Monthly Archives: July 2011

Establishing the English Country House Style: Part II, Colefax and Fowler

‘The greatest mistake in the world is to believe that so-called good taste is any use without a sense of comfort to complete it.’

Words of Sibyl Colefax, (Lady Colefax Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford)

‘A room must be essentially comfortable, not only to the body but the eye…well behaved but free from too many rules…mannered yet casual and unselfconscious.’

John Fowler, House and Garden Magazine, (May 1965)

          In the thirties and forties the English country house style began to take shape and a recognisable form. It would become a style associated with a particular brand – Colefax and Fowler. Its key ingredients seemed a breath of fresh country air that mixed damasks and silks with crisp cotton chintzes, it made use of old and often under-utilised pieces of furniture and added elaborate porcelain pieces and ormulu with more modest handmade pottery. Its eclecticism suited the era of make-do and mend, whilst also embracing comfort and a refined eighteenth-century sensibility and elegance.

Colefax & Fowler catalogue sample Veryan Collection 2011 'understated glamour is a keynote throughout'.

           Previously, we took a peek at the design ethos of Nancy Lancaster. During the 1930s, and still married to Ronald Tree, Nancy and her husband were heavily involved in Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire – the house most associated with Nancy Lancaster’s interior design. Ronald had been captivated by the place when they had visited in 1933, and for the couple it perfectly represented the archaic country residence, ‘an unforgettable picture of magnificence and accumulated junk’. Like Kelmarsh Hall, Ditchley was mainly the work of James Gibbs but much grander. And, like Kelmarsh Nancy sought architectural advice from Paul Phipps. For the interior arrangements, Nancy and Ronald used their society connections and called upon the most prominent names of the day including Syrie Maugham, Stephane Boudin of Jansens in Paris and Lady Colefax.

          Not many of the rooms were drastically altered, but Nancy took it upon herself to chip away at walls in order to discover the ‘true’ colours intended for particular rooms when the house was first built in the eighteenth century. To these interiors Nancy added English needlework carpets, damask wall hangings and curtains and mixtures of Italian, English and French furniture acquired from auctions. Nancy was said to dislike the heavy, dark and imposing eighteenth-century English furniture particularly for bedrooms and sitting rooms, and so this eclecticism offered a ‘dash of French’ to an otherwise static space. Other pieces came from Kelmarsh and Nancy would make use of vibrant fabrics and upholstery to complement the muted tones of the greys and blues of the walls.

          As at Kelmarsh Hall, Nancy and Ronald set about modernising and making other spaces more comfortable. This included altering closet spaces on the first floor to provide bathrooms. Yet, nothing was completely overhauled. Architectural historian and diarist, James Lees-Milne wrote of his own visit in the 1930s, ‘Ditchley inside is perfection…Nothing jars. Nothing is too sumptuous, or new.’

The interior at Ditchley Park. Clockwise from top; Bedroom six with blue and white chintz, the Great Hall, the White Drawing Room

          At the same time Nancy and Ronald Tree were expending their energies at Ditchley, one of their assistant designers and advisors – Sibyl Colefax was maintaining her own business in London. A society hostess, Sibyl, Lady Colefax (nee Halsey 1874-1950) was renowned for her subtle and understated arrangements and designs. Inspired by the bohemian group of aristocrats and politicians, the Souls, Sibyl by her own admittance wanted to avoid grandeur and implement comfort and something of a natural flow to interior design. Her own house, Argyll House in Chelsea was an important social hub with guests reportedly including Fred Astaire, Wallis Simpson, Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill.

          The business venture had been borne out of the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Sibyl lost a great deal of money and decided to make the most of her many contacts as a means of staying financially secure. Her contacts became clients as she pursued her interest in interior design, and within a few years she had set up Sibyl Colefax Ltd with Peggy Ward, (later the Countess of Munster) as her partner. In 1938, Peggy urged Sibyl to go into partnership with the relatively young John Fowler whose own experiences were vastly different to his new female business partner.

