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Just before the holidays we had the good fortune to spend some time with our friend Mary Gilliatt, a talented English decorator and the author of more than 40 books on decorating and design. She told us a charming story about her second book called English Style in Interior Decoration, which was first published in the U.S. by Viking. She was walking along Park Avenue on the Upper East Side recently and saw her English Style book displayed on a table in an antiques shop. Knowing the book had been out of print for several years she went inside to ask the owners where they found it. The man she spoke to responded, “Oh, are you familiar with this book?” She replied, “Yes, I am, I wrote it.” With a look of shock he exclaimed, “You’re still alive?!”
Well, yes, Mary is still alive and she’s still writing books—in fact her most recent book, Mary Gilliatt’s Fabulous Food and Friends (Remember When an Imprint of Pen & Sword, Ltd.), includes wonderful tales of parties she threw, recipes of the food she served, and a peek into the lives of the fascinating people she entertained, like Princess Margaret, Spike Milligan, Marlene Dietrich and Peter Sellers, in the 1960s. We met Mary in the South of France, where her lovely old home merges British and French country style. We asked her to share a few of her thoughts on the elements of English style. Here is what she wrote:
So—English Style. I would say that its main ingredient is what the art critic, John Russell, used to call “benign neglect.” In other words, nothing too perfect. This, I am afraid, originated in the ridiculously snobbish notion of considering it rather “parvenue” to have new, as opposed to inherited, things. Although, English Style nowadays has come to mean a room that generally looks comfortable, colorful and welcoming.
Actually, the real, original English Style was actually rather shabby, chintzy and distinctly uncomfortable, since comfort, too, was considered rather middle class. And basically—again horribly snobbishly—anyone who then cared about such things, only thought in terms of rather grand houses. Chintzes were a part of it because they were imported into England from India in the 18th century and so became extremely fashionable.
I think it was really the decorators Sybil Colefax (American) and John Fowler (English) of Colefax & Fowler, who reigned more or less supreme in the first two-thirds of the 20th century and who really evolved English Style into what people now think of as the classic English Style. They made sure all upholstered furniture was deeply comfortable and piled with needlework and chintz pillows. They used good, clear but not overly bright colors (apricots, rose, clear blues, creams and whites and some grass greens), and eschewed all the stuffy browns and crimsons of the Victorian age.
As I mentioned, they also used a lot of chintz for rather grand curtains and loose covers as well as pillows, mixed with many oriental rugs, often piled on each other, though they tended to use needlework rugs in bedrooms and in some grander drawing rooms rugs in the style of Aubusson, if not Aubussons themselves. They liked mixing different periods of furniture together on the premise that no one before had used all new things. They also liked using and mixing together a lot of different art and art forms for that matter. And they used a great deal of greenery and flowers.
Actually, my book, which came out in 1967, was meant to reflect not just what people by then thought of as the classic English Style but what it was becoming, with much more modern and sometimes quite way-out and zany furniture. Darker colors again but in a new form, that is to say often lacquered reds, dark greens, navy blues, eggplant and Coca-Cola browns, along with brown wrapping paper wallpapers.
Or else very white on white or all shades of cream and sometimes brilliant reds and yellows following the ‘60s Memphis Movement in Italy. And shades were replacing grand curtains and bare floors were preferred over carpets. If you look at it now, it actually really does not look dated. Or not much.— Mary Gilliatt
True enough, Mary. What was happening then sounds a whole lot like what we’re seeing now—it’s hard to beat fabulous English style from any era.