Felix Harbord (1906-1981)
Interior decorator and theater designer, Cyril Felix Harbord was born in the small coastal town of Felixstowe in Suffolk, England on June 22, 1906. His formal studies in art began at University College London, where he trained under noted architect Sir Albert Richardson. He then studied painting at the university’s Slade School of Fine Art and sculpture at an unknown school in New York. While his many talents offered a myriad of career paths, he pursued a career in architecture working in the firm of his former professor, Richardson. In his spare time, Harbord designed theater costumes and props, including the Greek Play Society’s 1926 production of Oedipus Tyrannis. Harbord then served as Librarian and Art Keeper for the Bute Collection, an impressive collection of Old Master paintings, antique books, porcelain, glass, and silver housed at Mount Stuart, the ancestral home of the Stuart family. At some point before the war, he changed his name to Felix Paul Jerome Harbord.
During World War II, Harbord served in a camouflage unit of the Royal Engineers. In March 1945 he was chosen as the successor of Monuments Man Maj. Ronald Balfour, one of two Monuments Men killed in the line of duty. Balfour was in Cleves, Germany relocating pieces of a medieval altarpiece to safety when a shell burst nearby, ending his life. Harbord arrived in Cleves four days later as MFAA Officer for First Canadian Army, quickly undertaking the continuation of Balfour’s uncompleted work. He read all of Balfour’s notes and revisited many of the monuments and sites about which Balfour had drafted a preliminary report. These included the Church of St. Nikolaus at Kalcar and the Monastery at Cleves, where he reported a collection of hidden paintings, church archives, and a valuable brass chandelier belonging to the Stiftskirche in Cleves.
Harbord reported that many monuments and churches in Cleves had suffered significant damage by Allied troops. In some cases, curious and careless troops had broken into sealed rooms or simply torn down signs placing the sites “Off Limits.” Elsewhere, Harbord found churches that had been used as latrines, their treasured reliquaries containing the bones of martyrs smashed and strewn about. In his report, Harbord lamented, “In private houses where works of art might have been found, looting and wanton damage had been carried to such a degree that it was impossible to find anything worth saving.” Balfour’s work in Cleves completed, Harbord later assisted in restitution efforts at Schloss Celle, the British collecting point for thousands of looted works of art and other cultural objects.
Following his return to England, Harbord became a renowned interior decorator. His refined taste was highly valued by wealthy patrons in Britain and Ireland, who entrusted him with the redecoration of drawing rooms, parlors, and dining rooms in Georgian and Rococo revival styles. He received commissions from the brewing heiress Aileen Plunket Guinness (Luttrellstown Castle in Clonsilla, Ireland), the photographer Sir Cecil Beaton (Reddish House in Wiltshire, England), and William Michael Berry, Baron Hartwell (Oving House). Harbord’s designs were immortalized in the December 1968 issue of Vogue. He also continued his passion for theater, designing sets and costumes for numerous plays and films. One of his most notable projects included his work as Special Consultant Art Director for the film The Grass is Greener (1960) featuring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.
Felix Harbord died in Paris in 1981 and was buried in Montmartre.