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La Fiorentina

by habituallychic

03 . 25 . 11
Vogue.com posted a few photos this week of Elizabeth Taylor at La Fiorentina in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat France taken in 1967 by Henry Clarke.  They reminded me that I had a folder full of photos of La Fiorentina that I had never posted.  The Palladian style villa also has a very interesting design history.

According to Alexandra Lloyd Properties, La Fiorentina was “built in 1917 by the Countess Therese de Beauchamp on a vast piece of land which occupies the extreme end of the Saint Hospice point of the Saint Jean Cap Ferrat peninsula.”  Architects Aaron and Gaston Messiah designed the villa in conjunction with Harold Peto who designed the grounds including the large staircase leading down to the water.  She later replaced the men with Ferdinand Bac who completed the work before it was sold to Sir Edmund Davis and then later to Lady Kenmare in 1939.

It was Lady Kenmare’s son, Roderick “Rory” Cameron who turned La Fiorentina into something special.  He worked with architect Henri Delmotte who had previously worked for Somerset Maugham at Villa Mauresque. He was also an avid gardener who shaped the landscape until the gardens were finally redesigned by Russell Page.

The villa was redesigned many times until it was said to resemble the Rotunda de Vinence Villa in Italy.

La Fiorentina around the late 1940’s. During the war, the villa was occupied by the Nazis who left it in ruins before Lady Kenmare and Rory Cameron restored it.

There is a great story about Rory Cameron in Fabulous Dead People online at The New York Times.

An old photo of the gardens.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at La Fiorentina in 1967 photographed by Henry Clarke. Rory Cameron and his mother received many movie stars and well known people to the villa for glamorous parties.

A vintage photo of the gardens date unknown.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor playing gin outside at La Fiorentina in 1967 by Henry Clarke.

The outdoor furniture looks similar to pieces that were installed by interior designer Billy Baldwin who decorated La Fiorentina for his clients advertising executive Mary Wells Lawrence and her husband Harding Lawrence, president of Braniff International Airlines.  They purchased the villa from Lady Kenmare in 1969.

In Billy Baldwin Decorates, La Fiorentina is described as “a villa for active Americans.”

The Lawrences told Billy Baldwin before the redecoration, “Let’s have lots of linen and cottons, big puffy sofas and chairs, and good lights to read by.  But let us remember that we bought the house because of what it is.  Let’s not revolutionize it.”

When Rory Cameron and his mother lived at Villa Fiorentina, it was very neutral and without color like a black and white photograph.  Billy Baldwin said “We have simply reshot it in color.”

A view of the living room decorated by Rory Cameron.

“Patterns in small doses, calmer than in an allover smash, creates a living room with a sense of serenity, yet is just plentiful enough to give the room life.” – Billy Baldwin

Another view of the living room decorated by Rory Cameron.

“Clear, fresh blue covers the upholstered sofas and chairs, a deeper blue checkerboards with white on the French woven rugs, and every blue imaginable mingles in the Indian hankerchief pillows. All over the room are masses of blue and white Chinese porcelains.  The big lacquered coffee table was designed, as was much of the furniture spotted here and there, by Charles Sevigny.” – Billy Baldwin

One end of the living room with the entrance hall decorated with trompe l’oeil Greek vignettes is visible beyond.

“The library was used during the chilly as a sitting room and during the summer as a kind of retreat from a houseful of guests.”

A view of the library as decorated by Rory Cameron.
Mr. Lawrence’s study was very masculine and decorated with Persian paintings.

“A beautiful fresco, eighteenth-century Italian trompe l’oeil transferred to canvas – like a verdure tapestry in wonderful soft beiges and greens – covers the walls of the dining room, a charming, almost square room with tranquil view of the sea.” Billy Baldwin

A old view of the dining room year unknown.
A view of the dining room decorated by Rory Cameron.

Elizabeth Taylor and her five year old daughter Maria at La Fiorentina in 1967 photographed by Henry Clarke. This is the only photo of a bedroom that I could find anywhere.

