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Casa Leon, Cuernavaca, Mexico - The Incredible Mrs Lambert

Photographs by James Fennell.

The Mexican home of American socialite Evelyn Lambert celebrates her famous art collection with a fantastical vision of Spanish design and eclectic taste.

In the heart of the medieval Mexican city of Cuernavaca is Casa Leon, the Spanish-styled 17th century home of American socialite, Evelyn Lambert. The house, like the city itself, is soaked in history. Montezuma, Emperor Maximillian, Diego Riviera and the Shah of Persia have all played a hand in its evolution. Located close to the 400 year old palace of Conquistador Hernan Cortes, Casa Leon once served as a residence for his domestic staff before lapsing into a house of ill-repute for the city's Spanish garrison.

The casa's present owner has a history as colourful as her home. Born in a Tennessee farmhouse in 1907, Lambert is the personification of a "Southern belle" who, as a former journalist, museum director and art collector has rubbed shoulders with everyone from Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw to Placido Domingo and George Gershwin. Her stunning art collection is a testimony to her friendships with 20th century icons such as Cecil Beaton and Pablo Picasso.

When Lambert arrived in the "City of Eternal Spring", Casa Leon was in a state of considerable dilapidation. The last work of any note took place in 1907 when the former Mexican owners added a second floor. Aided by her designer godson, Lambert set about converting the premises into a building that would house her impressive art collection as well as act as a home. The crumbling interior walls were immediately given a fresh covering of plaster and painted off-white to allow the rooms to breathe.

The entrance is a small door into a high wall. A beautiful mosaic stairwell climbs upwards from the entrance hall in tandem with a series of green perceptual strips by Bridget Reilly. A spiked ball by Francois Morelet hangs overhead, drawing attention to a ceiling print by William Hayter. A four-foot doll calmly seated cross-legged on a sofa sports a welcoming grin in the doorway; the enormous white spectacles, heavily bejeweled hands and pagoda-shaped brilliant white hair prepare all newcomers for the upcoming reality that is Evelyn Kelly Lambert. This engaging entrance is further enhanced by a caricature etched by Beaton in 1973.

The main living room is a long, whitewashed open air space with four separate seating areas. This is where guests gather for Lambert's internationally renowned social get-togethers An entire wall has been knocked back to form three distinct archways, separated by white pillars, leading out to a stunning tropical garden filled with Mexican flowers, water fountains and a small pond. At the far end of the garden is a fibre-glass processional sculpture by Igino Balderi. The apples seemingly inserted into the pillars are by Moulton while gigantic works by Mexican artist Lucero Isaac dangle from the ceiling on chains. Lambert considered the ceiling a sensible place to put paintings by Dorazio and Calder. The elderly spend a good deal of time lying down, she says, and it's good for them to have something to look at.

The house is a treasure chest of visual delights - banners by Timothy Hennessy, glass sculptures by Christopher Wilmarth, red and black chairs by Gerrit Rietveld, sculptures by Barry Flanagan and Polesellos, a pair of perfect blackamoors by Venetian sculptor Andrea Brustolon, treasures from Middle Eastern souks and ethnic toys collected from around the world. Korean chests, Burgundian cabinets, Balinese ducks, Tibetan teapots, Italian tiger lights and wooden Majorcan locomotives pop out at every corner, again neatly arranged to bring out the best of, say, a Jean Arp, Lucio Fontana, Dali or any of the other artists whose work she acquired over the years.

The Lambert residence may be a tribute to its owners love of art, but by doubling as a home it immediately transcends the stuffiness of a gallery. The moment one enters the front door of Casa Leon, one is transported back to another age, a sedate and seductive Gatsbyesque world of proper manners, considered art and living history.

HISTORY IN THE MAKING

In 1980, an eight-page Vogue feature was dedicated to "the incredible Mrs. Lambert". Twenty five years later, that description is as relevant as ever.

Evelyn Kelly Lambert was born in a Tennessee farmhouse in 1907. During the 1920s, she toured the battle-scarred cities of Italy and France. By 1928 she had enrolled in the school of journalism at the University of Cuba and secured a commission with the Havana Post. Interviews with leading figures of the day followed, including Gershwin, Churchill and George Bernard Shaw.

While in Cuba, Lambert bought her first serious piece of art, a small abstract by Wilfredo Lam. Early works by Amelia Pelaez and Massauger soon followed.

After her first husband, the Marquis del Barrio, died in 1935 she made her way, via San Diego, to Dallas where Niemen Marcus had given her a senior advertising post. It was here that she met Joe Lambert, the man credited with landscaping Dallas. The two inevitably became the IT couple of post-war Texas.

By the 1950s, her knowledge of the international art world had convinced the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art that she should be appointed as its director. It was a post she threw herself into with such relish that she was soon on the boards of the Dallas Municipal Theatre (where young Zefferelli made his directorial debut) and the Dallas Opera Hall (where she hosted operatic debuts by leading performers such as Maria Callas, Placido Domingo, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballe).

In the mid 1960s the couple bought a Palladian villa in northern Italy where they lived until Joe's death in 1970. Mrs. Lambert moved to Cuernavaca in 1991.

This article was written for The White Book in March 2005.

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