For many, the legacy of the Duchess of Windsor is her status as a style icon, a reputation earned predominantly through her love of French fashions and her exquisite taste in jewellery. But she was also renowned for her flair for interior design and those who visited the Windsors at their Parisian villa at 4 Route du Champ d’Entraînement in the Bois de Boulogne were entranced by it’s luxury. The villa had once been home to General de Gaulle and had been offered to the Windsors by the city of Paris on a fifty-year lease (at a nominal rent) in 1952. In actual fact, the couple did not take up residence there until 1953; the Duchess insisting on a total renovation before their relocation. She enlisted the help of Maison Jansen, the illustrious decoration concern founded in 1880 by the Dutch-born designer, Jean-Henri Jansen. Maison Jansen’s distinguished pedigree of satisfied clients included the King of the Belgians, the Shah of Iran and the King of Serbia. Wallis was also advised by close friend and design expert, Elsie de Wolfe.
Elsie de Wolfe was an American actress and interior decorator who had married an English diplomat, Sir Charles Mendl, in 1926. She made headlines in the summer of 1936 when it was reported in the New Yorker that she had been engaged to “modernise Buckingham Palace for King Edward VIII”. This was untrue but Elsie had been asked by the King to “execute models, which had pleased His Majesty, for the redecoration of three rooms at Fort Belvedere”. When it came to redecorating the villa in the Bois de Boulogne, Elsie recommended Maison Jansen having worked with its president, Stéphane Boudin, for many years on other projects.
Wallis was by now resigned to the fact that there would be no official role for the Duke to play and that their exile in France was permanent. But she was also aware that visitors to the villa would expect it to reflect the status of a former King. Wallis had taken a keen interest in the redesign of the Fort and knew the Duke’s tastes well. Both favoured a Louis XVI style and this was evident in the partial redecoration of Buckingham Palace which David had begun as King, with a belle époque cream and gold colour scheme complete with Directoire and Empire style furniture. By the time Maison Jansen had finished it’s renovation work, the villa was one of the most luxurious residences in the Bois de Boulogne.
With the villa complete, it was now time for the Windsors to add their own, personal touches to it’s rooms. Neither David nor Wallis were avid art lovers. According to Diana Mosley, “James Pope Hennessy says in his biography of Queen Mary that although she spent her life collecting, she never bought a good picture. The same could be said of her daughter in law. The Paris house in particular became more and more royal, with incredible numbers of ornaments and knick-knacks. There was a whole table covered with Meissen pugs of all sizes”.
Despite Lady Mosley’s rather catty take on the Windsors tastes in art, the villa did boast several good portraits, particularly of the Duchess. These paintings would later be sold at auction following her death but during the Windsors tenure at the villa, it was not unusual for these portraits to be seen in the background when the Duke and Duchess were photographed. Like many of his relations, the Duke of Windsor preferred portraiture to landscapes and with his beloved wife as his muse, he commissioned several impressive paintings of the Duchess which are well worth investigating a little further.
The first portrait of Wallis the Windsors acquired was by Etienne Drian. Born in 1885 in Bulgnéville in Lorraine, he studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and became known to the Windsors shortly after their marriage in 1937. Drian lived at The Moulin de la Tuilerie in Gif-sur-Yvette, just south of Versailles, and had converted the old Mill into a chic country residence which the Windsors greatly enjoyed visiting. It was here that Drian painted his portrait of the Duchess. Most sources say that the portrait was painted in 1940 but in a 1954 interview, the Duchess revealed that the portrait was actually painted in 1937 as a wedding present from Drian. The portrait was presumably on display at the villa but in 1952, it returned to the place it was created when the Duke and Duchess purchased Le Moulin in Gif-sur-Yvette from Drian as a country retreat.
It’s home there (pictured below) was in the Drawing Room above a banquette in Jacquard textured cotton with satin cushions, flanked by two tree trunk pedestals which were in Drian’s old studio in one of the outbuildings in the grounds of the Mill. The portrait is life sized and depicts Wallis in a blue chiffon gown and pink evening gloves. The Drian portrait seems to have remained at the Mill until at least 1963 when it returned to the villa in the Bois but the portrait it replaced has a fascinating tale all it’s own.
