An Unconditional Passion: The Collection Hubert Guerrand-Hermès

An Unconditional Passion: The Collection Hubert Guerrand-Hermès

The late Hubert Guerrand-Hermès built a collection of fine paintings, books and furniture around the Duchesse de Berry – a radical, 19th-century noblewoman – and the art de vivre he shared with her
The late Hubert Guerrand-Hermès built a collection of fine paintings, books and furniture around the Duchesse de Berry – a radical, 19th-century noblewoman – and the art de vivre he shared with her

U ntil a year or so ago, behind a deceptive 1898 facade on the Rue de Lille, in Paris’ most aristocratic quarter, an 18th-century mansion housed one of the city’s finest personal collections. On the ground floor of the Hôtel de Lannion, its fabulously appointed – and historically listed – reception rooms were furnished with some of the most luminous works of the 18th century, among them a palm leaf commode by Charles Cressent; red granite urns that once belonged to the Stroganoffs (they were sold off by the Soviet government in the 1930s); and a chair from Queen Marie-Antoinette’s boudoir, in finely sculpted walnut.

Hubert Guerrand-Hermès

By day, light from floor-to-ceiling windows fell upon gilded bronze details, the silk threads of priceless carpets, velvet upholstery and the criss-cross veneers of intricate parquet; by night, candlelight made the brocade curtains shimmer. Looking out over the grand salon was a portrait of the Duchesse de Berry, painted by François Pascal Simon Gérard. The image sums up the beauty of an age, while the room resonated with a uniquely French art de vivre.

The Hôtel de Lannion was the home of Hubert Guerrand-Hermès. A member of the famous luxury goods family, a keen sportsman and a familiar sight in the auction houses and antiquaries of Paris, his collecting activity ranged across a multitude of interests. Guerrand-Hermès was passionate about the 18th century, though not exclusively so, acquiring Chinese porcelain, Man Ray photographs, paintings by Lucio Fontana and Pierre Soulages, an array of objects by Les Lalanne, and contemporary works by Marc Quinn and Anselm Kiefer.

Inside Hubert Guerrand-Hermès' Elegant Collection | Great Collectors | Sotheby's

And then there was Guerrand-Hermès’ greatest fascination: Marie-Caroline of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, the Duchesse de Berry. In his lifetime, Guerrand-Hermès not only attempted to reassemble her library, but decorated his home with several portraits of the woman who lived from 1798 to 1870 in locations as various as Naples, Edinburgh and the Élysée Palace, and whose radical and rebellious life reads like a novel. In December, 1,000 works from this extraordinary collection will be offered up in a three-day live auction.

“His commitment to the Hôtel de Lannion matched the completism of his collecting”

Guerrand-Hermès purchased the Hôtel de Lannion in 1997, at which point it had been unoccupied for 10 years and was reportedly in a terrible state. While the extra space was certainly welcome – his existing Parisian apartment had run out of room for its owner’s ever-expanding collection, with half in storage – his family recalls the “labour of love” he embarked on to restore the mansion to its former magnificence. After all, he had been a supporter of the World Monuments Fund – a not-for-profit association dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage – and his commitment to the Hôtel de Lannion matched the completism of his collecting. He lived there for 15 years, until his death in 2016 aged 75.

A portrait of the Duchesse de Berry, painted by François Pascal Simon Gérard, 1822

Guerrand-Hermès started collecting at an early age. According to family lore, his mother would give him pocket money and send him to Le marché aux Puces de Paris Saint-Ouen (a flea market) with his identical twin brother, Xavier. Once they got home, she would pay the boys what she thought their finds were really worth. Sometimes they made a profit, others not. But they learnt how to look.

The Grand Salon of the Hôtel de Lannion, watched over by a portrait of the Duchesse de Berry BY FRANÇOIS PASCAL SIMON GÉRARD

Meanwhile, Guerrand-Hermès’ interest in contemporary art was fuelled in part through meeting the artists themselves. He knew Andy Warhol briefly – the Pop artist had wanted to do a project involving these intriguing French aristocratic twins. (There is a 1983 screenprint of Jean Cocteau by Warhol included in the sale.) But he was close to others, particularly the painter and filmmaker Niki de Saint Phalle. The Austrian art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who shared Guerrand-Hermès’ love of music, often accompanied him to festivals at Bayreuth and Salzburg, and introduced him to other artists of note. “He was very eager to learn [about] the contemporary scene. He came to dinners with Antony Gormley and Anselm Kiefer; he loved Georg Baselitz and Robert Longo,” Ropac says.

While Guerrand-Hermès hung some of his contemporary collection in the entrance hall of his Parisian mansion, before it gave way to the historical rooms on the ground floor, the rest was to be found in a huge vaulted basement, where Eames loungers were scattered with Fornasetti cushions. An Antony Gormley cast iron abstract figure from 2013 – also in the sale – was a favourite on this floor, where plans for a black and white theme were joyfully derailed by his many works by De Saint Phalle, some of which are staying in the family. A pair of topiary boars by Francois-Xavier Lalanne had pride of place in the gardens, which had been replanted in the classical French style.

And it was on the Hôtel de Lannion’s ground floor – among the historical works, in rooms created with the help of the interior designer François-Joseph Graf – that Guerrand-Hermès’ real enthusiasms lay. (Graf was indeed the man for the job, having worked in a curatorial role at the Château de Versailles before setting up his own design company in 1986.) Here were the paintings by Alexandre-François Desportes, the master of animals and nature, that reflected Guerrand-Hermès’ own love of hunting. He even wrote a book about it, La Chasse: Une Passion.

The sale also features Guerrand-Hermès’ collection of Modern and contemporary works, including Pablo Picasso’s Baigneuse, 1938. Photo: © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The ground floor was also home to Guerrand-Hermès’ recreation of the Duchesse de Berry’s library. Visitors would remark that he had created something quite exceptional, and his family remember the room as a warm space, where one could sit and be transported to another life, another time. Among its attributes, which are now for sale, were shelves of rare manuscripts originally owned by the Duchesse – including the 1781 missal of the Duke of Bordeaux; a gilded Sèvres clock from 1826 in Restoration style; an elephant clock from around 1775 in patinated bronze; and a 19th-century wool carpet by Aubusson, with a chequerboard of floral squares. On high, an 1824 painting by Robert Lefèvre of the Duchesse d’Angoulême gazed down in romantic splendour. She was the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, sister-in-law of the Duchesse de Berry and a mentor to the Duke de Bordeaux when he was a teenager.

The Duchesse de Berry – incidentally an ancestor of Guerrand-Hermès’ wife, Rosalinda Álvares Pereira de Melo – had been a champion of the arts herself, subsidising theatre productions including La Dame du Lac, an adaptation of Gioachino Rossini’s La donna del lago; commissioning notable works from the designer Jean-Charles François Leloy at the Sèvres porcelain factory; and collecting paintings by the Dutch painter Jan van der Heyden, among others. “She had thought she was a future queen and developed her taste accordingly,” says Louis-Xavier Joseph, the head of the furniture and decorative arts department at Sotheby’s. By the 1820s, she was cultivating her own style – joyful and colourful, luxurious and romantic – that suited the post-Restoration period. “She brought back fantasy and joy,” Joseph says.

The same fantasy and joy seem to have defined Guerrand-Hermès’ life. As his family note, he was not a bystander. And this extraordinary collection rather proves that point.

Cover image: A portrait of Marie-Caroline of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, the Duchesse de Berry, prominently displayed in Hubert Guerrand-Hermès’ home

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