Magazine article The Spectator

The Full-Blown Country-House Look

Magazine article The Spectator

The Full-Blown Country-House Look

Article excerpt

JOHN FOWLER : PRINCE OF DECORATORS by Martin Wood Frances Lincoln, £35, pp. 208, ISBN 9780711227118 £28 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

It is not given to many for their surname to be turned into an adjective immediately recognisable by a section of society. 'Fowlerised' meant a house transformed by John Fowler to his (and the owners') taste.

In spite of having known John for many years, I had little idea of the extent of his work and influence until I read this book.

Dedicated to looking and learning, he dealt with all dates and styles of buildings through scholarship and his prodigious memory.

He was born in 1906, a one-off in his family with artistic talents that took him to painting furniture for Peter Jones in 1934, earning £4 a week. He was refused a rise in wages so he and his colleagues downed brushes and set up on their own.

They struggled on till 1938 when John joined Lady Colefax. Twice his age and a fashionable decorator with a shop in Mayfair, Sybil Colefax knew the women who wanted to do something more than Syrie Maugham's everlasting white and mushroom, which had ruled during the early Thirties. Fashion had moved on in its inexorable way and John seized the opportunity.

Through his personality and knowledge he soon became the clients' favourite. He was exempted from war service because of myopia. While fabrics were rationed he used his ingenuity to cover sofas with old curtains, and his clients' unwanted evening dresses were cut up to make trimmings or cushion covers.

When Nancy Tree (later Lancaster) bought into the business now called Colefax & Fowler in 1944, she and John became an irresistible force. They bickered and sparred, they flounced out and flounced back, they laughed and got angry, and through this exhausting process produced some of the most beautiful interiors in the land.

They fed off each other to the benefit of their clients. The business prospered through word of mouth, friends and relations; the highest echelon of society aspired to this resourceful duo. Nancy (the subject of a brilliant biography by Martin Wood) had the ideas and taught John how the famous houses were to be lived in and enjoyed through comfort and beauty. John, the dictator of the workroom, got on and performed the task, supported by his skilled craftsmen. He taught them as Nancy had taught him.

Before John came on the scene the Trees had bought a James Gibbs house, Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, and made it an earthly paradise. …

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