Seventy-five years ago this month in Bordeaux, as the Allies celebrated the end of the Second World War, a fine summer was moving into a fine autumn. With everyone keen to embrace some form of normality, harvest was underway.
After the chaos and tragedy of the war, the 1945 vintage was considered a mini miracle. The vines had been blighted by frost and snow in May, but they enjoyed a hot and dry summer and an uncomplicated harvest. Enduring wines were produced by all the great estates that year, though Mouton-Rothschild – then a lowly second growth – produced a wine of brilliance. Mouton 1945 is one of a handful of wines that sit in an iconic class of their own. A bottle sold at the recent Zachy’s London auction for £9,920 – many wines fetch more, but few have the romantic lustre of the ’45.
To mark that wonderful harvest, the owner of Mouton, the charismatic Baron Philippe de Rothschild, commissioned an unknown young designer, Philippe Jullian. His brief was to produce a label that would represent a new beginning and celebrate the end of war.
The story of the Artists’ Series of labels of Mouton-Rothschild is well-known. The story of Jullian, he of that legendary 1945 label, is seldom told. Jullian is celebrated among the few cognoscenti of Symbolism and mid-20th century graphic design, but that’s about all. While the Mouton commission would have been a mere moment in his long career, his history and that of the great Médoc chateau are inextricably entwined.
The young Baron Philippe was born in 1902 and brought up in Paris. When the Germans looked like seizing the city in 1914, he was evacuated to Château Brane-Mouton, the Bordeaux property his great-grandfather had bought in 1853. He liked life on the estate, and in 1922 he took over its administration and began take its marketing more seriously. In 1924, he commissioned the designer Jean Carlu for a striking, one-off Art Deco label.
In his determination to push Mouton’s reputation (when the 1855 classification was issued, Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion were decreed firsts while Mouton topped the list of Seconds – it was finally promoted in 1973) he borrowed a ruse from his Lafite cousins and insisted on château-bottling. He even splashed it on the label: “The whole harvest has been bottled at the château.” He was joining a very small club of properties that could sell at the highest prices.
The Carlu label was a demonstration of the Baron’s aesthetic sensibilities. He raced cars, made films and wrote books. He married Elisabeth Pelletier de Chambure, by whom he had had a daughter while she was still married to her first husband. A second child died in infancy and the marriage broke up soon after. When the Germans occupied France in 1940, it wasn’t good to be Jewish, or a Rothschild. Mouton was sequestered by the Germans and Baron Philippe and his wife were arrested. The baron escaped and made it to England to join the Free French. Elisabeth fared less well. She was taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp where she died in 1945, probably of typhus, the only Rothschild to perish in the war. Their daughter Philippine, born in 1933, survived and went on to inherit the estate on the death of the Baron in 1988.
Perhaps the Baron’s greatest legacy is the Artists’ Series. As with many design classics, Jullian’s 1945 label is simple: a band of white, decorated with vine leaves, a laurel wreath denoting triumph and glory, a Churchilian V for victory, and the words “1945 Année de la Victoire.”
For Jullian, the Mouton commission was a mere moment in a long career as (Wikipedia puts it best) an “illustrator, art historian, biographer, aesthete, novelist and dandy.” Born in 1919 to a prominent family of Bordeaux intellectuals, “he was a last and lasting example of pre-war camp,” writes the British graphic artist John Coulthard. “His career began as an artist in Paris with a reputation for drag-acts parodying English spinsters.”
From the end of the war to his death in 1977, Jullian moved between Paris and London, collaborating with a wide variety of artists and writers. He designed a series of covers for the fledgling Penguin books – mainly Henry James and CP Snow – and illustrated volumes of Balzac, Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, Proust and Vita Sackville-West. With his Dreams of Decadence he is credited with re-launching the Symbolist movement that had started in the 1890s, with Edgar Allen Poe among its prime movers. Jullian wrote biographies of Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde. Many of his works are held in London’s Victoria & Albert museum.
His end was lonely and tragic. He was deeply upset by the 1972 death of his friend Violet Trefusis (a key member of the “Bloomsbury Set” of writers and artists, and inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando) and devastated by a fire in his apartment in which many of his pictures were lost. Then in 1977 his Moroccan servant and companion was stabbed to death. Five days later he hanged himself.
Coulthard adds a final note: “In his autobiography, La Brocante , he not only announced that he would take his own life, but hoped his ashes would be auctioned, in a celadon pot from his motley but fascinating collection of bric-a-brac, to unsuspecting buyers at the Hôtel Drouot Paris’s great auction room.”
Jullian might be a footnote in the history of art, but his 1945 label started a great tradition. The Baron, followed by his daughter Philippine and, on her death in 2014, her sons Philippe Sereys de Rothschild and Julien de Beaumarchais, and their sister Camille Ögren, have attracted – literally – every significant artist of the last 70 years. Henry Moore, Miró, Chagall, Braque, Picasso, Warhol, Francis Bacon, Dalí, Balthus, Lucian Freud, Jeff Koons, David Hockney; the Korean artist Lee Ufan and China’s Xu Lei and Gu Gan. Even royalty has contributed – Prince Charles designed the label in 2004.