          John Fowler (1906-1977) was not a member of the elite social circles that Sibyl was accustomed to, but a professional artisan and skilled interior decorator with specialisms in wallpaper, printing and upholstery. He had lost his job at the paint firm Thornton Smith in the downturn following the Wall Street Crash. His skills however, had led antique dealer and decorator Margaret Kunzer to enlist him in her furniture restoration activities supplying Peter Jones department store. John Fowler’s expertise also gave him opportunities to work with Mrs Guy Bethell whose own shop off Grosvenor Square had connected her to Nancy and Ronald Tree. By 1934, John had set up his own small business as John Beresford Fowler Ltd in King’s Road Chelsea, and a stone’s throw from Sibyl Colefax’s Argyll House. By setting up his wares in his garden on a daily basis it was only a matter of time before this society hostess would snap him up. By 1938 Sibyl Colefax was living at Lord North Street and when he joined her company as partner, John Fowler was one of the most sought after decorators.

          Nancy Tree purchased the company in 1944 when her relationship with Ronald was breaking down. Presumably, Sibyl Colefax was eager to ‘retire’ from her involvement in the business, though her name would remain as part of its branding to the present day. The nature of the original partnerships changed dramatically once Nancy was on board. The business relationship between Nancy and John was regarded as somewhat love/hate and intensely creative. However, their beliefs were almost identical in essence, and both held a particular fondness for combined comfort and

Sample of the 'Berkeley Sprig' chintz which would become the logo for Colefax and Fowler

elegance in the way a room must be arranged within the ethos of ‘pleasing decay’ and rustic charm. They both made use of existing furniture and textiles, altering them for suitable effect. Nancy for example would ‘spoil’ new upholstery fabrics by deliberately leaving them out in all weathers in order to give an immediate used appearance. John on the other hand would re-dye old fabrics and simply add new trimmings. His was a ‘humble elegance’, hers was a tatty-edged elegance; John Fowler would complain that Nancy had too much of a fondness for rags, and called Kelmarsh Hall ‘Tatters Hall’ when Nancy was in residence there. But the need to re-use would prove more than essential during the Second World War until the mid 1950s. Crucially, their partnership brought together the design elements of the English country house style with its mix of draped and upholstery textiles like damasks, silks, and chintz, and a strong palette of colours. Yet, their points of reference were different. For Nancy her own heritage and upbringing in Virginia had supplied her with an intense enthusiasm for a worn grace and adornment that replicated the tastes of different generations and their household belongings. For John, it was more academic and based upon the faded elegance of previous centuries. He would take inspiration from the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and design books from the eighteenth century and later reproduce them as printed cottons or wallpapers.

The Yellow Room at Avery Row/Brook Street, London

The pair worked on many projects together including Nancy’s own apartment in Mayfair and Haseley Court, Oxfordshire. They also left their mark at the Moulin de la Tuilerie at Gif near Paris, Hambledon Manor, Oxfordshire, Daylesford, Gloucestershire, Tyninghame House, East Lothian, and Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire.  John Fowler would do much of the travelling and design work, whilst Nancy Lancaster dealt with shop matters. Their most celebrated project which cemented the codes of the English country house style formed part of the apartments above the shop in Avery Row, London. Pieces bought for the shop from country house auctions, antique dealers and warehouses that had never sold in the shop were installed throughout the apartment. Other pieces came from Nancy’s own houses. The Yellow Room (as pictured) was considered once of the most celebrated rooms of the whole ensemble. It consists of double doors at both ends and barrel-vaulted ceiling; the whole measuring 46 ft by 16 ft. The ceiling was painted in an off-white, they added mirrors to the door surrounds to add height and painted festoons above the painted marbled cornice. The yellow walls – the rooms crowning glory – were a rich buttercup yellow. Numerous coats of paint were stippled on, then John Fowler applied layers of glaze which gave a deep shimmer in the light. This has since been difficult to replicate.

