Bowled over by the Bugattis



The Bugatti Family

Once I was fortunate enough to stay on a yacht in the south of France.  Now that some yachts have become the size of multi-storey carparks, my friend’s vessel, which dated from the 1930s, would pass unnoticed.  It was only below decks that the full magic of this craft was apparent.  Here were displayed starling animal bronzes: elephants, panthers  and lions, all naturalistically correct and yet all possessed of a unique creative sensibility and style.  I had just discovered the work of Rembrandt Bugatti.  IT was my first taste of the creative genius of the Bugatti family.

Image: Carlo Bugatti, the son of architect and sculptor Giovanni Bugatti

The story of this remarkable dynasty of this remarkable dynasty of creativity begins in 1888 at the Fine Arts Fair in Mila, where the outstanding furniture designs of a young graduate of the Brera Academy made their debut.  Carlo Bugatti, the son of architect and sculptor Giovanni Bugatti, was an artist who worked with ceramics, silver and textiles, but his pre-eminent medium of express was furniture and his fascination with the exotic forms of Ottoman and Middle Eastern art and architecture chimed perfectly with the emerging style that would become known as Art Nouveau.  With their love of rich ornament and sinuous naturalistic lines, inlaid with everything from copper to parchment, his pieces hold their own alongside the work of Alphonse Mucha, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Antoni Gaudi.
Bugatti’s work was then shown at the Italian Exhibition in London, where he was recognised with a prize.  His rapturous reception in the Old World was followed by commercial success in the New, when the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York furnished its Turkish Salon not with pieces made by Carlo Bugatti.  Further recognition followed at the Paris World Fair of 1900.  Ushering in a new century, the Exposition Universelle of 19000 was freighted with an enormous significance commercially and culturally. Science was celebrated in a blazing palace of 12,000 electric lights, while night was turned into day by beacons that raked the Champ de Mars, and the Seine reflected the multiple colours of the electric light that was in the words of one commentator the ‘religion of 1900’.  Bugatti received a prestigious silver medal.

Image: Walking Panther, bronze, by Rembrandt Bugatti

The modernity of his work struck the jury of the 1902 International Exhibition for Modern Decorative Arts in Turni, where, ‘having provoked, within the jury as well as the public, the liveliest discussion…and the most heated debates,’ Bugatti won Gold and was awarded the Diploma of honour, for being ‘the first person in Italy to create, and not just dream of a modern style of furniture’.  But by the beginning of the twentieth century Italy was too small for Bugatti and he moved to the capital of culture, Paris, where he worked prolifically both on his own designs and on projects for the famous department store Au Bon Marche, among others.
By now his sons were young men and were beginning to show considerable talent too.  Their upbringing had been in culturally rich household where the famous painters, sculptors and composers, including Puccini were counted as friends.  And this environment shaped the course their lives would take.

Image: Drawing-room furniture designed by Carlo Bugatti

Ettore, Carlo’s first sone who had been born in 1881 had showed some early promise as an artist.  However, his younger brother Rembrandt – it had been his uncle, the Italian painter Giovanni Segantini, who suggested the name – demonstrated such precocity in this sphere, that Ettore entered the world of engineering taking an apprenticeship at a tricycle manufacturing plant, making first a tricycle powered by a pair of De Dion engines and then in 1900 his first motor car, an achievement recognised by a prize after which he too left Italy and moved to the Alsace where he would make his name and his fortune as a carmaker.
Ettore created an automotive aesthetic that blended elegance with engineering to create some of the most striking vehicles ever to take to the road: those clean limbed elegant sports cars and grand sleek limousines that were the cynosure of the Art Deco years.  During the 1920w creative geniuses and engineers were each following distinct and different paths to arrive at the optimum motor vehicle.  So while Ettore Bugatti was paring a car down to its essentials and regarded weight as the enemy of performance his rival W O Bentley, was following an almost diametrically opposed path and building cars of a solidity that matched the pyramid of Cheops for durability.  This gave rise to Bugatti’s famous quip. that Mr Bentley made the world’s fastest lorries.

Image: Ettore Bugatti, born 1881

Rembrandt Bugatti, following encouragement from Prince Paul Troubetzkoy tried his hand at sculpting one day when he came across some plasticine in his father’s studio.  He was a natural.  By the time he enrolled at the Academy of Arts in Milan at 16, Rembrandt was already a talented sculptor; and when his family moved to Paris in 1904 and he enrolled at the prestigious Beaux Arts, his work had already been exhibited in his hometown of Milan, as well as Turin and Venice.
A couple of years latter he moved to Antwerp, where the city’s zoo gave him the chance to study exotic animals such as elephants, panthers and lions, which were to become the subjects of the best know of his works. Just as his father had been in the creative vanguard so was he; as the new century entered its second decade his work became more angular and was clearly inspired by the first stirrings of cubism.
Photographs show slow an intense, hollowed-eyed young man, his sensitive features topped by an unruly mop of hair.  And these outer signs of artistic temperament were mirrored by the immense sensitivity that one sees in his work, at one playful, and yet clearly moved by the natural grace of the animal kingdom.  the First World War was a profoundly disturbing even for him.  He served as a medic and became depressed, especially after the forces destruction of the animals in Antwerp zoo on 8 January, 1916, aged 31 Rembrandt took his own life.

Image: Sculptor and model: Rembrandt Bugatti working from life at Antwerp Zoo

But his memory lived on.  The rearing elephant that crowns the radiator of the Bugatti Royale, in many ways the most emblematic of his brother’s automotive creations, was cast of an original sculpture by Rembrandt.  Although Ettore was celebrated as an engineer and made his name as a carmaker he was, at heart an artist, with a ready wit and a sharp tongue.  One when a client complained that he found it hard to start his Type 55 on cold mornings, Bugatti loftily replied ‘My dear man, if you can afford a Type 55, you can certainly afford a heated garage!’
A perfectionist, Bugatti never went to the mass production of cars.  Each in its way was a work of art and, having spent the war in Paris designing aircraft engines her returned to car making and enjoyed numerous racing successes that added further luster the Bugatti name.  However, the closing years of his life were not happy.  The years of the great Depression were not ideal for the maker of luxury cars.  He met the challenge with his customary inventiveness, even building motorized rail cars however the end of the 1930s dealt him two blows from which he did not recover: in 1939, his son Jean who had been groomed to take over the business and had designed the chassis of the Type 57C, died in a car accident, and the German occupiers forced him to sell his business.  Ettore died in 1947.

Image: Furniture piece designed by Carlo Bugatti

he Bugatti name and the reputations of family members have steadily grown over the years since their deaths.  Carlo’s furniture is held in some of the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections, as are the sculptures of his son, which now command prices of up to £500,000 on the rare occasion they come onto the market.  It is through Ettore that the family name has gained a renewed currency.  After a failed attempt to relaunch the Bugatti car brand in the 1990s, the marque was acquired by Volkswagen.  It is now firmly established as the maker of some of the fastest and most expensive cars in the world.  However, even the £1.25m you will be invited to part with for a Bugatti Veyron, begins to seem affordable when compared to the £20m fetched by a Bugatti 57SC at auction n 2010.  Genius seldom comes cheap.  
Nicholas Foulkes is a man about town whose book is Gentlemen and Blackguards: Gambling Mania and the Plot to Steal the Derby of 1844.



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