draped windows set the stage for sumptuous seating and layer after layer of collections grouped along every inch of the the walls and tabletops, producing an opulent scene out of Mario Praz’s Romantic Agony. Though heavy and dark by today’s standards he succeeded in synthesizing disparate elements into one cohesive whole through color, pattern and classically-informed arrangements.
A Frank Stella hangs over a 19th-century silver-plated console made for the Indian market Photography by Oberto Gili.
The resulting heterogeneous mix of disparate styles, periods and provenance produced a rather fetching conclusion in Richardson’s hands. With a taste for cozy bohemianism, his style is akin to the late Mark Birley, proprietor of Annabel’s in London, who contributed in making the masculine and clubbish English room very chic and in demand. His personal style, while eclectic in the best sense, is informed by the classical traditions of scale and proportion, accentuated by an eye for layering and building up of a decorative dialogue through his collections. Opulent, and perhaps overwrought, by today’s standards Richardson’s home remains a testament to the eye of an aesthete who has brought his own brand of British tradition to New York City.
From what I can tell, Richardson’s Palladian-style villa in Connecticut as it appeared in House & Garden in 1987 has not been blogged about. Stay tuned for the final installment on the homes of Sir John Richardson in my next post!
For more on Richardson’s New York apartment refer to the March, 1985, issue of House & Garden, and The Englishman’s Room edited by Alvilde Lees-Milne, published in 1986.