‘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.
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.’
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
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 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.
Martin Wood, John Fowler: Prince of Decorators (2007)
Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style (2005)
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