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Letters to Camondo, by Edmund de Waal - Hamish Robinson

Books | By Hamish Robinson

Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris, France - exterior

Grief is always present when de Waal writes about the past, says Hamish Robinson

In 1924, Count Moïse de Camondo made a will bequeathing his hôtel particulier at 63 rue de Monceau and all its contents to the French state, namely the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

In 1932, he added a codicil stipulating that none of the contents was ever to be lent or otherwise removed. He had already determined that nothing, bar future numbers of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, was to be added to the collection. It was to remain fixed and unchanging, itself a work of art. Even the placing of individual pieces was not to be altered.

What did the collection comprise?

One biographer has described Camondo as afflicted with the ‘virus du XVIIIe siècle’ – ‘18th-century disease’. The house itself was built from scratch to a design by René Sergent. It combined the exacting proportions of the Petit Trianon with all the comforts and technical ingenuity of the early-20th century. In 1910, Camondo inherited the hôtel his father had built on the same site as part of the original development of the Plaine de Monceau as a rival to the aristocratic faubourgs Saint-Germain and Saint-Honoré. He demolished it and sold off or distributed all its furnishings, except for one or two family pieces.

In its intricacy and elegance, the new house resembled the elaborately contrived artworks it was built to contain. These included Savonnerie carpets, Gobelin tapestries, Sèvres porcelain, panel paintings by Jean-Baptiste Huet, engravings after Chardin and, above all, superb examples of 18th-century French furniture, often of distinguished provenance. The Musée Nissim de Camondo, named in memory of both his father and his only son of the same name, remains unchanged today.

Readers of Letters to Camondo might at first suspect that Edmund de Waal had produced a whimsical version of a museum guide in the form of personal letters to its long-dead founder.

However, in the piecemeal manner of letters, it soon becomes apparent that the book is a meditative annexe to The Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal’s unravelling of his own family history through objets d’art and the vagaries of inheritance.

Charles Ephrussi, the forebear who had originally assembled the collection of netsuke that form the centrepiece of the earlier book, had not only been a neighbour and fellow connoisseur – he was the owner-editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts – but belonged to the same milieu, that of the great Jewish banking families who established themselves in Paris in the 19th century. Ephrussi’s niece was married to Théodore Reinach, the father-in-law of Camondo’s daughter, Béatrice, and Ephrussi himself was the devoted lover of Camondo’s mother-in-law, Louise Cahen d’Anvers. Likewise, all these names, conspicuous because of the wealth attached to them, peppered the thriving antisemitic literature of the period.

But the letters do not merely luxuriate in the riches of a bygone era.

Remembering for de Waal is never far from grief. The museum had always been, in part, a mausoleum. Camondo had turned to the construction of the new building and the sweeping away of the past in the wake of his wounding divorce from Irène Cahen d’Anvers, who left him to marry an Italian equestrian, Count Sampieri. His children remained with him, but his son, Nissim, was shot down in his aircraft over the German lines in 1917. In 1919, his daughter, Béatrice, married Léon Reinach and left to bring up children of her own. The last of the Camondo patriarchs resigned himself to enhancing his collection.

In 1936, following Moïse’s death, the museum was received into the patrimoine français. When the war came, Béatrice believed her father’s bequest, her brother’s service, her conversion to Catholicism and her involvement with an aristocratic set that entertained German officers would protect her from detention. She was wrong. She, her children and her by now ex-husband Léon were interned by French police at Drancy in 1942 and, in 1944, were shipped east under German supervision to Auschwitz and other camps, where they were murdered.

Irène Sampieri survived the war, passing as an Italian, and inherited the remainder of the Camondo fortune from her daughter. De Waal compares these events with the fate of his own family.

He asks if there can be ‘closure’. No, he thinks. ‘You remember one thing and then you are lost. You pick up one thread and it starts to lead you to places you do not want to go.’

This story was from May 2021 issue. Subscribe Now