If designers require inspiration, then the nation, Virginia and indeed Richmond are indebted to a private, wealthy and erudite couple whose exquisite good taste was matched only by their legendary generosity.
An eye-popping example of their passion for sheer beauty is on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in “The Rachel Lambert Mellon Collection of Schlumberger.” To call the pieces in this exhibition jewelry is like calling “War and Peace” a book.
The couple, Paul and Rachel Lambert Mellon, who lived in Upperville, amassed major art collections that occupy museums and galleries that they shepherded and underwrote that are architectural treasures themselves.
These include the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art by I.M. Pei; the Yale Center for British Art by Louis Kahn; and the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer-designed Lewis Mellon Wing of the Virginia Museum, given jointly with Sydney and Frances Lewis.
Mellon gifts to the Virginia Museum include collections of British sporting art and an impressive trough of French impressionist works, featuring rare sculptural pieces by Edward Degas. The museum’s handsome Leslie Cheek Theater was a gift made in the 1950s. The couple also was generous to the Virginia Historical Society.
Rachel Mellon, or Bunny as she was called, died in 2014 at 103. She was an extremely private woman, but in the early 1960s guided her good friend, and the nation’s young first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, in redecorating and re-connecting the White House to history. Mellon especially was influential in restoring the gardens.
Upon Mellon’s death, many admirers — and the curious — flocked to the auction of the contents of her home, her most personal things. There were rough-hewn baskets and rag rugs intermixed with lavish European furniture.
In some ways, Mellon’s collection of works by jewelry designer Jean Schlumberger seems to be at odds with the understated tastes reflected at her country estate and in her Manhattan apartment. But Mellon was quietly at the center of fashion for most of her life. Schlumberger’s inventive sense of luxury and craftsmanship provided a link to the fantastic that Faberge objects offered an earlier generation of the rich and discerning.
Schlumberger designed for Tiffany and Co. during the 1930s. The output included cigarette boxes, brooches and necklaces, often interpreting animal and botanical themes. It may have been the latter that connected Mellon with the work.
Besides Mellon, other wealthy, more famously visible women such as Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn cherished the artist’s lavish pieces. But at least one patron was as reclusive as Mellon — Greta Garbo.
Mere mortals may feast their eyes on the dramatically installed designs through June 18.
“The Rachel Lambert Mellon Collection of Jean Schlumberger” opens Feb. 10 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Free.