22 September 2009

292 King's Road

The Hall of Argyll House
by Sir John Lavery

Few well known, nay Famous, Designers are actually skilled decorative painters. We could name a few, but for the moment let's concentrate on John Fowler. He was that-and more. Legendary decorator, John Fowler held a great fascination with Marie Antoinette, and He had what makes a decorator great- An EYE. He had THE EYE- as far as they go during this era. The names Syrie Maugham, Sybil Colefax-with important social connections may trip off the tongue-but John Fowler was the name the National Trust would turn to in the future for his rare knowledge & historical correctness. When savvy Lady Colfax took John Fowler as a partner in 1938- the finest estates in England opened their doors to him & their firm became synonymous with the much loved English Country decorating style. This was the day when the word DECORATOR was a fine distinction, less so now. Happily- I answer to that in the great traditions of the decorators of the past.

but prior to the COLEFAX & FOWLER dynasty, John Fowler was coming into his own. As Fowler's biographer, Martin Wood (in Nancy Lancaster) puts it-" He was not a rich amateur aesthete but a professional artisan." John Fowler had painted for other decorators for years and in 1934, He became a decorator and shop owner. 292 King's Road became known as a place ladies would stop in to see the room settings that Fowler and his creative teams did up. He had studied and grounded his ideas in historical references- his curtains took on the life of elaborate 18th century festooned, ruched, tucked &bowed silken costumes. He took apart old curtains and studied the construction. He learned to paint, really masterfully paint- the light brushwork of fine faux details- an Art- today-sadly reduced to clunky flat, soulless geegawish paint.

292 King's Road was the laboratory, the Place, where Fowler was perfecting all his talents. He distilled the essence of French design into delicate notes in its rooms, he added painted furniture, swathed toile de jouy & lightened up the floors with rush matting. Fowler changed out the shop window with his latest creations. In the traditions of all "1st" shops-it was dripping with ambiance. The wiring was shaky- but candlelit chandeliers filled the rooms with romantic shadows. The rooms were cold-but warmed with scented juniper.
These are the heady days for a decorator- surely some of the most exciting for Fowler- this Pride of Ownership.

and so-the ladies came. Namely his neighbors- Bringing gifts to the shop? Well, maybe they did- but, his neighbors just happened to be Syrie Maugham & Sybil Colefax-no less. Imagine! Great rivals, these two grandees, must have shared in witnessing the phenomenon of a PRINCE come into the world right across the road. According to Fowler devotees, the two got into the habit of "nipping" over to 292 to have a look about. I can only guess how exciting and excruciating it must have been.

Sir John Lavery's painting perhaps, captures a tete a tete about their neighbor-the future PRINCE of DECORATORS- on the staircase of Colefax's Chelsea home, Argyll House.


English Decoration in the 18th Century by John Fowler
Nancy Lancaster, English Country House Style by Martin Wood
The Prince of Decorators by Martin Wood
various articles from the many tear outs I have collected

GO See JOHN FOWLER HERE "thinking of pinking" about the Prince and the Baroness.




  1. LA-

    THE PAINTING! Beyond fabulous.
    Gloriously atmospheric. I am there.
    Oh, to be in London.
    Cheers, www.thestylesaloniste.com

  2. DDS- It completely captured my imagination too. It is a full page in the Nancy Lancaster book, and just a postage stamp in the C&F book-But what a story it tells. I am revisiting them all thinking pinking(did you read that post-an early on of mine with the poem to John Fowler by SX Rosenstock-a fav or mine. GT

  3. Thank you so much for the comment on my blog the other day and I am so glad to have discovered yours!


  4. This is beyond my imagination. It's hard to admit that such extraordinary places exist when you live in an ordinary, modern house with so little personality whatever we do.

    Thanks for this.

    Roger G.

  5. Syrie Maugham & Sybil Colefax and The Prince...sounds like a play that needs to be written. What a delight that would be to be able to be witness to genius being born. Who is that youngling today?

  6. I am hearing your decorator comments, it is true the best and brightest were known as decorators and it was important. Being able to do that consists of decisions about art, towels, candy in dishes,books. It may seem somewhat trivial but it is a great honor for an opinion to carry such weight. I admire you for wearing the title with pride. Well done on this post.

  7. Yes to all the above. Lavery's paintings of interiors are among the best for capturing the low-key glamour of the upper classes during the period between the wars, and it's the only record that seems to exist--and certainly, the only one in color--for some of them.

    As for the decorator/designer issue, I quit my first career to go back to school to get a degree in interior design, but I still call myself a decorator, and even then, I only do it when I want to, and for whom I want. It's so much easier when one doesn't have to make a living doing it.

    As for the safety codes & wiring diagrams & other technical stuff that one has to study in design school these days, I just remember the immortal words of the great architect David Adler when he was asked a too-technical question: "We have people in our office who take care of that sort of thing..."

  8. Roger, I am enjoying getting your posts much. I can just imagine your windows to the world are often as extraordinary as this interior. I am following along with you, hoping and sure to learn many things. Thank you for coming by. GT

  9. Home-wouldn't that be great with a sort of Noel Coward dialog! John Fowler was the consummate. Reading some in these books made me realize it is time to do a return to C&F. This may be a Fall project-if only some of the summer ones were not left undone. Hum? GT

  10. Anon-many thanks and decorator is still the best. As Magnaverde's quote below attests to. GT

  11. Magnaverde, your comments always enlighten-this is the reason I do these randomish almost daily postings. Waiting to learn more.The quote by David Adler deserves a POST of its own as you will see. Gaye

  12. Oh, the light in that spacei s enchanting and ephemeral - hopeful, even, maybe? Glorious.

  13. Wandering about the neighborhood after having dinner in Chelsea one evening, I happened upon Argyll House~a relic of another age still standing amidst the trendy shops in the Kings Road. Dignified,
    brooding and stately~and as you know, its architect was William Kent. Now it's off to my archives to see if I snapped a photo of it.

  14. TW-I would love to see the photograph if there is one- I should go back into it a bit and follow up with another post in detail about the actual house. GT

  15. What a beautiful painting and I am enamoured by the history. xv

  16. What a fascinating approach to John Fowler. Going through that painting and the possibility of the gossip it might hold is brilliant and intriguing. Tour de force LA. One of your best.AW

  17. And what an eye he had AND sense of color. I don't one can underestimate the power of color and light in a design scheme.

    Not to throw a sour grape into the fray, but John Fowler did take many liberties with so-called Historical Correctness with various National Trust properties. Perhaps he couldn't resist adjusting what was originally there when he knew he could make it look better....
    he was truly an artist - and you know how artists don't like to compromise! For more, John Fowler: The Invention of the Country House Style by Helen Hughes - a bit technical, but provides a well-rounded view of his work with historic properties....

  18. Vickie & Anon.
    The painting struck me too. Then the little story came to mind-it keeps things interesting. GT

  19. EEE, Hello & glad to see you. I have missed your posts the last few days. JF was an artist and I am sure a highly strung one(at least that is how it appears to me,just from his physical appearance)I believe you about his stretching the truth with the NT. It is funny-I am just thinking it much like all history,as time goes by- things look different from what was real. I think it must have been too too tempting to the Prince not to take liberties & more. Bring the grapes here! We'll make wine. Gaye



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