Art Deco Renaissance

By Silvester-Carr, Denise | History Today, July 1999 | Go to article overview
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Art Deco Renaissance

Silvester-Carr, Denise, History Today

ART DECO HOUSES are thin on the ground in Britain. It is a style of design found more often in public buildings -- in Odeon cinemas and in hotels. It is all the more remarkable therefore to have not one but two of the few residences built for private individuals opening to the public almost simultaneously. The first is Coleton Fishacre, a curving grey house constructed for Rupert and Lady Dorothy D'Oyly Carte in 1926 on a spectacular stretch of the Devon coast.

The second is the Courtauld House, a 1930s country house grafted on to the splendid medieval Great Hall of Eltham Palace in southeast London. The former is a National Trust property, the latter in the care of English Heritage which took over the house and palace in 1995 and closed it eighteen months ago to undertake a 32 [pounds sterling]. million restoration.

Although ten years separates their construction, the houses have striking similarities. Each blends with its surroundings and both have distinctive interiors that reflect the simplicity and purity of the Art Deco period. Tradition, grace and proportion were important considerations and clean lines, good colours, sensitive lighting and beautiful textured materials were favoured by the designers.

Rupert D'Oyly Carte, the son of the producer of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, had inherited his father's interests in the opera company and in the Savoy group of hotels. In the same year as he employed the designer Basil Ionides to revamp the interior of Claridge's, he invited the architect Oswald Milne to create a house at the apex of the narrow valley he and his wife had first seen from their yacht as they sailed between Brixham and Dartmouth. Milne, who was later to design the entrance to Claridge's as well as the ballroom extension, had worked in Sir Edwin Lutyens' office, where he had been educated in the arts-and-crafts traditions of the late nineteenth century. He had learned to appreciate the sympathetic relationship between landscape, house and garden and a region's indigenous materials. While his contemporaries were being lambasted for ignoring their surroundings, he chose locally quarried Dartmouth shale for the Y-shaped house that today sits overlooking a lush, magical 24-acre garden that drops dramatically to the sea at Froward Point.

Inside he evoked the `Jazz Age', but on a more homely scale than at Claridge's. In the dining room Lalique wall lights patterned with tulips were fitted, a deep sea-blue scagliolo table-top mounted on a curving iron frame was ordered, its side-tables doubling as rounded ends for the table, and a matching lapis lazuli bell-push to summon the servants was installed. These, like the Marion Dorn carpets in the sitting room, are still in situ. So, too, in the pine-panelled library is the overmantel wind-dial and map painting of the promontory by George Spencer Hoffman.

Throughout the late 1920s anti 1930s, close friends of the D'Oyly Cartes came to stay at Coleton Fishacre, Rupert travelling down at weekends while Lady Dorothy -- a daughter of the 2nd Earl of Cranbrook -- remained in residence in the summer. Every Saturday Rupert and Dorothy toured the garden, discussing and planning the planting and in the evenings in the long sitting room, which has a theatrical stepped entrance, entertaining and involving friends such as Geoffrey Toye, the managing director of Covent Garden Opera House, and Malcolm Sargent, the conductor, in amateur performances of The Mikado.

Rowland Smith, the local property developer who bought the estate from Bridget D'Oyly Carte following her father's death in 1948, kept all the Art Deco light fittings and the few pieces of furniture she left behind. Many items vanished but from its reserve stocks and by skilful purchasing the National Trust has been able to match the original furnishings by consulting the Country Life photographs taken for a laudatory appraisal by Christopher Hussey in 1930.

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