(Above left) Tessa Kennedy with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando; and (right) Elizabeth Taylor was one of Tessa's private clients. All images supplied by Christies.com
The Tessa Kennedy Collection, within a larger Interiors sale, is at Christie’s South Kensington on 18 March. Christies.com for full details.
Some family stories are simply so glamorous and romantic that they will always be retold, whatever happens afterwards, and the story of interior designer to the stars Tessa Kennedy is one such.
On Tuesday March 18, Christies South Kensington will sell 123 lots from Kennedy’s home and collections, in a massive interiors sale of 514 lots. Kennedy’s story is worth repeating, for it sets the stage for a life that by any account would be called less ordinary, and a treasure trove of sumptuous items that absolutely reflects it — of which you can now buy a little, and scatter some Hollywood stardust into your own home.
Indefatigable at 75 years old, Kennedy continues to run her design studio, whose past private clients include Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Pierce Brosnan and King Hussein of Jordan; while corporate clients include Claridges, and the Ritz, for whom she designed the Rivoli Bar, whose glamorous Art Deco style interior is there to enjoy today.
Rudolph Nureyev and Tessa Kennedy. (Right) Lot 102 at the sale: a patinated metal dressing mirror of renaissance style, owned by Nureyev, late 19th century. Estimate £400-£600.
Born in Guildford in 1938, descended from Dušan Popović (one of the founders of the former Yugoslavia), at 18, young shipping heiress Kennedy eloped with handsome portrait painter Dominic Elwes, eight years her senior. Even though Elwes had an aristocratic background, Kennedy’s parents tried to stop her marrying the poor painter, making her a ward of court.
Hotly pursued by the press, the couple ran off to Scotland before eloping to Havana, Cuba, where they married in January 1958 as guests of American mobster Meyer Lansky (whose partner was Lucky Luciano), who put them up at his own hotel, the Habana Riviera. Back in London, Elwes was briefly imprisoned. The couple separated after six years, having had three children, including Robin Hood: Men in Tights star, Cary Elwes. Kennedy then married Hollywood producer Elliot Kastner (he died 2010), whose impressive film roster included Where Eagles Dare.
Outgoing and attractive, Kennedy first worked with interior designer David Mlinaric, before setting up on her own in 1968. Her glamorous clients, many in Hollywood, also became her friends, as numerous photographs — not for sale — show; but from her longstanding and close friendship with dancer Rudolf Nureyev, there are things to buy. Imagine looking at your reflection in a highly decorative, patinated black metal mirror that Nureyev owned (lot 102, estimate £400-600); or owning the charming, small 19th century oil painting of a male nude, Fallen Adonis, by E Gérard, kept by the dancer in his Paris apartment (estimate £500-700). Given their provenance, these two lots are likely to go higher.
Lot 51: an Indian ebonised Rosewood sofa, late 19th century. Of serpentine outline, profusely carved with pierced intertwined flowering foliage on scrolled feet and castors, recovered in red velvet. Estimate: £1,200-1,800
Kennedy’s taste is remarkably consistent: a sort of comfortable Hollywood-regal, with a sumptuous palette ranging from warm umbers and natural woods to rich crimsons, royal greens and gilding where it should be. What stands out here too is that things are in good condition. This is not faded grandeur. There are plenty of pairs, such as some re-uphostered red-velvet upholstered French 19th c bergères (lot 5, £1,500-£2,500), or a matched pair of delicately foliate, gilded 19thc mirrors (lot 7, £6-£10,000).
Kennedy had an abundance of comfy sofas, of which the most alluring is of intricately carved Indian Rosewood, again upholstered in red (lot 51, £1,500-£2,200). There’s a revival in rosewood at the moment and the main sale also has several other fine pieces, including a fabulous dinner gong, (lot 244, £800-£1,200). Whack that and your children will come running. Kennedy’s taste for comfort and craftsmanship extends to lots of good quality cushions, grouped in tens for ease of purchase.
(Left) Lot 324: a Victorian gilt-brass agate mounted gentleman's dressing table box. Estimate £1,200 -£1,800. (Right) Lot 29 a group of ten needlework and embroidered cushions
Particularly nice is lot 29 of 10 needlework 20th century cushions (£5-£800). Her own half-tester Gothic Revival bed is lovely, possibly designed by William Porden (lot 79, £4-£6,000). It is one of two post beds on sale, the other in oak. The grandeur continues with 10 silver plates, connected to Baron Kensington of Kensington, estimate £3,000-£4,000.
Silver is a big player in the rest of the sale. Several solid silver Georgian coffee pots are on offer, which, given their scrap weight, are very good value, but please don’t melt them down, they are far too special. Lot 263 is a delicious Rococo pot at a bargain £700-£800.There’s much more silver on offer from hunting-themed snuff boxes to a well-valued complete dinner set, plus adorably tubby Georgian sauce boats, well priced because they’re rarely used these days.
(Left) Lot 244: a Chinese hardwood gong, circa 1900. Estimate £88-£1,200. (Right) Lot 263: a George II silver coffee pot, Mark of Richard Bayley, London 1742
A neat Kennedy trick to lighten a room full of rich velvets and mahogany is to introduce a lighter piece, such as the art-deco mirrored chest of drawers, lot 122, £5-£700. And an unusual star of the show will be three Erté (Romain de Tirtoff) 1920s costume designs, priced quite high at £3-5,000, reflecting a growing appreciation of their quality and charm.
While Kennedy’s taste is strong and international, for a man with panache there is, in the main sale, a dazzling 1870s agate-mounted grooming box, lot 324, for £1,200-1,800.
The Tessa Kennedy Collection, within a larger Interiors sale, is at Christie’s South Kensington on 18 March. Christies.com for full details. Reuse content