Colourful, comfortable, joyfully eclectic — and dog-friendly — the English country house (ECH) is a decorating trope of which the British homeowner never tires. Not so much a style statement as a badge of design rebellion, stately pile style has always refused to retire quietly to the shires, even at the height of minimalism. Its elements — table lamps and antique timber, printed and embroidered fabrics and richly patterned rugs — work equally well in an ancestral seat or an urban flat. And key ingredients can be had on a budget, from stores such as Dunelm Mill, Oka and Laura Ashley.
ECH as we know it was invented in the 1950s. The society interiors firm Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler embarked on a campaign to pretty up war-weary homes of the landowning classes and hit upon a colourful, cosy style that Fowler described as “humble elegance”. Roger Jones, director of the present-day company, explains: “[The clients] were people who could afford to do things incredibly grandly, but there was an element of it all being slightly low-key.”
A huge social shift was in progress. The statelies had formerly relied upon cheap labour to function but, after 1945, fewer folk aspired to go into domestic service. In the immediate postwar years, the future looked bleak for the big houses; many were demolished. But by the mid-1950s, Jones says of the survivors: “They were waking up to the fact they could continue to live in country houses in a very stylish way, even though they didn’t have as many people looking after them.” The new look was born to suit the new world order. “I think it appeared quite different — Nancy Lancaster [the socialite who bought the decorating firm in the 1940s] brought in American ideas of comfort; it was more colourful, and a little bit more theatrical than the good taste of the upper classes in the 1930s.”
Sixty years on, ECH, with its loud patterns and curious obsession with animal ornaments, remains not quite in good taste. All the more reason to love it, in my book. It has a built-in eccentricity and an elusive individuality that defeats all but the most adept professional decorator. Ben Pentreath, an architectural and interior designer and authority on country-house style, describes the look as: “Anti-fashionable. If you’re trying to be in fashion, you’re going to go out of style very quickly. The country-house look is about timelessness.” He adds that ECH has never been more in demand among his clients — he is working on projects in Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Somerset.
It is a look that magnificently disregards late-20th-century design: furniture is freestanding, ideally antique and faintly gawky, timber is dark, ornaments elaborate; monochrome is verboten, modernism unheard of. However, Liz Cann, design director at Zoffany, says a gentle innovation can be seen in the fabrics. “It’s not the Morris look or the twee florals any more. There are embroideries, but they are clean and contemporary, and large-scale Indian prints and ikat designs.”
The subtext of ECH was once class. Perhaps that’s why we Brits are hooked. The look it aimed for, when Nancy Lancaster’s crew gussied up the homes of old families and social incomers after the war, was “stylish old money untroubled by pesky modern trends”. Of course, by the 21st century, this genetic code has been sampled, remixed and subverted many times. Nowadays, even if you are of the social order that buys its own furniture, it’s a style that can still fit you like grandma’s tiara. As Pentreath says: “If you buy everything from scratch, it’s hard to make it look as if everything’s been there for ever. It is possible, though. We do it all the time.”