Thursday, 19 April 2012

Gun dogs & roses

English country style depends on comfort and ease rather than domestic luxury. It’s what the Americans call Rough Luxe, says Hugh St Clair, and here’s how you get the look

Written by Hugh St Clair

What is English style? The grand country house, Georgian furniture, chintz and Labradors? Or pretty cottages and frilly fabric? Or coir matting and oak country furniture? Nowadays, most of us would think of English style as bohemian or Bloomsbury-esque; mismatched furniture and pictures from different periods and various parts of the world, all set against a pink wall or a mural.

 Ros Byam Shaw has a good idea of what constitutes English style. She was features editor on World Of Interiors magazine and has visited a huge variety of homes up and down the country. Her books, Perfect English, Perfect English Cottage, and Perfect English Farmhouse are acknowledged bibles for anyone interested in our native style.

168BPerfect English – illustrating and explaining English Eccentric, Classic English and English Rose styles – has just been reprinted and updated and in it she shows that these iconic styles can be used within every style of architecture, whether it is a bohemian Victorian rectory or a tiny flat made to look like a miniature country house. ‘You don’t have to furnish a Georgian house exclusively with Georgian furniture,’ Ros explains. ‘What makes a room interesting is the people who inhabit it. It’s got nothing to do with money or period pieces. I have often found interesting interiors that have been put together with very little cash.’

But is there a common thread that defines English taste and style? ‘It’s comfort and ease rather than domestic luxury such as efficient plumbing and heating,’ Ros maintains. ‘I am afraid our lack of showers and sometimes erratic hot water supplies haven’t always impressed the Americans. Although that has improved now,’ she adds. ‘You can relax in an English house without feeling you will ruin the look of the place by sitting on a perfectly plumped-up cushion.’ Ros also cites English inventiveness: make do and mend, recycling and the knack of turning fabric into something glamorous. After years of minimalism and modernism, the rest of the world is starting to embrace this aesthetic. Americans call it Rough Luxe, and its rules are: when remodelling, preserve the patina and history of the place, instead of stripping it out or covering it up.


Indeed, what has come to be defined as English country house taste in the 20th century was originally inspired by a collaboration between an American woman, Nancy Lancaster, and an Englishman, John Fowler. Lancaster imported American ‘mod cons’ such as running water upstairs, where previously there had only been hip baths. She made sure that nothing was overlooked; for instance, the bedrooms had bedside tables and lights for night-time reading. Fowler understood English architecture and period detail, which gave the old aristocracy confidence when hiring him as he still continued working for Lancaster’s company, Colefax and Fowler, which he had previously co-owned.

In the Colefax and Fowler offices today, there is still a room that illustrates their collaboration. The paintwork is a strong yellow. ‘Using bold colours is a dramatic way of transforming a room,’ writes Ros Byam Shaw in a section of her book she calls English Eccentric. Among the design elements she itemises: ‘Painted floors can hide less-thanperfect floorboards and are cheaper than carpeting.’ Confident, creative and often not very rich people are not afraid to clash pattern; they also make curtains out of old linen sheets and mohair blankets stitched together with grosgrain ribbon, as shown in author Raffaella Barker’s home.


But it’s not only clashing patterns and bright colours. ‘When the English adopt a style, whether it is rococo or Palladianism, the result tends to be an understated version of the original,’ says Ros. The garden designer George Carter’s house in Norfolk typifies the modest ‘neo- Georgian’ type of classicism visible in English towns and villages to this day. ‘The English don’t like pomposity or showiness,’ says Carter. ‘We like things a little worn around the edges.’ He could have added, faded and restrained, too.

Carter’s palette in his Norfolk house is grey, blue, white and cream – colours that extend from paintwork and furnishings to objects themselves. Even the pictures on the walls are predominantly black and white engravings. Any other colour is provided by the upholstery and rugs – and even they are faded and bleached with time and use.


Proportion, balance and symmetry are key for the more traditional taste. Tables and lamps are often in pairs. But this kind of arrangement can sometimes seem rather masculine – in Perfect English, Ros has incorporated what is called English Rose to create the feel of a summer garden in a bedroom, with big patterned roses on wallpaper and rosebuds on fabrics. For instance, the kitchen belonging to fabric designer Annabel Grey has a Welsh dresser with an abundance of antique Coalport plates and teapots, and lustreware teacups belonging to her grandmother – all mixed in with her chainstore pink and yellow plastic salad bowls.

The English are not hung up on family antecedents – they buy old furniture because it’s more about their individual taste. Antiques are beautiful and should be sold or given to those who will cherish them.

Perfect English by Ros Byam Shaw with photographs by Chris Tubbs is published by Ryland Peters & Small, £30

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