Today we are beginning a three-week series of guest posts from Elizabeth Donaldson, a private sale associate at Sotheby’s. I have always had a fascination with auctions, and I love collecting auction catalogues of iconic figures. They serve as time capsules, providing an intimate glimpse into the private world of history’s most fascinating people. Elizabeth and I met last year, and immediately I knew we were kindred spirits. We share a mutual appreciation for history, interior design, old movies, needlepoint, and of course auctions. Graciously, Elizabeth agreed to provide a series of curated tours through some of our favorite historic Sotheby’s auctions including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Kennedys, and Bunny Mellon. Today, we will start with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor… Welcome Elizabeth!
The influence of the Duchess of Windsor as an arbiter of taste is as celebrated today in the realms of fashion, decoration, design, and entertaining as it was during her lifetime. As collectors, the Duke and Duchess participated in almost every sphere; from paintings, prints and sculpture to furniture, ceramics, textiles and silver. In the late 1990s, Sotheby’s was granted the opportunity to memorialize their lives through a single owner sale; to offer the world an intimate glance into their public and private persona, and the chance to own a piece of history.
4 Route du Champ d’Entraînement, where the couple lived together from 1952 to 1986, is a 19th century building in the Bois de Boulogne of Paris. The home was expropriated from the Renault family after World War II and briefly occupied by Charles de Gaulle in the late 1940s. In the 1950s, the French government leased the home to the Duke and Duchess, who renovated the rooms alongside Maison Jansen. After the death of the Duke, the Duchess left the estate to the Institut Pasteur, which was then sold to Mohamed Al Feyed, who served as the consignor of the sale to Sotheby’s. The nine day auction of unique items from the couple’s home in Paris realized approximately four times its original estimates, and proceeds were directed toward charities to honor the memory of Mr Al Feyed’s son and Princess Diana.
The Duchess of Windsor’s highly developed and stylized taste was influenced under the expert guidance of her friend Elsie De Wolfe. Each of her possessions casts a spell to imply the Duchess was personally involved in and connected to every aspect of décor, presentation and style. Personalization and originality was central to each of her possessions be they objects subject to the public eye (monogrammed handbags, custom Dior tartan kilts, couture dresses featuring her signature leaf pattern) or personal belongings (engraved notes inside makeup compacts or cigarette boxes, custom linens speaking to her courtship with the Duke). The Duchess once described her life as “Wallis in Wonderland” which beautifully captures the spirit of curiosity, fantasy, and authenticity in each of her personal spaces and belongings. Laura Duchess of Marlborough commented that “her life’s work was shopping” and the Duchess echoed “I adore to shop. All my friends know I would rather shop than eat.” Perhaps it was fitting then that in the lead up to the auctions, Bergdorf Goodman in New York decorated their windows with the Duke and Duchess’ clothing and held a special event on 5th Avenue to commemorate the sale.
Although the Duchess was ostracized by the British royal family, her legacy to the worlds of fashion and interiors continues to captivate. Her belief she was “not a beautiful woman” inspired her to “dress better than anyone else,” as well as decorate and entertain better than anyone else. In many ways, the concept of style was a channel through which she could articulate and elevate her image as a sophisticated tastemaker. As Diana Vreeland once voiced, her style was “soignée, not degagée” (polished but not relaxed). Every aspect of the Duchess’ home tells a story, speaks to a unique moment in her life, and descript aspect of her style. In many ways the personal style of the Duchess is best reflected in the décor of her personal living spaces which we will explore today, among other rooms in the couple’s Parisian oasis:
The Duchess of Windsor’s Bedroom, Bois de Boulogne
The Duchess of Windsor’s Bathroom, Bois de Boulogne
The Duchess of Windsor’s Dressing Room, Bois de Boulogne
Other Rooms, Bois de Boulogne
Thank you, Elizabeth, for this intriguing tour! The story of King Edward Vlll and his abdication from the British throne to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson is one of the most fascinating and famous love stories of all time. If you are interested in learning more about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and their notoriously exquisite taste, I recommend The Private World of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and The Windsor Style. You can also purchase copies of Sotheby’s 1997 catalogues from The Duke & Duchess of Windsor auction via eBay (here). I have the three volume set, and it is a feast for the eyes! And if you love the Duchess’s pug pillow collection as much as I do, similar reproductions can be found through this lovely Etsy store.