Excerpt from Cosmos Club Legacies: The Land and Townsend Decorative Arts
by Laurence J. Aurbach
The Club’s Library is installed in the room the Townsends used for the same purpose. Figure 3 shows the room and the fireplace as they appeared in 1915. Later the Townsends purchased and installed the current cast plaster fireplace (Figure 4), which is modeled on the Gilded Fireplace in Blois Chateau, Loire Valley, France (Figure 5).
To learn more about the two fireplaces and obtain a better photograph of the one in Blois, Sylvain Bellenger, then Curator of Blois Chateau, was invited to visit the Club in 1999 to inspect the Club’s fireplace. On viewing the fireplace in the Club’s Library, Bellenger registered amazement, “Zut alors, you have mirrored fire-breathing salamanders!” Following a brief moment of stunned silence, Bellenger explained that the Blois fireplace design is centered by two bas relief carved panels that celebrate the marriage of Francis I of France (1494-1547) to Queen Claude of Brittany and the incorporation of her territory into France in the early 16th century. In the Blois design Francis I is represented by a fire-breathing salamander and his bride by an ermine. Bellenger explained that any depictions of the French monarchy were destroyed in the French Revolution. The Gilded Fireplace at Blois was created in the 1840s by French architect Jacques Felix Duban (1797-1870) and is his fantasy rather than an original Renaissance piece.
So, what the Townsends installed is not an exact copy of the Duban design in Blois. There is no record of why the Townsends replaced the original fireplace or who created the new cast plaster fireplace. This piece of the Townsend Legacy to the Club, installed between 1915 and 1930, is a late 19th or early 20th century interpretation of Duban’s mid-19th century fantasy in Blois of what a Renaissance design might have been. Why the Townsends made the switch is a mystery we may never untangle.
Although his visit gave us this mystery, Sylvain Bellenger did provide a clear photograph of the Blois Gilded Fireplace. The photograph hangs beside what had been thought to be a copy of the Blois fireplace in the Townsend mansion’s library.