        John Fowler would retire from the business by the 1970s but continued working with the National Trust as he had done since the mid 1950s. His projects included Clandon Park, Surrey and Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire. The idea of decorating a room as a museum piece had amused Nancy Lancaster, but such employment did not grate with John’s own beliefs which allowed him to reinstate ‘dead’ houses. The old and new had to exist in natural harmony; the faded fabrics and worn furniture could not be upstaged by ‘clean’ paint and sharp lines.

         Between the 1930s and 1950s Colefax and Fowler as a brand was providing a style which allowed interiors to be romanticised. The website for the firm today repeatedly summarises the particular look  as ‘epitomising the very best of English style, a style that is admired and emulated the world over. The essence of this look is a timeless elegance and subtlety, combined with an emphasis on perfect comfort, and an insistence on quality.‘ It would still have influence in the post-war years, particularly in the United States with interior designers using its signature arrangements and patterns to help establish their clients’ rooms as places of comfort and refinement. It would also splinter into different styles; one of which we would recognise as ‘shabby chic’ today, or simply the English country style. Its legacy in interior design is far-reaching for many well-known designers in the twenty-first century. This aspect will be part of Establishing the English Country House Style; Part III, The Legacy.

References:

Martin Wood, John Fowler: Prince of Decorators (2007)

Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style (2005)

Links:

Colefax and Fowler website today http://www.colefax.com/

Ditchley Park website http://www.ditchley.co.uk/

A peep at the relationship between Lancaster, Colefax and Fowler http://www.nh-design.co.uk/2011/01/mrs-nancy-lancaster-great-milton-360/

A blogged piece about Colefax & Fowler book July 2007 http://bibliostylebooks.blogspot.com/2007/07/colefax-fowler-best-in-english-interior.html

Instructive review by Donhead Publishing on John Fowler http://www.donhead.com/new_introductions_and_reviews/john_fowler_review_1.htm

Christie’s Sale dedicated to John Fowler http://www.christies.com/presscenter/pdf/08092006/104455.pdf

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Establishing the English Country House Style; Part I, Nancy Lancaster

‘You never wanted to have only one mouvement thing like the Savonnaire rug that would stand out. You must have mouvement everywhere.’

Nancy Lancaster, ‘Beautiful Houses Remembered’, Architectural Digest, (December 1980) Quoted in Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style. (2005), p. 35

          

A closet room at Ditchley Park,(watercolour by Alexandre Serebriakoff c.1948)

The English Country House Style was an aesthetic established in the 1920s. Its ideals were founded on elegance, taste and comfort; its colours, themes and arrangements and can still be seen in interior design today. It is Nancy Lancaster who is most associated with the English Country House Style, though there were many others. Many worked together on projects, others established businesses together as interior designers, and some simply socialised with one another. Above all, the English Country House Style was about reinstating the spirit of a place without the trappings of stately opulence. Its Englishness lay in the inspiration found in existing architecture – particularly Palladian country houses and the fondness for clutter and shabby edged upholstery. Its place in time also serves as a reminder of how the English country house and its owner were subject to irreversible financial difficulties during the interwar period and struggled to keep up with a changing society.

 ******

          Born and raised a Virginian, Nancy Lancaster (nee Perkins, 1897-1994) already had family connections with England mainly through her aunts – three of the five elegant Langhorne sisters. Her aunt Nancy (1879-1964) married Waldorf Astor (1879-1952) and became Viscountess Astor of Hever and was the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. Phyllis (1880-1937) married Robert Brand (1878-1963) Lord Hampden, later Baron Brand of Eydon in Northamptonshire. Nora (1889-1955) married Paul Phipps, an English architect whose partnership with Oswald Partridge Milne in 1919 provided a practice which consisted mainly of country house work; Nancy would later ‘employ’ her uncle to assist with her own projects. Nancy’s own mother was the eldest of the Langhorne sisters, whose own interior designs were, ‘before her time. She papered or painted her rooms in off tones of grey. One range of colour throughout made the space seem larger than  if the rooms were all of different colours.’

