Like many collectors, I acquire items simply because I am drawn to them. While I may try to locate a provenance for most pieces, sometimes the journey is futile. That was the case with Clermont Manor by William Bowen. Surprisingly, however, the peach-colored room box led me down a family history discovery of my very own.
I first saw the room box in a Brunk Auctions catalog in 2006. I have always been intrigued by the design of William Bowen’s room boxes as they feel like home no matter what the decor. They are also furnished with miniature pieces by some of the finest artisans of the early ’80s. In this particular setting I was attracted to the beautiful warm color of the walls and to the John Hodgson pie plate table. The scene itself was fairly bare only including John’s table, a piano by Glenn Partelow, the antique rug, and the red chinoiserie piece (both by unknown makers), but I saw the potential to create a unique room. After I won the auction and began unpacking the contents, I was delighted to see that the coat of arms over the mantle had the surname Abney on it—the married name of my dear childhood friend, Kay Hargett Abney. From that moment, I felt owning the room box was meant to be.
The peach-colored walls inspired me to dedicate the room box to a family relative I had only heard of through stories. You may have also heard of her—Dame Nellie Melba, a world renowned opera singer from Australia. Actually, you may be more familiar with the items that have been named after her—Peach Melba and Melba toast. Opera enthusiasts, though, will recognize her as one of the greatest sopranos of the late Victorian era. This distant cousin of the family was born Helen Porter Mitchell, but took the stage name Nellie Melba. Nellie was a family nickname for her; Melba was a reference to her former home of Melbourne, Australia.
It seems Nellie’s personality was as characteristic as her voice. She became a celebrated diva for decades and performed well into her sixties. It’s said she gave so many “farewell” concerts, that the saying “More farewells than Nellie Melba” became a popular expression. Her final performance was in 1928, three years before her death at the age of 69. Today, her face is immortalized on the $100 Australian banknote.
While I have more information now about Nellie Melba than I do about William Bowen’s room box, I do hope to someday find out more about the room box’s history. Until then, I will envision Maria Jose Santos’ doll as Dame Melba making a grand entrance into a room that most certainly would include music as represented by the harp by Ken Manning and piano by Glenn Partelow, the father of Ralph Partelow. Other contributing artisans include Pierre Mourey: harp chair, Gerald Crawford: round table, Nancy Summers: two center chairs, Gerd Felka: candy dish on John Hodgson table, Sandra Wall Rubin: flowers. Glass vases on the mantle by Francis Whittemore and coat of arms by William Bowen. The double settee in the hallway was petit-pointed by Annelle Ferguson. Hall rug is by Pat Hartman.