In the history of taste and style, where does one era end and another begin? Can you find a sharp dividing line, as sharp as a crease on a map? In tracing the fascinating shift in taste from the fin de siecle Belle Epoque of the late nineteenth /very early 20th century to the stripped down modernism that is still today's rule of thumb, a very interesting woman keeps coming up. No, not Coco Chanel though her role as one of the mothers of modernism is quite clear. The woman in question is a certain Eugenia Errazuriz, a Chilean heiress whose father made a serious fortune in silver mining. There is an amazing chapter on her in art critic John Richardson's "Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters (which I read like the bible nearly every night). He describes Errazuriz as "a girl of considerable beauty, Eugenia was brought up in the archaic conventions of Spanish colonialism" .
Eugenia was painted by John Singer Sargent as well as Boldini, Helleu and Orpen. As a kind of patron of the avant-garde, she became one of Picasso's greatest collectors. Her interests though also included the newer strains in literature (Cocteau), music (Stravinsky) and ballet (Diaghlev).
Her great revolution regarding the tastes of her times was how she convened her rooms, which was with a shocking spareness. She outraged her ostentatiously rich neighnours in Biarritz by whitewashing her villa and having her floors paved with terra-cotta stones, a style considered more appropriate for "peasants". Cecil Beaton described her villa (named "La Mimosaeraie") thusly "A long wooden shelf, scrupulously scrubbed, ran the length of the wall; and on it for decoration, as well as practicality, she placed a still life of hams, cheeses and loaves of bread under bell jars. Her table was always set very informally, though napkins were of the heaviest linen and forks of the best eighteenth century silver".
Even hotter was the disclosure that the seating in Eugenia's salon was a set of folding metal chairs stolen from the Bois de Boulougne. This was the woman who uttered "Elegance means elimination" and you can trace that principle from Jean Michel Frank to Van Day Truex, through to the American sportswear of the 50's then onto Halston...Calvin Klein etc. What intrigues me the most about Eugenia Errazuriz was the fact that she was an intensely devout woman and very much a lay nun who on penitential occasion would wear a minimal black habit... made by Chanel. Chanel, she of the strict religious bringing, who creates a modern style based on an almost ecclesiastic ideal of clean...worn by Errazuriz who projected that Fransican ideal of self-denial into physical space . What a great story! I'm going home home now to strip my rooms down a little bit more.