Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… meeting a style goddess

A lesson in matters of taste from a French style goddess

Swellboy on… meeting a style goddess

Image: Brijesh Patel

March 08 2011
Nick Foulkes

Taste – non est disputandum and all that. The older I get, the less definitive I become, and I find that taste, for me at least, is now an abstract concept which, rather like religious belief, is a personal rather than an absolute matter. As a young man I believed in good taste, which, looking back, was nothing more than the conventional conservatism of such things as cuff links joined by little linked chains rather than swivel-backed bars. Next I went through a phase of believing that notions of good and bad taste were bourgeois limitations. Now I have reached a position of agnosticism. I believe there is such a thing as good taste, in a vaguely William Morris way of truth in materials and the oft-repeated credo of modernism that form should follow function. But then I also revel in the merely, one might say otiosely, decorative.

I recently had cause to re-examine my views about this very subject with the quite brilliant Jacqueline de Ribes. She is a French aristocrat and style goddess who, although an octogenarian, has a mind, a figure and wardrobe that would be the envy of women less than half her age. I have been speaking to her about a book I am doing with Van Cleef & Arpels on the great costume balls of the 20th century, which inevitably features the fabled Beistegui ball in Venice in September 1951, which, of course, she attended.

From what I can tell, Beistegui, a fabulously rich and rather grumpy South American, was a fairly hard man to like, but he did have interesting taste, although Cecil Beaton described him a trifle dismissively as a pasticheur par excellence. Nevertheless his apartment on the Champs Elysées, between the two wars, with its surreal outside drawing room, impressed Beaton no end: “The visitor pressed an electric button that caused a glass wall to roll back. Thus was revealed a terrace that overlooked the traffic and the lights of the Champs Elysées. It was furnished with Louis Quinze furniture that had been painted white and placed on a grass carpet open to the sky.”

However, partly out of personal contrariness and partly because I heard that Beistegui mixed reproduction and genuine furniture, I asked de Ribes whether the taste of another noted Latin American plutocrat of the mid-20th century, Arturo Lopez, wasn’t – technically speaking – better. He took forensic care to have only the best and most authentic pieces in his collection; one person who knew him explained how he would have a still life depicting various objets and bibelots and below it, the exact same objects arranged in the exact same fashion. He was the kind of man who would wait a decade to reunite a pair of separated Louis XIV salt cellars. Surely if a man took such care of the cruets…

However, La Comtesse de Ribes informed me that the academic taste of a collector was not necessarily good taste and that while the excellence of individual items mattered, it was the way in which they were combined that really counted and that is presumably why French people still talk of le gout Beistegui.