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The Collection of Rose Cumming & Family

By Sarah Cumming Cecil, April 2018

As a little girl growing up in a grand house in Sydney, Australia, at the end of the nineteenth-century, Rose Cumming liked nothing more than to move the furniture around the moment her parents disappeared for a few days. Having an indomitable personality, she didn’t let the nursemaid’s anxiety about these movements phase her.  Instead, she enlisted the help of the nursemaid and anyone else around her to help move the furniture.

Flash forward some twenty years to 1917, when she arrives in New York. Strong and beautiful, leaving a string of suitors in her wake, she follows the suggestion of her friend Frank Croninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair, and quickly establishes herself as a decorator. The decorating profession is in its infancy, and she jumps on it and soon opens a shop on the upper-East side filled with colorful fabrics and a cacophony of antiques ranging from Venetian rococo to Chinoiserie, to Louis XV, and swarms of glittering crystal chandeliers overhead.  To ensure its exceptional contents are noticed, she breaks away from the norm of the day, and chooses to leave the lights blazing at night and the large street-side windows devoid of curtains or shades. The tactic works, and her career is launched.

For the next fifty years, until her death in 1968, she would continue to move furniture around. And she would nurture many generations of decorators who had the pleasure of keeping company with her – George Stacey, Mark Hampton, Albert Hadley, Richard Hare— enlisting them to move furniture and, more often than not, handing them a broom and a bucket to insure the shop sparkled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rose Cumming’s Drawing Room

The height of her decorating career was in the 1920s and 1930s. Later, her decorating would focus on her own house and her family’s houses, and life at the shop. Like her design work and shop, where she worked until her death, she was flamboyant. When her auburn hair started to go gray, she dyed it purple or, other days, blue, and wore garlands of leaves or feathers, or spectacular hats designed for her by Adrian and Lily Dache.  When she started to put on weight in mid-life, she took to wearing old Chinese emperor robes, or low-cut, loose black dresses laden with necklaces of glass multi-colored beads, or simply black slips pinned with fabric swatches, visible under a floor-length sable coat.

Her shop attracted movie stars like Joan Fontaine and Mary Pickford, socialites like Babe Paley and Gloria Guiness, legends like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Wallace Simpson, and artists like Andy Warhol and Rudolf Nuryev.

Most of her design work for clients was never documented.  What does exist are images of the rooms she did for herself and for her sister Eileen Cumming Cecil, who was a successful stylist, and editor for Harper’s Bazaarand Vogueand the wife of Dr. Russell Cecil, a famous internist. She and her sisters, including the youngest, Dorothy, who, in her youth, was a silent film star, all came to America and were soon joined by their parents. It was a strong family nest of mutual admiration.

Left: The famous “ugly room” in Rose Cumming’s townhouse on West 53 St. Photograph by Harold Haliday Costain.
Right: Blue Couch

Studying the existing images of Rose Cumming’s houses and those of her sister Eileen, one sees how the furniture would flow between the two, often making it hard to determine whose house was which. Rose’s hand is on it all, however, so the distinctions are almost irrelevant. She would often say that her piece de resistance was the double-townhouse on East 61st Street she decorated for her sister Eileen in the 1930s. It included a ballroom that ran the length of the building. Rose placed a polar bear rug at each end of the room, and centered the coromandel screen up now up for auction on one wall. The library and sitting room featured the 18th century portraits up for auction.

Left: Circa 1965, Rose Cumming in one of her Chinese robes poses for a photo shoot in the shop on 59th Street and Park Avenue for Harper’s Bazaar. Photograph by Jeanloup Sieff © Estate of Jeanloup Sieff/Maconochie Photography.
Right: Living room of the apartment of Eileen Cumming Cecil and Dr. Russell Cecil, East Seventies and Fifth Avenue, featuring coromandel screens up for auction. Photograph by Wendy Hilty.

Documentation is more abundant when it comes to Cumming’s West 53rd Street townhouse, which she moved into in the 1940s. She is credited for having invented metallic wallpaper and her bedroom glows with metallic walls of periwinkle blue and a massive Portuguese iron bed hung with silver lame. Her “ugly room” in that house, an accumulation of monkey sculptures, Audubon prints featuring rats and snakes, and all things deemed ugly by the masses, broke all the rules. And always there were high ceilings, wood floors stained dark, black candles, and little, if any, electricity.

Today, it is hard to find a book on design legends and not find Rose Cumming featured largely, alongside other original mavericks of design including Elsie de Wolfe, Syrie Maugham, and Dorothy Draper.  This auction offers the chance to purchase a bit of design history touched by Rose Cumming, just waiting for you to move it around.

 

SELECTED PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF ROSE CUMMING IN THE APRIL FINE SALE:

  

Left: CONTINENTAL FAIENCE FIGURE OF A FU DOG, Lot 53
Right: PAIR OF CHINESE REVERSE PAINTINGS ON GLASS, Lot 74

  

Left: STUDIO OF JOHN RUSSELL: PORTRAIT OF MASTER MILWARD, Lot 368
Right: ATTRIBUTED TO GEORGE KNAPTON: PORTRAIT OF GIRL IN A PINK DRESS, Lot 374

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