From the day the Windsors took up residence at the villa, an imposing portrait of Queen Mary, the Duke’s mother, hung in the Salon. Painted in 1914, it was a Christmas present for King George V from his wife and eldest son, the Prince of Wales. It was the work of Sir William Llewellyn and set within the Garter Throne Room at Windsor Castle. It depicts the Queen consort in the robes of the Order of the Garter wearing the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland tiara. In her diary, Queen Mary noted on the 1st March 1914; “After Luncheon we went to Mr Llewellyn’s studio to see the picture he has painted of me for George & which David and I are giving him. It is very good”.
Following the King’s death in 1936, the new King, Edward VIII, decided to move the portrait from Buckingham Palace to Fort Belvedere. It is from here that it was gathered up with the former King’s other belongings and shipped to France where it was proudly displayed in the Salon at the villa. In the Netflix series, The Crown, it is proposed that the Duke had a small room in the attic of the villa (or possibly Le Moulin) in which he stored a treasure trove of items from his tenure as King Emperor. The most prominent item is, of course, the desk on which he signed the Instrument of Abdication in 1936. However, this is artistic license and the abdication desk was actually on display in the Salon. From the desk therefore, the Duke always had this portrait of his mother in view.
That is until around 1963 when photographs taken in the Salon show the portrait of Queen Mary has disappeared and has been replaced by the Drian. The Llewellyn portrait of Queen Mary was displayed in the Blue Room of the villa where it remained in the Windsors’ possession until the Duchess’ death in 1986 when it came to be owned by none other than Mohammed Al Fayed. The one-time Harrods boss purchased lease on the villa for a grand sum of one million francs a year, subject to the condition that he spend thirty million francs renovating the house. He spent a further $4.5m on items bequeathed to the Pasteur Institute by the Duchess in her will so that they could remain in their original home. In 1998, he put many of these items up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Among the lots was the portrait of Queen Mary.
The sale came just five months after the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al-Fayed in Paris. The relationship between the British Royal Family and Mohammed Al-Fayed had yet to erupt into an all out war but neither was Al-Fayed pulling any punches in the press at this early stage. It was just a week before the Windsor auction at Sotheby’s that he first spoke publicly of his conspiracy theory that the death of his son and his son’s girlfriend had been engineered by MI5 and the Duke and Edinburgh. Whilst the press were busy feasting on this rather distasteful row, the British Royal Family might have been tempted to cut Al-Fayed off without trace and never deal with him again. But he had something they wanted.
Though Sotheby’s remains silent as the tomb on private buyers who purchase lots at their auctions, and whilst nobody could know it at the time, it is thanks to the internet that we know the identity of the purchaser of Queen Mary’s portrait. It was none other than Her Majesty the Queen who can’t have been too pleased about handing over almost $100,000 to Mr Al-Fayed for the privilege of taking back ownership of a portrait of her own grandmother. The portrait is now listed as belonging to the Royal Collection and claims that it was acquired by King George V. Any mention of it’s sojourn to Paris or the handing over of thousands of dollars to Mohammed Al-Fayed for it’s return are discretely omitted. The Drian portrait of the Duchess, which replaced the Llewellyn portrait of Queen Mary, was sold at the same auction for $3,500. It was not purchased by Her Majesty.
The next portrait of the Duchess to be prominently displayed at the villa was by Gerald Brockhurst. Painted in 1939, the 40” by 32” oil on canvas was commissioned by the Duke and was painted in the same year as Brockhurst completed a portrait of the German singer and actress, Marlene Dietrich. The cost of the Brockhurst was 1,000 guineas (around £39,000 today) with the Duchess sitting for Brockhurst at his New York studio. It depicts the Duchess in a navy blue silk blouse and chiffon skirt by Mainbocher and includes the fabulous Bouquet of Flowers brooch by Van Cleef and Arpels (catalogued by Van Cleef and Arpels as the Hawaai brooch and purchased for Wallis by the Duke in 1938).
The Brockhurst first hung in Government House in Nassau during the Duke of Windsor’s tenure as Governor of the Bahamas. After this time, it travelled back with them to France where it was displayed over the fireplace with it’s mantle of red marble in the library of the villa in the Bois. It was purchased in the Sotheby’s Auction in New York in 1998 by the National Portrait Gallery in London with help from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The Brockhurst often appears in photographs of the Duke and Duchess at home but it was not to everyone’s taste. When Cecil Beaton saw the portrait after the war, he commented, “It isn’t a bit like her at all!”. This may have been sour grapes on the part of Beaton whose portraits of the Duchess also found their way into the Windsor villa – albeit in slightly less prominent positions.
