Part of creating is understanding that there is always more to do; nothing is ever completely finished.
~Rachel Lambert (Bunny) Mellon
Stenciled on a wall in the Rachel Lambert Mellon Collection of Jean Schlumberger exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, these profound words to live by from the subject of my obsession du jour captured the attention of my creative soul. While the idea that nothing is ever completely finished is anathema to my husband and the business world where profit follows completion, it reassures me as I continue to tweak my own tiny corner of the universe. Maybe it’s striving for perfection, but Bunny Mellon’s reflection undoubtedly also has to do with seeing things from fresh perspectives gained from living and experience.
By all accounts, Bunny was a perfectionist who had the means to implement her creative ideas and the opportunity to encounter magnificence in a variety of realms. This heiress of the Listerine fortune was raised in the Golden Age of American Gardens (1890-1940) and married into the Mellon banking dynasty. Growing up on an Olmsted Brothers-tended estate in New Jersey served as early education for what became a life-long passion for landscape architecture and design. Her primary canvas was her and husband Paul’s 2,000+ acre estate, Oak Spring Farm, in Upperville, Virginia, that she devised, cultivated and pruned until her death at the age of 103 in 2014.
A visual learner, this Foxcroft School graduate strove to have her landscapes provide views to the horizon with no particular element standing out. Similarly, she sought to avoid the spotlight, not wanting to be noticed herself. In the age of celebrity, she was not always successful, especially when her best friend was Jackie Kennedy and Jackie wanted Bunny to execute the remaking of the White House Rose Garden. It was an offer that even an heiress such as Bunny couldn’t refuse.
Among Bunny’s many accomplishments was the creation of the Oak Spring Library that, at her death, housed over 16,000 items, including rare horticulture books, manuscripts and engravings. These materials helped her become a self-taught and renowned expert, and many of them are now catalogued in the four volume Oak Spring Series issued by the Library. The extent of this collection proves just how fascinated Bunny was by all things organic and, through the Oak Spring Garden Foundation created after her death, the Library will continue to be used to advance the study of
Botany, Horticulture, Gardening, and Landscape Design by facilitating scholarly research, supporting student studies, and cultivating the interest of future practitioners.
So even though Bunny is gone, the legacy she created continues to do more by inspiring others.
From the innumerable articles published since their deaths, you likely know that Bunny and Paul were incessant collectors of art in its many forms. They lived with much of it but amassed so much that even their six homes weren’t large enough to hold everything. The Mellons generously gave loads of it away, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was one of their primary beneficiaries.
impressive mind-blowing as the scope and breath of the Mellons’ collections were, their patronage of the French artist-jeweler, Jean Schlumberger (pronounced the English way “slum-bur-ʒay” or “Schlum-bur-ʒay” (the ‘ʒ’ or ‘zh’ is the French ‘J’ (like Juliette) or ‘G’ (like George)), represents a captivating creative collaboration. Paul gifted Bunny with her first piece of Schlumberger jewelry in 1952, and Bunny and the artist, whom she fondly called Johnny, soon became fast friends. They both were fascinated with beauty in the natural world, and until his death in 1987, he created pieces to please her and sometimes even in conjunction with her. According to Bunny’s biographer, Mac Griswold, whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak recently at The Women’s Club, Schlumberger tried
to make everything look as if it were growing … organic.
In all, Bunny amassed over 140 Schlumberger pieces and generously donated them to the VMFA in her will. The collection simply dazzles the visitor. The jeweled creatures that he crafted charm the eye and delight the soul.
The floral motifs are a tribute to Bunny’s love of horticulture and landscape and are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
The underwater fantasy pieces
showcase Schlumberger’s wit and whimsy.
The final exhibition room contains the most inspiring pieces of the whole collection and is where the quote that introduces this post is featured.
The butterflies on the bracelet above actually flutter when the wearer moves her arm (note to the VMFA: I wish there was some way to mount this bracelet and its twin on something like a motorized watch-winder so the visitor could see the fluttering.)
Flower Pot, honoring Bunny’s love of gardens, epitomizes their collaboration. Originally created to hold a rare 94-carat Kashmir sapphire that Paul gave to Bunny on Schlumberger’s recommendation, the sapphire was later removed and now holds this
removable amethyst stone. Bunny and Schlumberger worked together on the design that incorporates one of her flower pots from Oak Hill Farm, which he covered in gold, for the base.
The piece-de-resistance of the collection is this Breath of Spring necklace featuring 16 colored sapphires with 12 trumpet-shaped flowers fashioned of diamonds, gold and platinum.
Known to have been worn publicly only once, Bunny hid this treasure in a wall of her Oak Spring Library and was, fortunately for us, unearthed when executors began the immense job of cataloguing all of her possessions after her death.
Bunny’s bequest to the VMFA ensures that the work of her dear friend Jean Schlumberger is recognized as a true art form and lingers in the memory of all who see it.
For me, the art of the jewel is above all a means of expression with possibilities of pure and durable beauty which go beyond the usual framework of fashion.
While Schlumberger created masterpieces of durable beauty, Bunny’s understanding that nothing created is ever really finished describes the enduring impact of their creativity and her generosity.
March 28, 2017
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