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Establishing the English Country House Style; Part III, The Legacy

          The English country house style has had a massive impact on interior design since its incarnation in the 1920s. The Colefax and Fowler brand codified the look combining elegance and comfort during the Forties and Fifties, and by the Sixties its principles would become synonymous with luxury.

          For some the style was a heavy influence on their own interior design. Most notable of these was New Jerseyan Sister Parish (born Dorothy May Kinnicut, 1910 -1994). Her granddaughter Susan Bartlett Crater and colleague

The Yellow Oval Room at The White House

Libby Cameron founded Sister Parish Design in 2001 and according to them Sister Parish ‘encouraged bright colors, promoted the use of found items and family heirlooms, and insisted that rooms should center around what people truly enjoyed – not simply what “matched”’. She is well-known for her use of overstuffed armchairs, patchwork quilts, and varied patterns. Her style is beautiful yet homey, stunning yet accessible. All very much in tune with the beliefs of Nancy Lancaster. Her most ‘infamous’ project however was The White House (see the Yellow Oval Room, pictured). Sister Parish had already been employed by Jackie Kennedy in the 1950s and by the time the Kennedys moved into the White House in 1961 Jackie once again approached the designer to update many of the interiors. The two formidable women very soon came to blows, perhaps about payment but it has also been rumoured that Jackie dismissed Sister Parish when the latter reprimanded one of the Kennedy children for putting their feet on the furniture. However, all the ingredients for the English country house style are there; the striking colour, bold shapes, mixed furniture styles and neo-classical motifs.

          Those active around the same time included Keith Irvine (1928-2011) and Mario Buatta (born 1935); their clients have all been to some degree elegant and charismatic. Remarkably, they were linked with fellow designers Sister Parish, John Fowler and each other as well as stars of the silver screen and popular culture. Irvine was a Scotsman who had attempted to start his career after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1955 by writing to John Fowler directly asking for job. He was successful, and would go on to assist Fowler with the interiors of Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s Buckinghamshire home and apartment in Eaton Square. Buatta would work with Irvine for one year in the Sixties, but they would grow apart. Buatta does not make it clear as to why the pair eventually became so indignant of each other despite his numerous interviews. Undeniably it was success which had a major role to play as competition for wealthy clients grew stronger and by the end of the Eighties, the two men would become part of a super-decorator class.

A Keith Irvine interior, combining the elements of comfort and elegance so important to the English country house style

          For Irvine, adopting the English country house style was simply the product of working with John Fowler. Irvine claimed he had been influenced by the look and had tried to incorporate it into his early projects – something which Fowler would find a little ingratiating, often remarking how his protegé could have tried harder in his imitation. Yet, the principles of the style were something Irvine would abide by and with which he would identify himself . Furniture had to look as though it had been used by several generations, there had to be mixed textiles and materials, upholstery had to show wear, curtains had to have faded edges, but the whole arrangement had to suggest glamour and ancient elegance.

          Buatta, on the other hand has pointed to several sources as influence over his interior design. The brand of Colefax and Fowler was certainly one of these and Buatta admits to becoming aware of the style whilst working with Irvine. His affection for that ingredient most associated with Fowler however – chintz – was borne out of his appreciation of his Aunt May, “She had summer chintzes and winter chintzes.” He has long been known as the ‘Prince of Chintz’ by those in interior design and the fashionable elite. Of all the designers to have come out of the late 1950s however, Buatta still remains and his English country house style has been sought after by many famous names; he admits his most favourite client to have been Henry Ford II. Others have included the Forbes family, Barbara Walters, and Mariah Carey. His clients do offer an insight into how this style has come full circle since its incarnation in the 1920s, but then they also provide a snapshot of how luxury and taste have infiltrated a style which previously had been synonymous with making do and mending, restoration and alteration. Buatta even states that he prefers his clients to buy the best of everything, so long as it is decorative.

          In its modern-day form, the English country house style has lost some of its kookiness and raw impulsion. The individuality of people like Nancy Lancaster, Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler has softened at the edges so that the resulting look has become too crisp and neat. Sure, it has influenced the shabby chic with its chintzy fabrics and scumbled paint effects but it this style is quite light and breezy compared to the heavier gilded appearance created by Lancaster in the 1920s and 1930s. The overall feel of these styles are different too, they smell different as you enter a room; shabby chic is airy and sweet with billowing fresh cotton drapery, the English country house style is metallic, of plasterwork and thick velvet drapery.

Living space at Mariah Carey's New York apartment designed by Mario Buatta (2000/2001)

          The position of Buatta or any modern interior designer who happens to be inspired by the English country house style represents a shift in the type of clientele and their demands. Buatta’s work on Mariah Carey’s New York triplex apartment could well represent this shift. It is plush, clean (even feminine), and definitely chic. If you were to describe a female A-lister’s New York apartment, this would be it! Each room has vintage and antique inspired pieces including a 1930s torchere, a coromandel screen, and Marilyn Monroe’s white baby grand piano. Carey’s apartment exudes sensuality while Buatta has skillfully drawn upon the symbols of traditional Hollywood glamour.

          It would be wise to tread carefully here as Carey has had a great deal of imput – clearly Buatta knows how to support his clients as well as serve them. He has said, “I learn the way my clients live, and they are completely involved in what I’m  putting together. I don’t like surprises or surprising people; the process is  collaborative” This is what probably draws people to him and makes him so prominent an interior designer. While Carey’s apartment contains elements of the English country house style, Mario Buatta can absolutely pull off the perfect interior of which Nancy Lancaster would be proud and an internet search delivers up some fantastic images. 

          The key components of the style as envisaged by Lancaster, Fowler and Colefax still exist through classicism and comfort, humble elegance and eclecticism. The English country house style may only be 90 years old, but to some extent it has become quite versatile. It dwindled in the late 1980s when interior design sought anything flouncy and gilded, but survived this overindulgence. It has not been a style to suit everyone, but its use of fabrics, colours and textures have been adapted within several styles suited to even the smallest of houses. That ‘themed wall’ in your living room, with its bold wallpaper or dark paint owe a great deal to the English country house style.

Read more: http://www.architecturaldigest.com/architects/100/mario_buatta/mario_buatta_profile#ixzz1Wh0Hp1M7

Sister Parish style http://www.architecturaldigest.com/architects/legends/archive/parish_article_012000

Mario Buatta’s maxims of interior design from Elle Decor http://www.elledecor.com/decorating/articles/mario-buatta-s-color-secrets

On Mario Buatta and Keith Irvine http://mannerofman.blogspot.com/2011/04/mm-interview-with-mario-buatta.html

‘Fanciful’ English country house style http://www.architecturaldigest.com/architects/100/mario_buatta/buatta_article_042003

Obituary for Keith Irvine July 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/8566766/Keith-Irvine.html

Mariah Carey and Mario Buatta http://www.interiormanagement.com/imgs/MariahCarey.pdf

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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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