           Nancy herself, was married three times, and in many ways the impact of her own interiors and resulting style were the product of these marriages. Firstly she married in early 1917, Henry Field – one of the most eligible bachelors of the day. They would be married for only five months when Henry died of blood poisoning after a routine operation to remove his tonsils. Stricken by grief, and having suffered a probable breakdown, Nancy eventually spent some time in 1918 with family in England. It was on the trip over that she met with Ronald Tree, a cousin of Henry Field, and someone who had previously shown great interest in Nancy. They would be married two years later at St James’s Church in Piccadilly but divorced by 1947. Her third marriage was to Lieutenant Colonel Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster in the summer of 1948. A Member of Parliament for Fylde in Lancashire, ‘Jubie’ was the owner of Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire and had already known Nancy when she and Ronald Tree rented the property for themselves as part of a repairing lease between 1928 and 1933.

          Nancy’s style and tastes had their origins in her family home of Mirador in Albermarle Country, Virginia. Built as a plantation house in the 1830s, Mirador is typical of a Virginian plantation home with four rooms on each floor and a central through hall. It became Nancy’s in 1922 and she set about decorating her home immediately with advice from family friend and architect William Adams Delano (1874-1960). The first

Mirador Entrance Front (Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1926)

improvement to make at Mirador was to restore the entrance front and realign the symmetrical details to give a more ‘neo-classical or Virginian’ aspect. Bigger bathrooms were added, the staircase was opened up with the use of a large skylight, a drawing room was incorporated into the arrangement of rooms on the first floor and each room received a new lick of paint. Crucially, Nancy’s own heritage at Mirador meant that she wished to retain a degree of comfort and a feeling of inherited sensibility. She used several pieces of furniture that had stayed in the house from her grandparents’ day but added faded fabrics and upholstery from neighbourhood sales and antique warehouses. These were arranged in a style influenced by Ogden Codman’s New York townhouse (‘an elegant Parisian ensemble’) which Nancy and Ronald Tree rented when they were first married between 1920 and 1922. Altogether, the stylistic arrangement at Mirador was a mix of two or three influences. On the one hand it was informed by European ideals as viewed by Delano and Codman who had both worked in the Beaux-Arts tradition the characteristics of which consisted of Classical architectural details with heavy influences from French and Italian Baroque. On the other hand, Nancy had a great deal of involvement in retaining the flavours of her family home, partly because of the boundaries set out by her aunts who did not wish to see massive changes, but also because she yearned to improve the house in-keeping with notions that rooms must look as though they had been used and enjoyed for many years – a certain patina. This would be her criteria of ‘design mouvement’ in later years, eventually making it part of a list of seven points which she felt were important for her particular interior design ethos;

I never think that sticking slavishly to one period is successful, a touch of nostalgia adds charm. One needs light and shade because if every piece is perfect the room becomes a museum and lifeless.

        The move to England in 1927 was the result of her second husband Ronald’s attempts to establish himself in elite society. He had never really been successful whilst in America and sought to make the most of his English roots. In 1926 he was offered the joint mastership of the Pytchley Hunt in Northamptonshire – a position which would offer strong connections within the rural community. Nancy was supposedly reluctant to make the move at first, but agreed so long as she could keep Mirador and return to it each year.

          In England, Nancy would be involved in the design of about half a dozen houses, or projects, during the rest of her life including Kelmarsh Hall, Ditchley Park and Haseley Court; with so many connections Nancy renounced her American citizenship in 1948. However, by 1927, the Trees needed a place which projected Ronald’s position in elite society, and to begin with they rented Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire, but Nancy did not feel at home there. After about a year

