Throughout her remarkable life, Mrs Paul Mellon sought out beauty. At Oak Spring Farms, her estate in Virginia, she cultivated her beloved gardens and filled the family home with an extraordinary collection of art and objects. As Sotheby’s prepares to offer Mrs Mellon’s estate, Sarah Medford reflects on her quiet elegance and refined style.
Nearly 50 years ago, when couturier Hubert de Givenchy was at the height of his career, he set about improving the gardens at Le Manoir du Jonchet, his estate just outside Paris. A keen gardener, he nonetheless sought help from his close friend Mrs Paul Mellon, who understood the transformation that would be necessary to bring the landscape, which had been laid out in the Louis XIV style, into keeping with the Renaissance-era manor house. “Bunny helped me with plant choices, placement and juxtaposition,” Givenchy recalls. But in a move that took his breath away, she also helped him with the larger precepts of suitability and scale. “She had a model tree made of wood that she would fix big and little arms onto,” he says, noting that they would move the replica around the grounds as they worked. “She wanted to see how each silhouette would fit in. The end result always appeared to be simple.” He pauses for a moment. “She went for perfection.”
Much has been written about Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon, who died at the age of 103 this past March – about her deep affection for privacy, her lifelong love of gardens and her quiet good taste. But as Givenchy came to understand, Mrs Mellon was also a woman of staggering aesthetic discernment and personal authority. There was really nothing quiet about her vision – or indeed about the mark she made on American culture. She designed two iconic gardens at the White House – the Rose Garden, which was commissioned in 1961, and the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. With her second husband, Paul Mellon, she amassed a collection of 19th-century French art, including masterworks by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Georges Seurat and Édouard Manet, which over the years the couple donated to the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D. C. And then there is Mrs Mellon’s 13,500-volume collection of botanical books, which is available to scholars at her Oak Spring Garden Library in Upperville, Virginia.
Throughout a long and eventful life, Mrs Mellon explored her interests in art, fashion, furnishings, houses and most of all gardens through passionate research and acquisition. Though her family will keep some personal possessions, 3,800 objects and works of art will be offered in a series of sales at Sotheby’s New York this November, among them Chinese export porcelain, French furniture, bronze tables and other pieces made for Mrs Mellon by her friend Diego Giacometti, and paintings by a spectrum of 20th-century masters, including Georges Braque, Lucio Fontana, Richard Diebenkorn and Mark Rothko, from whom she sometimes bought work directly. The total comprises one of the last great American collections of its scope.
Rachel Lambert was the eldest child of Gerard Barnes Lambert, heir to the Listerine mouthwash fortune and an astute businessman who rose to lead the Gillette Safety Razor Company (later Warner/Lambert Pharmaceuticals). The grounds of the family home in Princeton, New Jersey, were designed by the Olmstead Brothers of Boston; before she was a decade old, the heiress was working a plot of soil and scrutinizing her fairy tales for their botanical illustrations. Following boarding school in Virginia at Foxcroft, Lambert married Stacy Lloyd, a Philadelphia banker, and the couple had two children. They divorced in 1946, and in 1948 she married Paul Mellon, a widower with two children of his own. At the time of their marriage her husband was heir to one of the greatest fortunes in American history. His father, the Pittsburgh financier and three-time Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, had been at the confluence of wealth created by the great American industrialists, and canny investments in steel, real estate and transportation left him well positioned to collect art – Old Master paintings were his quarry and the National Gallery his eventual gift to the nation. From him, the junior Mellon inherited a love of art and literature. “Mr Mellon and I meet on art and books,” Mrs Mellon once told a reporter.
THE MELLONS GAVE HUNDREDS OF WORKS TO THE NATIONAL GALLERY, INCLUDING MARY CASSATT’S LITTLE GIRL IN A BLUE ARMCHAIR, 1878.
They also met on houses, for which they cared deeply and maintained in multiple. In addition to Oak Spring Farms, their Virginia estate where they kept a stable of thoroughbred racehorses, the Mellons had residences in New York, Paris, Washington, D.C., Antigua and Cape Cod, and they preserved parcels of land throughout the East Coast. “They lived life as a work of art,” noted their friend J. Carter Brown, head of the National Gallery for more than two decades.
As a collector Mrs Mellon was confident and directed, though the paths she took were wildly diverse. Beginning with the couple’s marriage, she joined her husband in the pursuit of 19th-century French paintings, and although their holdings were studded with trophies, that designation was not the point.
“BUNNY’S QUEST FOR INFORMALITY HAS BEEN NURTURED WITH CARE”
In his 1992 memoir, Paul Mellon wrote that “Neither Bunny nor I have ever felt a driving urge to own any picture just because it is important and certainly not because we considered it a good investment . . . We both love to wander down the byways of art, too, looking for something that catches our eye, or for minor works that nonetheless recall happy memories or otherwise appeal to our hearts.”
On her own Mrs Mellon was drawn to French and American pictures that challenged her meticulous eye. In canvases by Piet Mondrian, Ben Nicholson and Franz Kline, she found formal inspiration for the landscape design projects she took on for friends and occasionally for the public. In her library reading room at Oak Spring, she hung small paintings on nature subjects – framed and unframed, in uneven grids and accompanied by discreet wall labels, as this was a setting where first-time visitors often met with her.
