11 March 2013

Mrs. Higgins at home


photograph of Beaton and Hepburn-amidst Mrs. Higgins furniture
photo by Bob Willoubhby

It's always most intriguing to watch a movie for the sets only. At times I've been so distracted by an interior I couldn't follow the plot-sets and decoration can at times- be infinitely more compelling. For as many times as I've watched some of my favorites-Rebecca-Manderley, Gone with the Wind-Tara,I never tire of looking beyond the action to where the action is... The first time I saw My Fair Lady (likely a 10 year old) I was most intrigued by Mrs. Higgins house where Eliza retreats after she triumphs at the ball and back at home Professor Higgins humiliates her. Luckily Eliza gets some good advice from Mrs, Higgins-about that "mean old Henry Higgins" and hopefully some decorating advice- because for all the books in the Professor's library it needs a feminine touch. No doubt, Eliza was sure to have been taking notes at Mrs. Higgins charming abode.

Audrey Hepburn in the role of Eliza Dolittle and Dame Gladys Cooper as Mrs Higgins,
photographed by Cecil Beaton (from the book Fair Lady)

The professor's mother's rooms were decorated a la Arts & Crafts-by way of Cecil Beaton doing Voysey, Mackintosh-and a bit of Kate Greenaway. Beaton's year in Hollywood at Warner Brothers in charge of costumes and settings for My Fair Lady is chronicled in his book Fair Lady. Beaton was insistent about the Voysey influence in his first meetings in London with George Cukor-My Fair Lady's director. C.F.A. Voysey was an English furniture-textile designer and architect. Voysey takes center stage at Mrs.Higgins but William Morris-a great influence on Voysey- and Charles Rennie Mackintosh play their parts as decorators too-envisioned by Beaton.

Voysey's belief that "simplicity in decoration is one of the essential qualities without which no true richness is possible"- couldn't possibly have been shared by Beaton- his results are very much Hollywood goes Arts and Crafts, but delightfully so.

The charm is evident at Mrs Higgins-all bathed in Voysey blue- the interior is calm and serene, and set off all the more by Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins seething on the settle. The year would have been 1914 Edwardian England and the three aforementioned men were great influences in decoration's turn away from the topsy turvy of Victoriana.

Shades and Patterns -Voysey, Mackintosh & Morris

collage by PGT

Voysey preferred natural wood-and that's where Mrs.Higgins makes a departure-installing Mackintosh pieces painted in white and set amongst comfortable English chairs in chintz mixed with white wicker (perhaps the remains of the good pieces from her Victoriana.)

Beaton's pleasure with the results of Mrs. Higgins house is noted in his book Fair Lady: "Mrs. Higgins house looks like a Kate Greenaway-Walter Crane version of art nouveau. I was so elated with the day-nursery effects that I insisted upon registering them on colour film immediately."
The Voysey space was "Beaton eclectic"-white wicker repeats itself in Mrs. Higgins solarium. Beaton uses the terms Arts & Crafts, and Art Nouveau interchangeably. Arts and Crafts originated in Britain with the work of William Morris, his paintings-designs-textiles and papers full of the sinuous organic lines in nature.


 Kate Greeneway at left, and Walter Crane at right

From the diary: Gene appeared with the model for Mrs. Higgins' house. This is the last set to be made. Thank God it looks excellent, full of ingenious nooks and cannies and very 'Voysey' and English arts and crafts'. It should be amusing, and a real change.

Authentic papers from Coles in London were flown in for Beaton to peruse and for Warners studio to reproduce. Though Beaton sought historical accuracy-one of the many reasons he had been hired-his sense of theatrical atmospherics were greater & the results lived up to that philosophy. Executing it all were the real work horses of the film George Hopkins, Set Decorator and Gene Allen the Art Director. These two took on Beaton's vision and realized it.

A year in Hollywood had seen Beaton's buoyancy for the film wane-his relationship with director Cukor deteriorate, supposedly due to Beaton's incessant picture taking-while Beaton exclaimed in Fair Lady-it was part of what he was hired to do! His contract over and his health shot, he packed up and returned to London-& so the book ends. The My Fair Lady story doesn't end there-his work was rewarded in 1964 with Academy Awards for the movie's Art Direction, along with Hopkins and Allen, and for Costume Design in Color. The movie swept the Oscars-though Audrey Hepburn's Eliza was not recognized with a nomination for Best Actress. Looking back on the film today-that's hard to imagine. Her voice doesn't grace the Lerner and Lowe songs but her face-ah-"I've grown accustomed to her look; Accustomed to her voice;
Accustomed to her face." & that face speaks volumes.

LINKS to more details on this story, and to images. Images also linked in captions.

 Hunterian Mackintosh Collection
 C.F.A Voysey''s Architecture
 V & A Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Kelmscott Manor
Morris & Co.
more about Morris, Mackintosh and Voysey at fellow blogger Soodie Beasley, here
the book Fair Lady at abebooks



  1. Hepburn's singing voice in My Fair Lady was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who I am most honored to call friend. She still sings beautifully, I should note.

  2. I can imagine Beaton snickered loudly at Cukor's poolside parties...notorious for MEN only save a Hepburn or Garbo! One could hope Cukor still kept his cool while Billy Haines laughed loudly at Cecil's pretensions.

    Always loved those swinging gates in Mrs. Higgins Conservatory!

    1. He does mention the pool but not the parties-they got along swimmingly for awhile-but it didn't last. It's a great read-and goes quickly. He was completely disenchanted with H'wood when her finished his stint there. pgt

  3. Mrs Higgins' room is a version of one he did for himself.

    1. was it done before or after the book was written-I wonder why he doesn't mention it-I'd love to find out more about it! thanks-pgt

  4. Oh, that is just what I was looking for - have been replaying that movie the last two months, for interiors and words.
    When Rex H. picked up he Oscar he graciously thanked his two fair ladies - Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews.
    Wodehouse, Hemingway, Fitzgerald - they all disliked Hollywood.

  5. You have me wanting to watch the movie again and read Beaton's book as soon as possible. Excellent Gaye!

  6. I came across your excellent post while doing research for an upcoming auction of items from the set of Mrs. Higgins' home. It's interesting to see what some of the items look like now since they were later altered for other productions.





Related Posts with Thumbnails