Naturally there were photographs by Beaton on display in most rooms. These ranged from portraits of the couple which they used for their Christmas cards to their wedding photographs which Beaton took at the Château de Candé in 1937. But it was a sketch by Beaton which the Duchess displayed in a very strange location at the villa which stands out most. Produced by Beaton in 1937 as part of his work on the Windsors’ wedding and official portraiture, he produced this halftone sketch of the Duchess which he presented to her with as a wedding gift. It depicts the Duchess in the ruby and diamond Van Cleef and Arpels necklace the Duke (then King) gave her for her fortieth birthday and is interesting for the fact that it shows the piece in it’s original design before the Duchess had it reset as a ruby tassel necklace. The Duchess’ opinion of the sketch is open to interpretation as she chose to hang it not in the library or the Salon…but in her bathroom. It hung above the bathtub for decades until it was purchased by the Head of the Photographs Collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Terence Pepper. Pepper donated the sketch to the gallery in 2014.
The Beaton sketch had a sister which the photographer had produced for Vogue in 1936. The Vogue sketch accompanied an article in which Beaton said of Wallis; “My sitter is at her best in a nondescript black dress that she makes smart by wearing. She is the antithesis of pernicketiness but she is tidy, neat and immaculate”. The little black dress was hardly nondescript. It was designed by Robert Piquet who employed Christian Dior the following year and of whom Dior said, “He taught me the virtues of simplicity through which true elegance must come”. The two Beaton sketches remained together in the Windsor collection until 1998. The Vogue sketch sold for $178,500 (the other a little less at $135,000) to an unknown collector.
Not every portrait of the Duchess found a home at the villa. Some were on display at the Le Moulin, such as this sketch by Alejo Vidal-Quadras. Quadras specialised in painting European royalty and aristocracy and his subjects included Don Juan Carlos of Spain (later King from 1975 until his abdication in 2014), Queen Anne Marie of Greece, Princess Grace of Monaco and the Duchess of Kent. The sketch of Wallis was commissioned by the Duke in 1967 but Wallis also commissioned portraits (of herself) as birthday gifts for the Duke. An earlier painting on show at Le Moulin was by the Italian-American artist Ricardo Magni. Painted in 1948, it was later sold alongside the works by Quadras for almost $40,000. These works are now in private collections around the world and have not been displayed publicly since their purchase.
As well as the Villa in Paris and the Mill at Gif-sur-Yvette, the Windsors rented an apartment at the Waldorf Tower in New York. Here the Duchess decided to commission an American artist to provide a portrait of her to hang in the apartment. In 1955, she engaged Aaron Shikler for the purpose. Wallis’ portrait was an early example of Shikler’s work but he later cemented his reputation for fine portraiture when he was commissioned by the White House to paint President and Mrs Kennedy as well as Lady Bird Johnson. His portrait of First Lady Nancy Reagan now hangs in the Vermeil Room of the White House and is perhaps one of the best known images of Mrs Reagan ever produced. He also painted portraits of Queen Noor or Jordan and Gloria Vanderbilt. The Shikler portrait was not included in the Sotheby’s sale of 1998 and seems to have disappeared following the Duchess death in 1986.
Two other portraits which were displayed at the New York apartment include a 1964 painting now owned by the Maryland Historical Society. It was painted by the Windsors’ neighbour in Paris, Trafford Klots who had an interesting connection to the Duchess in that his mother had been born in Baltimore. The informal portrait is a particular favourite of mine and seems to have been a gift from the artist rather than a commission.
In addition to the Klots painting, there was also a portrait of the Duchess by French artist Eugène Louis Martin. He had painted the Duke of Windsor as King in the spring of 1936 and invited Wallis to sit for him in 1957. The painting was displayed at the Windsors’ New York apartment before it found a permanent home at Le Moulin. It was sold in 1998 to a private buyer before coming up for sale once more in Artcurial’s June 2017 Fashion Arts sale.
Remarkably, it was purchased by none other than the fashion designer Erdem Moralioglu who has created gowns for a future generation of Queen consorts including the Duchess of Cambridge, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden and Crown Princess Mette Marit of Norway. I feel the Duchess would have approved of that. When he purchased the portrait, Erdem also bought porcelain and china from the Duchess’ collection. Whilst the British Royal Family did not add any of the portraits of Wallis we’ve explored to their gallery (quelle surprise), it is astonishing to think that almost 85 years since the crisis of the abdication and 33 years since the Duchess’ death, images of “the woman he loved” still have the power to entrance.