by Brooke Chilvers
My mother’s favorite poem, passed down to me, is Dorothy Parker’s delightful whine:
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.
And so it is with me and silk scarves. Especially, the designer scarves in ritzy duty free shops and along Fifth Avenue. Specifically, Hermès.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect Hermès scarf, do you suppose?
The beloved 90 x 90 cm (approximately 35 x 35 inches) piece of twill de soie – affectionately known by born-chic French women as le carré 90 – with its prestigious hand-rolled and sewn hems that make each piece unique, has been around since 1936. This means that, unlike Gene Kelly, Jackie Onassis, and Brigitte Bardot, I’ve been waiting my entire life for one of their 1,500 designs.
It reputedly takes 450 km (280 miles) of silk thread and 400 to 500 hours of labor to produce a single scarf with an intricate design comprising some 30 colors. Despite an average price tag of 385 Euros/$455 (cashmere shawls are more than twice as much), a Hermès scarf is sold somewhere on earth every 30 minutes!
The subject was brought home again after stumbling upon an exhibition of the hunting art of animalier artist, illustrator, and society portraitist, Xavier de Poret (1894–1975) in the gorgeous Château de Carrouges. Its magnificent gatehouse was the first piece of Renaissance architecture in Normandy. Located in a region known for its landscapes as La Suisse Normande (Swiss Normandy), the château’s roots date back to a 14th century fort destroyed by the English during the Hundred Years War. King Louis XI, in 1473, and Catherine de’ Medici, in 1570, visited the rebuilt lordly residence.
The illustrious family name associated with Carrouges, Le Veneur or Master of the Hunt, means the château has been associated with venery, or hunting on horseback – la chasse à courre – since the Middle Ages. First noted in 968 A.D., the family of chevaliers, hunters, and bishops died out entirely 1,000 years later. Today, a series of galleries has been arranged to reflect the interior of an aristocratic hunter-collector with displays of hunting horns, caps, cloaks, buttons, and well-worn trophies.
A temporary exhibition, Parties de Campagne, consists of 30 of Xavier de Poret’s sketches, studies, portraits, and hunting scenes, on loan from the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris. They demonstrate the artist’s understanding of the nuances in every stance, in every angle of the head, whether rabbit or roe deer.
Also included are his designs for Hermès scarves, starting in the 1950s, of game animals and hunting dogs, which are much favored collectibles by many sporting ladies and/or their husbands’ paramours.
Son of a capitaine commandant of the 13th regiment of Hussars, Poret was raised in a château near Fontainebleau, 60 km southeast of Paris, surrounded by elegant gardens, fine horses, farm animals, aviaries full of exotic species, and the creatures of that noble forest.
Supposedly, Poret could draw animals before he could write. In fact, he never attended school, instead learning literature, art, and history from his mother who recognized his talent early and brought in an instructor from l’École des Beaux-Arts. By 1914, another animalier artist wrote to him that he was as good as any of his generation. Drafted into the Dragoons during the Great War, Poret was severely wounded and his older brother killed.
In 1918, he joined the Rallye Vallière hunt club that pursued wild boar on horseback. His expanding knowledge of the chase led to illustrating articles for publications such as le Saint-Hubert.
Starting in 1930, and for the next 30 years, he accompanied hunters in Switzerland to study chamois, eagles, ibex and marmots, and portray hunters with their trophies. The black chalk and charcoal drawing, Le chasseur Clément Geinoz, shows the rugged hunter carrying out a prize chamois, slung over his shoulder.
He illustrated mountain-hunting titles such as Joseph-Louis Reichlen’s 1938, Au Pays du Chamois, Chasse et Montagne, which sold more than 2,000 copies, as well as books on snipe and capercaillie. The same year, he began portraying horses and their owners.
Described by his son as a charming, eccentric “slave to drawing,” who preferred oil lamps and sailboats, Poret married well, in 1920, to a lady with a title, Juliette d’Oncieur de la Batie. She inherited the comfortable Château de Plaisance in Riaz, Switzerland, where they settled in 1940, comfortably sitting out World War II in the peaceful paradise of the Alpine Gruyère region.
By the 1950s, the now “Le comte Xavier de Poret” led a more mondaine life, portraying the elite hunters and horses in the forest of Senlis. Soon the courts of Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Austria beckoned. Perhaps the apotheosis of his career was being called to England in 1958 to paint Queen Elizabeth II on horseback, and Prince Charles and Princess Anne, each with their pony. He also painted the Belgian King Baudoin and Queen Fabiola, but I could not locate any of these works online.
Luckily, I’ve reached the age where if I really, really want something, I can just click “Buy.” At least until I saw the prices of a good Poret Hermès scarf: $625 for les Biches (Does); $1,065 for les Poulinières (Broodmares); $1,400 for les Levriers (Greyhounds); and $1,725 for les Chiens de meute (Hunting Dogs).
Other titles include les Bottes (Hunting Boots), les Renards (Foxes), les Tourterelles (Doves), les Teckels (Dachshunds), les Ecureuils (Red Squirrels), and les Mésanges (European Chickadees).
And so, like some ladies who are freelance writers, I shall have to content myself, at least for now, with roses – as long as there are a dozen of them.
Brooke Chilvers dedicates this piece to the memory of firearms historian R.L. “Larry” Wilson (1939–2016) who did, in fact, give her a Hermès scarf of Texas wildlife for her contribution to his book, Silk and Steel: Women at Arms. It was lost in a checked bag that disappeared forever. Brooke still grieves them both.