Sir John Richardson, the 95-year-old art historian, is, I am not the first to say, the last of a breed: An intellectual and an aesthete in great and equal measures, whose personal history extends from post-Edwardian England (his father was knighted by King Edward VII) through Studio 54 and beyond, Richardson is the kind of character who always managed to find himself at the social and artistic center of things.
At present, he is at work on the fourth and final installment of his highly regarded biography of Picasso. He is also finishing up a redecoration of the library in his magnificent 5,000-square- foot downtown Manhattan loft, a room recently vacated by a Japanese friend to whom Richardson had been lending it since the 1990s. “Twenty years passed before he removed himself,” Richardson says. And he has just published John Richardson: At Home, a lavish book that is as much a domestic biography of one of the 20th century’s most original makers of rooms and tellers of stories as it is a lush photographic portfolio of the magnificent places Richardson has lived. Each chapter is devoted to a different one and the influence it has had on him.
The book begins with his childhood home in England, moving through boarding school at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, to the château in France he shared with the modern-art collector Douglas Cooper to the exclusive Albany in London, and then to America—uptown, downtown, and the Connecticut countryside. “When I find a space, I want to improve it,” he says, “and change it into my way—my way of thinking.” Richard- son “improves” in the same manner as the great 18th-century English landscape gardener Capability Brown, who “improved” scrubby woodland into glorious, rolling Elysian paradise, dotted with architectural follies, at Stowe, where Richardson’s classical sensibilities were first honed.
Everything in Richardson’s life, including his homes, seems to come with a story that’s amusing, gossipy, or fortuitous, most often all three. The fantastically colonnaded château in the South of France he shared with Cooper in the 1950s had been excessively “columnized” in the 18th century by an enthusiastic young owner just back from his Grand Tour. Richard- son demanded Cooper buy it for him as a Christmas gift. But Cooper purchased it for himself—splurging on Braques, Légers, Picassos, and a large bronze Renoir nude, while economizing with plastic shower stalls and cheap water heaters. The château became a social epicenter of the international art world. After Richardson tired of Cooper, he set his sights on Albany, an 18th- century former royal mansion on Piccadilly converted into the most coveted flats in London. When his application was refused, his mother suggested Richardson gently remind the secretary in charge of the time she saw him canoodling with a schoolboy in a box at the Royal Albert Hall.
When his heart became fixed on New York, Richardson worried he didn’t have the means to achieve his dream. However, “Like a child in a fairy tale,” he says in the book, he met “two enchanting sisters who dwelt in a pink brownstone” and who somehow agreed to purchase a building with him. His house in rural Connecticut turned out to be a copy in miniature of the neoclassical boathouse in the park of Syon House, the Duke of Northumberland’s seat outside London, where Richardson had spent time as a child. (The people who built the Connecticut house had trespassed into the private area of the park, knocked on the door of Rich- ardson’s now aged friend, and toured her home.) And then in the mid-1990s, when the social scene at Mortimer’s, the restaurant of choice for a certain Upper East Side crowd, proved too distracting for his writing, Richardson decamped for downtown, a move considered “social suicide” among that crowd. Here he turned an enormous loft into an enfilade of rooms filled with his brilliant mix of textiles, art, antiques, and oddities—people included—and always with cut flowers and loads of books.
If you’re looking for useful morsels about decorating in this book, you’ll find no such thing. “It’s an instinctive process beyond my control,” Richardson says. “I mix things, and they galvanize each other.” Hanging side by side on a mirrored partition in his NYC loft are a Lucian Freud portrait, a Joshua Reynolds portrait, and a Picasso lithograph—far apart in time and artistic intent but each at its most powerful in its present company. A row of miniature black plaster busts sits above them and an eight-foot-long whale’s penis sticking out of a potted palm is placed in front. Galvanizing indeed.
What you will learn is that Richard- son loves dark-colored flocked wallpaper for its magical ability to bring all disparate elements before it into some kind of order, eschews scented candles—“those asphyxiating bougies d’ambiance”—and has nothing against pretension. When a friend accused the miniature version of the Karl Friedrich Schinkel pavilion in Berlin that Richardson built for himself as a writing studio on his Connecticut property of being pretentious, he replied, “So what? So much good architecture is.”