Published: October 9, 2018
NEWPORT, R.I. — Edited by Pauline C. Metcalf, the 1988 book Ogden Codman and the Decoration of Houses remains the best-known treatise on the Boston-born designer whose influence on Newport is still palpable. Codman’s work there for Edith Wharton led to their writing partnership and commissions from wealthy patrons such as Harold Brown, who in 1894 asked Codman to decorate his mansion at 459 Bellevue Avenue in Newport.
For the rambling stone villa designed by local architect Dudley Newton, Codman created what Metcalf describes as a series of Empire interiors intended as backdrops for furniture and objects Brown and his wife, Georgette Wetmore Sherman, purchased on their 1892 wedding trip to France.
“Codman’s interiors, in total contrast to the exterior, had Empire decoration in every aspect, from the decorative plasterwork to furniture, upholstery, curtains and even such items as fire tools. For the detailing, Codman consulted Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine’s Recueil de decorations intérieures, the foremost source for the Empire style,” Metcalf writes.
Remarkably, the 12-bedroom, 14,000-square-foot mansion stayed in the extended family for more than a century, passing from Harold and Georgette Brown, who were childless, to Eileen Slocum, granddaughter of Harold’s sister, Sophia Augusta Brown Sherman. Slocum, a well-known Newport hostess and Republican fundraiser, died in 2008. New buyers have reportedly been found for the house, which had most recently been listed at $4,995,000 with Gustave White Sotheby’s International Realty. Nadeau’s was asked to clear the house of its contents in anticipation of its pending sale.
Nadeau’s September 22 auction was the firm’s first onsite sale in about 15 years, Eddie Nadeau told Antiques and The Arts Weekly. He added, “The logistics were extremely complicated, much more so than past onsite sales. These days you have to bring in tech people to set up the wifi and make sure internet speeds are up to par. All the computers, onsite and remote, have to be hooked up.” Nadeau’s enlisted Trésor Estate Sales of Newport to help with the preview, which drew as many as 1,000 dealers, collectors, local residents and sightseers, some eager for a peek into the lives of the Gilded Age elite.
The Mount, which occupies Edith Wharton’s former home in Lenox, Mass., and preserves the legacy of the author and tastemaker, acquired marble-top pier tables, night tables, a desk, a settee, a window bench, chairs and lighting. Consistent with Wharton and Codman’s preference for lighter, simpler interiors, the furniture claimed by the Mount is painted a creamy white.
Traveling abroad, Metcalf — a Mount trustee with fond memories of the Harold Brown villa as it was in the time of Eileen Slocum and, subsequently, Slocum’s daughter, Beryl — said she was thrilled the Mount had acquired appropriate pieces at the sale. Her fellow board member, New York interior designer Michael Simon, further explained, “When I came on the board, it was my feeling that we should be as academic as possible in furnishing rooms at the Mount. The public at large has the expectation that they are seeing the way Wharton lived. I’m often the one who says let’s only get pieces that reflect the Codman-Wharton aesthetic. These do.”
Few know Newport taste better than Paul F. Miller, the Preservation Society of Newport County’s curator emeritus. The Codman bedroom suites are still in place at the Breakers, a Preservation Society property. In a phone interview conducted after the sale, Miller noted, “Eileen Slocum was extraordinarily proud of her ancestral home and its collections. At 459 Bellevue Avenue, she mixed the inherited contents of three-family homes with objects she and her husband collected.”
Miller noted, “The sale represented a rare opportunity for collectors, both institutions and private individuals, to acquire documented Ogden Codman suites at auction. Other than the fact that draperies and carpeting were changed out, everything was exactly as Codman planned in the dining room. The drawing room and salon and two master bedrooms, down to the original carpet, were unchanged. Wall-to-wall chenille carpeting, typical of Codman, remained in second floor bedrooms.
He continued, “The principal furniture suites are in French-inspired period styles, Louis XVI and Empire, and were made for the house in Boston by the firm of A.H. Davenport. Original bills and a listing of sub-contractors survive in the Harold Brown papers at Brown University. Codman in this case was not buying from Parisian subcontractors. Both primary bedroom suites survived intact. They never left the house. Georgette’s Louis XVI-style suite is cream with white accents. The green-painted Empire-style suite was Harold’s. Codman’s drawings for the dining room and Harold Brown bedroom suite survive in the Codman papers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Other Codman pieces in the house are the white marble top neoclassical console tables in the entry hall, much of the white painted bedroom furniture; and Empire gilt-bronze mounted mahogany bookcases and folio stands. In the dining room, the original documented suite of side chairs, armchairs and pier tables, supplied by Davenport, remained in their original architectural settings. It was a living house-museum setting. The original painted finishes survived on both walls and the furniture; they are accurate records of the shading of green, grey and ivory Codman selected,” Miller concluded.
Not all of the Brown-Slocum property came under the gavel on September 22. Some things had already gone to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art. Items such as the portraits seen in photos shot by Sotheby’s are said to be staying in the family. Nadeau’s will include more Brown-Slocum furniture, ceramics, bronzes and clocks in sales planned for October 27 and January 1 sale at its Windsor, Conn., galleries.
Following just three months after its auction of property from the David and Peggy Rockefeller estate, the Brown–Slocum sale was a feather in Nadeau’s cap. Are there more celebrity single-owner sales in the company’s future? “We would love that to happen. We keep pushing hard to bid for properties when we have the opportunity. We would definitely do another onsite sale such as this one, especially now that we know how it works,” Nadeau Jr said.
Nadeau’s Auction Gallery is at 25 Meadow Road in Windsor, Conn. For information, www.nadeausauction.com or 860-246-2444.
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