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Bevis Hillier

Making Conservation Chic : A California Effort to Restore French Paintings

October 27, 1985|Bevis Hillier

Elin Vanderlip has to fend off some awkward questions. Such as, "Why don't you get your French friends, the Rothschilds, to give money to restore the Watts Towers in Los Angeles?"

As president of the Friends of French Art, an American organization that raises up to $1 million each year to restore French works of art, she is asked why she does not raise money instead for Los Angeles museums, and why the Friends "give money to the rich"--granting chateau owners large sums to restore paintings and tapestries. Vanderlip has answers to those and any other questions you care to fire at her. She is seldom at a loss for words.

The idea of helping France preserve its heritage came to her in 1978, when she accompanied Lehman Katz, her companion of 25 years and then a vice president of United Artists (which was making the James Bond film "Moonraker" on location) to the Chateau of Guermantes in France. Driving across France, they stopped in Pontoise (Val d'Oise) and visited the Pissarro Museum there. The curator, Edda Maillet, said: "I wish that you could help us save the mill at Pontoise, where Pissarro worked and where Cezanne visited him in 1870. It's about to be torn down to make room for a football field." Vanderlip said she would try to raise funds.

Later she met an old friend, American-born Princess Tassilo von Furstenburg, who said: "Don't save the mill at Pontoise; help us save the Chateau of Chantilly. It's sinking into the mud." And when Vanderlip visited the country home of the late Mme. Jacquemart-Andre, the Domaine de Chaalis (Oise), she noticed paint flaking off 120 pictures from the 15th and 16th centuries. "I never look at a painting anymore to see its beauty," Vanderlip says. "I look at its health, which is what happens if you are the mother of a painting restorer." Vanderlip's daughter, Katrina de Carbonnel, is a picture restorer at the Louvre.

On Vanderlip's return to Los Angeles, she lost no time in organizing help for threatened French culture. In January, 1979, a law firm with the Dickensian name of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher secured a state of California charter for the Friends of French Art to undertake restoration work; a nonprofit organization was established and was granted tax-free status by the IRS. The plan for raising money was simple and attractive. The Friends would each give a tax-deductible sum (that first year it was $2,500, but it has risen to $5,000 now). In return, they would enjoy a privileged and sumptuous tour of France lasting eight or nine days. They would visit chateaux not open to the public, would be feted by mayors and duchesses and would receive a yearly report; this year's has 120 pages of color.

Like everything else about Friends of French Art (FoFA for short), the annual report is masterminded by Elin Vanderlip and bears the stamp of her formidable personality. Her annual tour group is not--as it has sometimes been represented--a gaggle of silly socialites lusting to hobnob with French aristocrats. There is genuine altruism, genuine interest in cultural history.

Vanderlip has a strong public-relations sense. She knows that the tour participants are human enough to enjoy seeing their faces in the annual report--and there they all are, in color, admiring paintings by Boucher, guzzling Taittinger Champagne, digging into a birthday cake for Prince Tassilo von Furstenburg or swimming in a Roman reservoir near the Duchesse de Sabran's Chateau d'Ansouis. As Rosamond Bernier, a former editor of L'Oeil, has written: "Mme. Vanderlip is making conservation chic ."

Vanderlip's reports have the panache of a romantic novel: "Friday, June 6, 1980. Rendezvous at 8 p.m. in the gilded salon by the Crillon's floral courtyard with Laurent Prevost-Marcilhacy, a stunning young man with mustache, style and dash of a Dumas hero. . . ."

The Friends restored a Botticelli at the Musee Conde, Chantilly, at a cost of $4,000. It had always been known as "Abundance"; after cleaning, it had to be retitled "Drunkenness." FoFA also paid $2,800 toward the restoration of a huge painting by Nicolas de Largilliere in "a poor little hospital in that war-torn area called Chateau Thierry, east of Paris near Verdun."

The most urgent project of the moment is the restoration of a trompe l'oeil staircase in the Musee Carnavalet, Paris, by Paolo-Antonio Brunetti. Painted in the 18th Century, the staircase was originally in a ducal town house demolished in 1877. Acquired by the City of Paris, it was remounted in the museum in 1910, stone by stone, on a replica of the original stairwell; but the wide seams allowed brown stripes to appear beneath the painting, which has also darkened with time. The first panel of the staircase, "The Allegory of Love," cost $30,000 to restore. The estimate for the second panel, "The Allegory of Flowers," is $51,000. Vanderlip has $30,000 in reserve, but she needs to raise the remaining $21,000 so that the scaffolding can go up in November and work can continue.

To raise that sum, Vanderlip is holding a $60-a-person benefit Nov. 12 at at the Directors' Guild Theater, 7950 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. The evening will begin with Champagne between 7 and 8 p.m. and will continue with a talk by garden designer Anita Pereire, author of "Private Gardens of France" (Crown Books, New York). Pereire is designing gardens in Greenwich, Conn., and a new garden at the Chateau of Ferrieres for Baron Guy de Rothschild.

Pereire will lecture on French gardens for no fee. Perhaps she will talk of Vaux-le-Vicomte, the first great formal garden of France, with its box parterres, or the Chateau de la Celle-les-Bordes, with its extravagantly sculpted hedges. And possibly she will speak of her own garden near Chartres, which just happens to contain the ruins of a 13th-Century Cistercian abbey and giant topiary swans.

Tickets can be obtained from John Good Imports, 8469 Melrose Place, Los Angeles 90069; telephone (213) 655-5969.

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