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Morocco, 1937

Following their honeymoon tour of 1935, the Cromwells’ next major travel adventure was a two-month tour of Europe from May to July 1937. At the time, construction of Shangri La was well underway, and reinforced steel frames were being erected in the walls of the main house. The Europe tour included a week in the French protectorate of Morocco, and the couple visited the cities of Marrakesh, Rabat, Fedala (now Muhammadia), and most likely Tangiers in the north, as confirmed by film footage preserved at Duke University. Much of their stay appears to have been spent with, and facilitated by, the British expatriate Nigel d’Albini Black-Hawkins and his German wife Mary Auras. Among other things, the Marrakesh-based couple hosted the Cromwells for a day of picnicking and swimming at a sprawling villa in Fedala. This villa’s whitewashed façades, lush foliage, tiled surfaces, and abundant water features must have left a deep impression on the Cromwells, for they were in the midst of building a similar home in Hawai‘i.

The Black-Hawkinses’ main contribution to Shangri La appears to have been their introduction of the Cromwells to René Martin, the owner of the eponymous Rabat-based firm S.A.L.A.M. René Martin, which specialized in interior design, the dealing of antiquities, and the creation of new craftsmanship for local and foreign clientele. It is unclear whether or not the Cromwells actually met Martin in Rabat, but they certainly visited the city, as confirmed by extensive film footage taken in its renowned Kasbah des Oudaia. In this walled citadel, they toured the Andalusian Gardens and its seventeenth-century courtyard palace, where they would have appreciated the traditional Moroccan crafts of zellij tilework, carved and painted wood ceilings, carved and turned wood screens (mashrabiyya), colored-glass windows (chemmassiat), and carved plasterwork.

In July 1937, just before they set sail for New York, the Cromwells met Martin in Antibes, where they signed a contract with the dealer for the creation of custom-made architectural features in stucco, ceramic tile and wood for the foyer, living room, central courtyard, and James Cromwell’s bedroom (known as the Moroccan Room). Like Blomfield before them, Martin and his assistant P. Vary served as both quality control (for the work being carried out by Moroccan craftsmen) and interior designers. Vary was in fact the lead designer, and he prepared several drawings proposing how the custom-made features would be integrated into spaces like the living room and foyer. In some respects, the Cromwells heeded his suggestions. The foyer, for example, retains Vary’s originally proposed arched doors, large screen shielding the central courtyard beyond, mashrabiyya balustrade, expansive ceiling, and clerestory of colored-glass windows. In other instances, the Rabat firm’s proposals were not accepted. A Moroccan-style wall fountain in zellij tilework, for example, was abandoned in light of the couple’s budding plans to travel to a new destination more renowned for its tile revetment: Iran.

Construction of the main building, May 30, 1937. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

Construction of the main building, May 30, 1937. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

P. Vary's rendering of Shangri La's foyer, 1937. P. Vary, S.A.L.A.M. René Martin. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

P. Vary's rendering of Shangri La's foyer, 1937. P. Vary, S.A.L.A.M. René Martin. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

Recommended Citation expand icon

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Commissions and Recreations, 1935–1938: Morocco, 1937,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012, www.shangrilahawaii.org.

Further Reading and Resources expand icon

Print:

Keelan Overton, “Commissioning on the Move: The Cromwells’ Travels and Patronage of ‘Living Traditions’ in India, Morocco and Iran,” in Doris Duke’s Shangri La: A House in Paradise, eds. Thomas Mellins and Donald Albrecht (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2012), 93–113.

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