In the second floor alcove hangs a painting by Cleve Gray and drawings by Jack Youngerman. 

Elizabeth Taylor wearing her diamonds by the pool at La Fiorentina.

An old view of the infinity pool that was added to the property by Rory Cameron.

A shot of the pool from Billy Baldwin Decorates which states that “lunch is sometimes served in the little apricot and white pavilion.”

“There’s a deep respect for good design whether it be of man or nature, old or new, indigenous or imported.  It’s all a part of the young vibrant American lifestyle the Lawrences have brought to La Fiorentina.  And La Fiorentina, with reason, is absolutely delighted.” – Billy Baldwin

The Lawrences enjoyed La Fiorentina for more than 30 years before selling the villa furnished in 1999.  The new owners promptly turned around and sold everything at Sotheby’s and gutted the interiors. Mary Wells Lawrence wrote a fabulous book about her advertising career A Big Life that also includes her memories of La Fiorentina and Billy Baldwin. ”Billy taught me everything about houses, and I trusted him completely,” she said. ”He liked working for us because we gave him total control. I liked working with Billy, because it provided such a learning curve.”  I love that we’re still learning from Billy Baldwin today. 

Comments Closed

  1. White Ironstone Cottage March 25, 2011 | 3:17 pm

    What a fun post love all the fabulous pics
    thanks so much

  2. travelkate March 25, 2011 | 3:21 pm

    What a poignant and interesting post…viewing these images is fascinating!

  3. quintessence March 25, 2011 | 4:00 pm

    Fabulous post of one of the most beautiful places ever!

  4. Creations and Inspirations March 25, 2011 | 4:16 pm

    Oh my goodness I love this post! She will be deeply missed what fun photos thanks so much for sharing I love it!!! Follow me and I’ll follow back if you like my blog 🙂 🙂 🙂

  5. Jocelyn March 25, 2011 | 5:15 pm

    Gorgeous Pics!

  6. Lacquered Life March 25, 2011 | 5:40 pm

    As a preservationist, I HATE hearing when amazing homes like this are gutted. Why mess with something so beautiful? The photos of Taylor and Burton are fantastic. Heather – if you haven’t read “Furious Love” yet, you have to go get it!

  7. meenal bishnoi March 25, 2011 | 7:55 pm

    What a lovely post you’ve done today, heather…i absolutely loved all the details that you shared…my favourite bit..the direction that the Lawrences gave to billy baldwin before the redecoarting began and how true he remained to that! thanks again for sharing..do visit my blog when you have a moment! xx meenal

  8. cocolini March 25, 2011 | 8:18 pm

    What did they do? Nooooo! It makes me sad to think that this magnificent villa was emptied of all it’s treasures. I wonder what it is like today? It is in such an idyllic location……….

  9. abby jenkins March 26, 2011 | 3:29 am

    How impossibly chic! All of it!

  10. Karena March 26, 2011 | 4:21 am

    What a fabulous astate and the images are all amazing

    I am sad to know that it’s treasures were all sold off. Would love to hear the latest of the owners and what they are doing with something so equisite.

    Art by Karena

  11. tdclassicist March 26, 2011 | 11:26 am

    Although I am a fan of Billy Baldwin’s work, I prefer Rory Cameron’s schemes for La Fiorentina. The Battersby murals are sublime. As a youth, I had a book with a few pictures of the house that really influenced the development of my own personal style. I told him that when we met in NYC shortly before his death. (And yes, he was a character).

  12. Kathy March 26, 2011 | 1:35 pm

    Beautiful post again, I was near St Jean Cap Ferrat a few years ago and it is magical!

  13. Joseph the Butler March 26, 2011 | 1:45 pm

    Very nice post, interesting stories and great information.

    That diamond necklace! At the pool!

  14. BestofDesign March 26, 2011 | 4:25 pm

    What a fabulous post tying in Elizabeth Taylor/design/architecture and history! I am impressed and now, more educated! Thanks for a great read!

