Behind every powerful political figure in history lies the story of a person that helped to shape their identity; creating an image that would stand the test of time. For Henry VIII it was Hans Holbein, for a young impressionable Queen Victoria it was Lord Melbourne, for Princess Diana it was David Emanuel and for John F Kennedy is was his wife Jacqueline Kennedy, the focus of the recently released film titled ‘Jackie’. Beyond these mesmerising portraits where else can we find the legacy of these powerful figures that helped to shape our history? Anyone that has visited a palace, historic house or official government building will tell you that walls tell a story and that is true of the State Rooms at Leeds Castle.
In 1933 Olive, Lady Baillie, the Anglo-American heiress and owner of Leeds Castle began an intense client-decorator relationship with Stéphane Boudin – of influential decorating house Jansen – spanning three decades and involving several houses including her London residence. From 1935 Boudin embarked upon what was to be one of his most celebrated interiors with the redecoration of Leeds Castle featuring Louis XV-style panelling, which fooled even the greatest connoisseurs of period architectural detail. Frenchman Boudin was to become one of the best designers of the 20th century with clients including crown princes of Europe and famously the Kennedys for the redecoration of the White House from 1961-1963. The interior designs featured in a television documentary presented by Jackie Kennedy and achieved near-iconic status in the history of American decorative arts and design.
In 1936 at Leeds Castle, in place of the former breakfast room, Boudin and Lady Baillie created a large drawing room, with antique yellow damask upholstered walls, capped by a Baroque design continuous quilted valance – or lambrequin – which was elaborately detailed with ornamental tapes and tassels. The same French textile manufacturer Tassinari & Chatel who created a yellow silk damas design for Lady Baillie also produced the yellow silk curtain, Lampas “Maison Blanche”, for the East Room in the White House, a design which can still be seen today on curtains behind the President and Heads of State during press conferences.
The State and ground-floor rooms of the White House borrowed details from previous Jansen commissions, including the library and dining room of Leeds Castle, serving as inspiration for their White House counterparts. The distressed blue and white scheme of the panelled Vermeil Room was based on that of Lady Baillie’s bedroom at Leeds Castle. In the newly released film Jackie, Natalie Portman’s Mrs Kennedy speaks of the ‘historical significance of objects and artefacts, perhaps more so than humans, for standing the test of time, for their beauty and style. It is through redecoration [of the White House interiors] that we are able to meet the figures that shaped our history.’
The association between the Kennedys and Lady Baillie extends beyond interior design; in November 1938 John F Kennedy’s visited Leeds Castle as a house party guest with his elder brother Joseph Kennedy and his sister Kathleen, later to become Lady Hartington. In June 1939, Joseph and Kathleen returned to Leeds Castle with John F Kennedy’s sister Eunice who, according to the Leeds Castle visitor book, recalls her brother Joe playing tennis with other members of the party.
The legacy and conservation of Boudin’s designs continue today, as the Heritage Team at Leeds Castle oversee redecoration works in the Yellow Silk Drawing Room from January to March 2017. In early January, Zenzi Tinker Conservation, a highly respected textile conservator, removed the lambrequin from the drawing room walls for conservation cleaning. The Castle curator was delighted to discover original labelling on the reverse of the fabric describing the object. The cleaning will take some weeks and will be in three stages including a dry brush vacuum, solvent cleaning with each tassel cleaned individually, rinsing and drying. Meanwhile, Tassinari & Chatel have been commissioned to create a new antique yellow damask wall fabric matching Boudin’s original design, as the original has significantly deteriorated beyond repair. The Yellow Silk Drawing Room re-opens to the public in April.