Her private design studio was above the reading room. For the garden of Jacqueline Onassis on Martha’s Vineyard, Mrs Mellon conceived an apple orchard with some notable gaps here and there – “as if a few old trees had died,” she noted in the early 1980s. But her designs were not easily categorised, and the spontaneous effects she achieved with dune grass at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, for example, a project she worked on with I. M. Pei, were far from Le Jonchet, Givenchy’s rigorously conceived French estate.
It all came down to suitability. “Mrs Mellon has the combination of sensitivity and imagery with technical knowledge that you only find among the best professionals,” said Pei, who became a good friend.
Mrs Mellon’s houses were not so much decorated as shaped and styled, each becoming a powerful distillation of ideas spotted in her trips abroad, in homes she had admired, paintings she studied and lessons absorbed from the interior designers she consulted with over the years – an estimable list that included Syrie Maugham, Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler of Colefax and Fowler, and Billy Baldwin. Although there were variations (the more serious paintings and furniture lived in Paris and New York, the botanically-themed collections migrated to the farm at Oak Spring, the more casual, slipcovered furniture came into regular use in Antigua and on the Cape), the consistencies were more striking than the differences: French provincial furniture, often in chalk white; treillaged walls; painted floors in the manner of Swedish Neoclassical interiors; rush baskets hung like bagged game
in their own storerooms; herb topiaries, botanically inspired porcelains, toile and floral-printed fabrics, invariably in the palette of cornflower blue. The list was long. “Bunny’s quest for comfort and informality has been nurtured with care,” her husband explained in his memoir. “A little natural shabbiness in an old chair cover is sometimes purposely overlooked. The result, I think, is that the houses feel lived in and loved. More important to me than anything else, they are cheerful.”
This easy reality sometimes conflicts with the stories that have been passed around by worshipful – and uninformed – observers. The most famous of these involves a certain shadow that Mrs Mellon is said to have had painted on the floor of her Manhattan town house to evoke a perpetually sunny day. That tales like this were passed around, embroidered and even committed to print – would it have amused Mrs Mellon? “I think she would have gotten a kick out of it,” says Bruce Budd, a New York interior designer who worked with her for many years.
MRS MELLON PHOTOGRAPHED IN HER GARDEN BY HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON IN 1962.
The horticulture library at Oak Spring became Mrs Mellon’s enduring focus. In 1980 she hired the Modernist architect Edward Larrabee Barnes to collaborate with her on a design that has all the purity of a whitewashed Greek church. It sits apart from the rest of the estate amid a field of wildflowers.|
“There was something very American about her simplicity,” says Louis Bofferding, a dealer and respected decorative arts expert in New York. Bofferding places the collector in the context of her time: Mrs Mellon was a woman who came of age in the 1930s, not a moment of frivolity, even among the privileged. Her approach was “logical, straightforward, never convoluted,” he says. “Though it did take maintenance.”
And was her style influential? Bofferding admits that it is hard to say, as those who would have been most influenced by Mrs Mellon shared her distaste for public scrutiny.
MONET’S WOMAN WITH A PARASOL, 1875.
“Mrs Mellon wasn’t a follower of taste or fashion, but held each of her interests for a reason,” says Givenchy today. Her taste in clothes was consistent with this thinking. Once she found what she loved, she stuck with it, and again simplicity provided the through line. Her preference was clear: Cristobal Balenciaga, succeeded by Givenchy after Balenciaga’s retirement in 1968. “She was a strong person. When you have so much background, knowledge can be reduced to something very simple – deceptively so, of course,” continues Givenchy. “Her taste was a very natural taste, elegant, not complicated.” He recalls her devotion to potted topiary, a form of landscape design in miniature: “She would travel with a group of tiny myrtle trees, and she would clip and shape them for relaxation.”
Givenchy was among the good friends who would accompany the Mellons down to Antigua following the Christmas holidays, or to Cape Cod in August, where they enjoyed swimming in ocean waters. Mrs Mellon gravitated not to the idle rich, a phrase she was no doubt stung by herself a few times, or to the social swans, but to people who pursued an artistic calling of one kind or another: Givenchy; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (a zealous student of French culture and, later in life, a book editor); the actor Frank Langella, who she came to know through her daughter Eliza; party impresario Robert Isabell; Charles Ryskamp, director of the Morgan Library and later of the Frick Collection; and I. M. Pei.
“Mrs Mellon was not only a woman of great taste, she had vision. She looked beyond what most people looked for,” says Elaine Whitmire, a vice chairman of Sotheby’s, who paid a series of visits to Oak Spring in preparation for sale.
To shape that vision, and to maintain a strong commitment to doing meaningful work, may have seemed counter to the expectations of someone in her position. But these are the qualities that defined her. She got around the 4000 acres of Oak Spring Farms in a hunter green Volvo. She favoured plainspoken trestle tables made by her own carpenters for displaying art and books. She hung her own pictures, or purposefully did not hang them, choosing to prop them against tables or in chairs instead. She had a dedicated workroom in Givenchy’s atelier where the gardening smocks and bucket hats he designed for her daily use were made. This was not an indulgence; it was a statement about what mattered to her. And most of the time, it spoke for her.
Property from the Collection of Mrs Paul Mellon will be exhibited starting 31 October in New York.
Auctions: Masterworks 10 November; Jewels and Objects of Vertu 20–21 November; Interiors 21–23 November.