Kelmarsh Hall

Kelmarsh Hall Entrance Front

they began renting Kelmarsh Hall from Colonel Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster. To Nancy it was perfect and was very much the English version of her beloved Mirador. This was simple Palladian architecture at its best. Built by James Gibbs (1682-1754) in about 1730, its arrangement of rooms was similar to that of Mirador, but its size compared to the Virginian house was far grander and contained far more complex decorative schemes. This was a challenge to Nancy, but her first priority lay with Kelmarsh’s need for modernisation. With the assistance of her uncle Paul Phipps, Kelmarsh gained proper heating, electric light and several bathrooms. As for the main interior furnishings, Nancy enlisted the help of Mrs Guy Bethell a partner in the celebrated shop, E. Elden just off Grosvenor Square in London. The creativity of Nancy, Phipps, Mrs Bethell and the painter Mr Kicks gave Kelmarsh Hall a softened elegance. Nancy had used similar techniques to those she had used at Mirador such as worn fabrics like leather, chintz and silk and odd-shaped furniture, but added Bethell’s chic new trimmings to the bedrooms and saloon. Most important was her use of colour throughout which attempted to replicate some of the original tones found in the house or elsewhere. The pink hue of the hall was inspired by the dining room at Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk (demolished in 1961), the greens and greys of the saloon were inspired by Houghton Hall in Norfolk, with the Chinese wallpaper of the drawing room acquired directly from Kimberley Hall, Norfolk.

           Nancy and Ronald left Kelmarsh in 1933 when the Wall Street Crash and the Depression crept across their rural idyll, and Ronald had to resign as Master of the Hunt. Although they had funds in America, the Trees were able to invest in another property – Ditchley Park before the end of the year. Kelmarsh Hall would be granted back to Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster and when the repairing lease was finally up in 1938, much of the furniture was sold at auction. ‘Jubie’ bought considerable lots and restored them to the arrangements set out by Nancy; many still remain in the house today. Ditchley Park would become one of the most celebrated houses connected with Nancy Lancaster, and shall be discussed in Establishing the English Country House Style: Part II, but from the moment Nancy began her modernisation of Mirador in 1922 the ideas were already in motion.

 

The Hall and Chinese Drawing room at Kelmarsh (Country Life images)

  Nancy Lancaster was by no means the sole designer, and although her name is most synonymous with the English Country House Style, Nancy should be regarded rather more of a facilitator of the style. The scene had been set and merely needed its players; Nancy was the lead in this instance and exploited the drama of an older world at a time when English rural society was on the verge of changing forever. To this style, Nancy brought her fondness for her own Virginian home and an inherited enthusiasm in architecture and interior design. Her own heritage included several links to architects and interior designers, and in every instance there was a hint of country house sophistication and elite elegance. Her social connections led her to further specialists like Mrs Bethell and her shop off Grosvenor Square – an established area of London for all things design related. For Nancy Lancaster, Kelmarsh Hall was only the start, and her design ethos spread rapidly during the Second World War. She would become owner of the decorating business Colefax and Fowler in 1944, regain hold on Kelmarsh, albeit for a short time, and eventually have her own English country house at Haseley Court by 1954. The English Country House Style was a formulation of ideals set out in elite society during the interwar period and reflected the tastes of a generation born at the end of the nineteenth century. Any hint of Englishness was the result of fashionable tastes dictated by those who chose to reminisce about a romantic yet eclectic countryside ideal.

 

References:

Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style. (2005)

Links:

Review of Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style by Martin Wood (2005) from The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/15/garden/15nancy.html?pagewanted=all

The Houses of Nancy Lancaster article from Southern Accents http://www.southernaccents.com/architecture/architectural-essentials/houses-nancy-lancaster-00400000035775/

Nancy Lancaster obituary, August 1994 from The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/6021150/Nancy-Lancaster.html

Interior designer’s blog with nice piece on Nancy Lancaster, includes some good photos http://littleaugury.blogspot.com/2009/11/tree-inheritance.html and a more whimsical look at the chattels required for the English country house look http://littleaugury.blogspot.com/2009/12/for-christmas-in-tradition-of-nancy.html

Grosvenor Square in modern times – twentieth-century shops and interior design http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=41849

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Oakwell Hall, Birstall, West Yorkshire

Oakwell Hall
Oakwell Hall from above (Kirklees Metropolitan Council)

         It’s often really refreshing to peep into a country house that isn’t spectacularly gilded, hung with Chinese wallpaper, and set out with Louis XV furniture. Oakwell Hall is not a grand medieval palace or power house, but a house built for a member of the local gentry at the end of the sixteenth century. Its definition as a country house rests simply with its use as an established home for one family – the Batt family and their hopes of maintaining their status within the landscape. That the Batt family inhabited the hall for only one century provides this house with a great mix of history.

