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Karl Lagerfeld: The Colour of the 18th Century

Published on , by Carole Blumenfeld

To pay tribute to the couturier who died on 19 February, La Gazette has decided to focus on the collector, particularly his love for the French 18th century, which reflected several passions.

Karl Lagerfeld Karl Lagerfeld: The Colour of the 18th Century
Karl Lagerfeld
© Chanel

Patrick Hourcade assisted Karl Lagerfeld for twenty-five years and helped him to build up his 18th century collection, sold in 2000. A student of André Chastel, former artistic director of Vogue Paris, a photographer and stage designer, he was one of the couturier's closest friends. He reminisces: "One morning in 1975, arriving shortly before the opening of the Archives Nationales at the Hôtel de Rohan, the young architecture historian that I was bumped into the team of Andy Warhol, who was filming with Paul Morrissey. A few weeks later, Anna Piaggi introduced me to Karl Lagerfeld, at Lipp's. I knew nothing about that world. He said to me: "Jacques [de Bascher - Ed.] has just persuaded me to buy a château in Brittany, which looks nothing like a Breton château; it's more like a mansion in Rue de Varenne." So I strongly advised him to buy all the treatises of the time before starting work on it." "Such things exist?" — "Of course." A few days later, Hourcade unearthed Blondel's "Cours d’architecture ou Traité de la décoration" at the Hôtel Drouot.

A temple to the glory of the 18th century
Lagerfeld was then living in Place Saint-Sulpice, on the first floor of the Servandoni building, where he had installed his Art Deco collection, assembled from the early Sixties largely with Cheska Vallois. He sold it in 1975 and launched into the French 18th century with Patrick Hourcade: a return to his roots for the seven-year-old child who had persuaded his parents to give him a copy of "La Table ronde", a 1850 painting by Adolph von Menzel of a dinner at Sans-Souci with Frederick II and Voltaire. At the Château de Penhoët in Grand-Champ, Hourcade and Lagerfeld decided to recreate the ambiance of the Duc de Choiseul's mansion in Rue de Richelieu, as illustrated on a famous snuff box by Van Blarenberghe. "Karl couldn't get over the incredibly rich colours of the 18th century. He realised that this was the period where line and colour reigned supreme.  He never saw it in the wrong light, as the Goncourts had, because he intuited the highly revolutionary, explosive character of the 18th century." Hourcade sought out virtually the entire collection for him in auctions or from Paris antique dealers. "Karl was fired by modernity," says the furniture expert Alexandre Pradère, "but his real passion was the 18th century, a period he collected for nearly twenty years. He had a very original approach, in the sense that he didn't particularly look out the richest or most prominent pieces, but ones that were full of character or speaking examples of the style they represented: the most beautiful Louis XV chairs by Heurtaut, Tilliard and Delanois, gilt bronzes and objects like a set of three vases by Rouillé de Boissy or wall lamps by Caffieri. It was a living lesson in style from Rococo to Neoclassicism. His other originality was his feeling for colour. The chairs were upholstered in strong, bold colours: mauve, yellow, crimson and green, and stood on plush Savonnerie carpets in front of rich silk hangings. He took inspiration from Van Blarenberghe's miniatures to create the harmonies of a blue bedroom – all surrounded by the magnificent wood panelling of the Hôtel de Maisons. His sense was often erudite and sometimes intuitive, but more faithful than many of the period rooms in American museums."

"There was a purpose to this collection," continues Hourcade. "I suggested he rebuild the wing at the Grand-Champ Château, which had burnt down during the Revolution, and above all to double the main body. In that way  he could install the entire drawing room of La Roche-Guyon, of which he now possessed the four big Gobelins tapestries of the Story of Esther based on Jean-François de Troy's cartoons. The group was incidentally pre-empted at the Lagerfeld sale in 2000." In the gardens, Hourcade recreated the ponds, replanted the lime and orange trees and reinvented the boxwood embroidery in the French formal garden. But after the death of Jacques de Bascher, Karl abandoned the château, and moved part of his collections to the ground floor of the Hôtel Pozzo di Borgo, and to his manor in Mée-sur-Seine. "Karl's world involved the expression of intelligence through houses. He would say, "We're going to do some fittings." So we brought in the lorries; we went up, we went down, we laid out the place like kids playing with a Nintendo. Lastly, we hung the ten or so paintings by Lajoüe, Nattier, Fragonard and Philippe de Champaigne, the painter he admired more than any other."  

One of the last major collectors of the 18th century
Many remember Karl Lagerfeld's two Art Deco collections, sold in 1975 and 2003, and his Memphis Italian design collection. But for Patrick Hourcade, "The 18th century was his one and only real collection, and Karl said goodbye to the 18th century because he had not mourned the people he loved: his father and mother and Jacques. In the late 1990s he went through a terrible period where he just wanted to "rip out pages", as he put it. And after falling out with Laure de Beauvau-Craon (of Sotheby's), Karl sold all his collections in 2000 at Christie’s. Liliane de Rothschild died the same year, and after that, this cerebral figure moved away from all the cultural personalities around him." For Diane de Beauvau-Craon, "Karl was one of the last major collectors of the French 18th century. There were the lovers of great classic 18th century taste, like my grandfather Antenor Patiño, and there was Karl: a visionary."    Carole Blumenfeld


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