An Irish George II carved mahogany console table

England expects

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 48

Traditional British interiors have a bright future in the hands of stylish designers who marry the old with the new, says Lisa Freedman

When Britannia ruled the waves – and considerably after – the English were confident about their own taste, a taste admired the world over. Its distinguishing elements included fine wooden furniture with a gleaming patina of beeswax, elegantly lined silver, delicate floral prints. Then along came IKEA and – with one dismissive lift of its Swedish eyebrow – commanded us to "chuck out the chintz". Bizarrely, we obeyed.

'Global modern' is now all the rage, particularly in London, but English taste is certainly not dead. After an uncomfortable wobble, it's been reborn with a renewed sense of identity and an ever-stronger appreciation of its core values. "English taste endures precisely because of its ability to absorb new influences and make them its own," says architect and interior designer Ben Pentreath.

Pentreath acknowledges the inexorable rise of 'hotel-room' style, but believes the thirst for English originality, individuality, and authenticity has never been stronger. "All the best points of English taste – an understanding of tradition, a timelessness, an underlying sense of humor – are powerful enough to survive long after the world of bland and bling is a distant memory."

Colefax and Fowler is a design firm whose wallpapers and fabrics have long been associated with the words 'quintessentially English'. Founded in Mayfair in the 1930s by Lady Sybil Colefax (later joined by John Fowler), the firm has, from its inception, been synonymous with understated elegance and fresh-as-spring pattern. In the years after the Second World War, it was the defining hand that helped mold myriad imposing country houses and smart metropolitan addresses. Today the firm has a widespread international presence, but seemly constraint remains central to its ethos.

"The look now is much more pared down and purer than it was," says long-serving Managing Director Wendy Nicholls, "and quite different, too, with modern pattern and bolder colors. But antique furniture of the right date is still hugely useful. In a man's dressing room, for example, an 18th or 19th century chest of drawers can look stupendous."

She feels, mahogany, too, undoubtedly continues to have its place – in well-balanced moderation. "You wouldn't have an entire dining room or drawing room filled with it. You'd split it up with a lacquered or painted piece, and bring it down a peg, by using a simpler fabric – covering a chair with linen rather than damask, for example." She remains a champion of the poor maligned chintz. "Chintz got a bad name because of the way people used it – it was a question of overkill – but a beautiful chintz is perfect for cottages and country houses."

Hatta Byng, editor of Condé Nast's House & Garden magazine, is personally responsible for defining English taste for contemporary readers. For her, a key part of the term remains a clear sense of the past. "You want to feel that a room has been put together over time, rather than mashed together in an hour. I'd like to think, too, there's been something of a comeback for antique furniture, that the furniture I've inherited from my grandmother, for example, can fit easily into my house alongside more contemporary pieces, creating a relaxed look."

In her work, she's witnessed a healthy growth of younger designers (like Pentreath and Rita Konig) adding their strength to the grand established names of English decorating – Robert Kime, Nicky Haslam, David Mlinaric, Hugh Henry – who, over the past decades, have continued to make classic English taste just that. "A designer like Hugh Henry has an amazing eye for color and a pared-down style, which moves the look forward without you even knowing it," she comments.

Julia Pruskin who has long specialized in 20th century decorative antiques, believes that in the capital especially, the cosmopolitan influence has nudged English taste in a new direction.

"It's a bit like the gray squirrel edging out the red. There's now a more widespread resistance to the battered and casual. You can have one worn thing beautifully presented on a plain wall or one tattered cushion, but the overall look has to be manicured to be taken seriously." That said, like Byng, she believes a truly English interior cannot be all brand new. "It should look like it's lasted a while, not been ordered by the yard."

English style has always been as much, if not more, about the country as it has been about town. Historically, the moneyed – old and new – considered a grand rural residence as central to their identity and status. In one sense, the taste of these home owners continues to be one of England's greatest exports, promoted around the world in a plethora of films and television series, from Pride and Prejudice to Downton Abbey.

"All the movers and shakers were landowners," says Chelsea Gold Medal-winning garden designer Isabel Bannerman, who with her husband Julian, has continued to help define the country-house aesthetic. (The Bannermans have worked with the Prince of Wales at Highgrove and designed the British Memorial Garden to 9/11 in New York.)
"In terms of gardening, what many people view as English taste is Sissinghurst Castle and Vita Sackville-West, who introduced a style that was Bohemian and relaxed," Bannerman continues. "Like her, we try to make gardens to live in rather than great showpieces. English taste, too, has always been eclectic – it's much more interesting to mix styles and periods than become fixated on one. We use anything that catches our eye that is funny and interesting."

As with her urban counterparts, Isabel Bannerman has witnessed the wildfire spread of international modern even in the most rural reaches, but she feels its impact has been largely benign. "Many traditional crafts, such as stonemasonry and thatching, were in danger of dying, but now that everyone is doing up their houses to a high standard, these skills have been rescued. In many ways, things have got better."

As the old saying goes, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Clearly, no more so than in the case of English taste.

Lisa Freedman writes for the Financial Times and other publications.

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