          Situated about 2 miles away from the concrete and glass ‘haven’ that is Birstall Retail Park and Leeds Ikea, Oakwell Hall is one of those ‘hidden gems’ which stares blankly back should you ever use such an expression. Set within Oakwell Country Park, the house is tucked away upon an otherwise commanding hillside behind thick trees and amongst remnants of its twentieth-century mining heritage. The park provides a welcome break or day out for families, and the eighteenth-century styled gardens are great for eager gardeners. The house itself stands boldly and is almost always quiet. Built in 1583 for John Batt, Oakwell came as the next step in the Batt family’s prominence. An entrepreneurial family, the Batts had made their fortune through several business interests in Halifax throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Oakwell Hall Great Parlour

The house is a mix of local Yorkshire building and fashionable gentry style and is medieval in its arrangement with a central hall rising through the upper storey. An arched passage leads to the main kitchen and the ‘New Parlour’ on one side of the hall to the south-east, with the Great Parlour and associated rooms to the north-west. John Batt’s initials appear on the front porch and much of the architectural arrangement and interior design throughout the house is thought to date from the late sixteenth century. Kirklees Metropolitan Council have set much of the house out as they think it may have appeared in the last decade of the seventeenth century which is curious since this was the era of the remaining Batt family member, another John Batt who died without issue. However, the council’s motives seem more in line with the interior decoration which includes painted oak panelling and plaster friezes dating from the 1630s onwards, and a desire to replicate many items of furniture from the seventeenth century based on an inventory of 1611 and

The Batt Coat of Arms

accounts dating to 1609-12. This time scale also allows inclusion of the Batts’ involvement in the English Civil War and later settlement in the American Colonies. Indeed, many overseas visitors to Oakwell Hall today have connections to the seventeenth-century Batts of Virginia.

          In the eighteenth century, Oakwell Hall passed through the hands of several tenants, but was eventually bought by lawyer Benjamin Fearnley. His son Fairfax Fearnley inherited his father’s debt as well as creating much of his own, but he was quite an eccentric character with good connections amongst the Yorkshire elite, including the Winns at Nostell Priory. Fearnley eventually sold the house in 1789 to help settle some of his debts. From that period, the house and remains of the estate passed to absentee landlords and private families until it became a boarding school. Its most famous visitor, Charlotte Bronte came to Oakwell whilst staying with close friends who had links to the hall when it was run as a girls’ school. Oakwell would later appear in Bronte’s novel Shirley as ‘Fieldhead’ – the home of the novel’s heroine,
Tenantless by the proprietor it had been for ten years, but it was no ruin … If Fieldhead had few other merits as a building, it might at least be termed picturesque; its irregular architecture, and the grey and mossy colouring communicated by time, gave it a just claim to this epithet. The old latticed windows, the stone porch, the walls, the roof, the chimney stacks were rich in crayon touches and sepia lights and shades.
Charlotte Bronte, Shirley, Vol. 1 (1849)  p. 276
          The hall would be used as the location for Fieldhead in a silent adaptation of Shirley in 1921 by the Ideal Film Company. The house as a museum today is welcoming and somehow sturdy and heavy as you approach the porch. In typical Yorkshire fashion, it has drizzled everyday I’ve been on a visit, but when the sun does poke through the open spaces seem to expand and the house rests calmly on its large hillside site looking out towards the parkland. The modern-day Yorkshire landscape is dotted with industry and transport links – especially the M62 in this case. So should you ever pass Birstall Retail Park travelling west, remember Oakwell Hall is not far away, you may not be able to see it, but its countless visitors can see you!
Links:
Wikipedia entry on Oakwell Hall http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakwell_Hall
References:
Catherine Hall and Jane Whittaker, Oakwell Hall: A Guide. (1999)
Charlotte Bronte, Shirley: A Tale. (1849)

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