  15. Renee March 26, 2011 | 4:49 pm

    Heather thanks for such an interesting story! I also want to say thanks for always having such a professional and lovely post! I read many blogs and yours is always a favorite!

  16. splendidmarket.com March 26, 2011 | 7:46 pm

    What a beautiful home. I love seeing the Billy Baldwin interiors. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in that area, but was not familiar with that villa. What a special place and time. A pity to hear about what has become of it..

  17. Splenderosa March 26, 2011 | 11:49 pm

    Ohhhh Heather, what a wonderful post today. Those images of ET are beautiful, as she definitely was. Because I’m a Texan I always knew about Harding Lawrence & Mary Wells Lawrence’s adventures and La Fiorentina. My husband, waaaay before we married was actually a guest at the estate, as he loved the Riviera. I’ve been to Cap Ferrat many times and it never ceases to amaze me the grand size of the estates and how you can see nothing but high fences from the winding streets. You must look up
    Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild which is a neighbor to La Fiorentina.
    And, our own Lynn & Oscar Wyatt had
    Villa Mauresque for decades.
    Another time, I’m afraid. But what history & beauty. xx’s Marsha

  18. Claudia Juestel March 27, 2011 | 9:50 pm

    What a great insight into a part of Liz Taylor’s private life, surely at a place she was most relaxed.

    I love Cap Ferrat, and my favorite villas are the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in SJCF and the Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer.

    Can’t wait to visit again.



  19. John Young April 18, 2011 | 2:45 am

    Thanks for the photos of La Fiorentina many of which I have never seen before.

    The photo of Elizabeth Taylor wearing her diamonds by the swimming pool at La Fiorentina shows a man standing behind her, he appears to be Mike Todd and not Richard Burton, so she must have visited the Villa more than once.

  20. Philip Bewley June 23, 2011 | 2:51 am

    Marvelous post. Your whole blog is superb.

  21. Anonymous June 23, 2011 | 5:16 pm

    Recently made reference to Billy Baldwin (though only briefest reference) in my examiner.com blog. So great to see these pictures of La Fiorentina. Always loved the pictures Henry Clarke took of the Burtons. Hadn’t really thought about this place since I read Mary Wells Lawrence’s memoir, A Big Life. Love your blog.

    Cheers — ezrha jean black

  22. decamille October 10, 2011 | 5:54 am

    What a collection of beautiful photos…takes my breath away to see all these, basically unseen photos of Elizabeth and her family. Lovely to go back to visit those times through photos…

    De Camille

  23. CASOL October 25, 2011 | 7:34 pm

    Great article and Magnificent pictures! Thank you Heather for sharing.

  24. Rafferty January 10, 2012 | 11:40 am

    I discovered your blog while looking for current info on La Fiorentina – I’m reading a fascinating autobiography called A Lion In My Bedroom by Pat Cavendish O’Neill, Rory Cameron’s younger sister, who spent many of her early years at La Fiorentina. What a family and what a life! You can hardly believe people lived like that. I can’t recommend the book enough. Lucinda

  25. penelopebianchi February 4, 2014 | 7:43 am

    YOWZERS! THAT WAS MIKE TODD! Elizabeth was there more than once! She loved it!

    It is the most beautiful house in the world…..to me…..and I have only studied it from pictures!

    when we went there (to Cap Ferrat; we stayed at that beautiful note…..”hotel de st. jean de cap ferret” (swoon!!!)

    I swam out and treaded water trying to see this house from the water! My husband, Adam was on the shore shouting (I could see from his hands making the “shout shape”) but I could not hear anything! I couldn’t see a thing!

    On our way to the airport; I told that story……the taxi driver slammed on the brakes…….”MY friend works in that house!! I can take you to see it!!”

    Given that opportunity again……I would have just “gone for it”! (it has since been sold off and gutted)

    Could not do at the time! Thank God so many great photographs remain! Who on earth could have bought such perfection and “gutted it; and sold off the contents”! Oh well!
    As I decorator……I truly understand that these things are “ephemeral” (which does not take away from their importance)!!!

    what a fabulous post!!!