17 December 2009

Interior Inspirations III: Toby Worthington

The Hunting Room at Clandon Park, Surrey

Editor's Note: A blazing fire struck Clandon Park weeks ago, reducing the house to a shell.  While the National Trust is still assessing the damage, the good news is that a large amount of the collection was saved and that perhaps a restoration of the house, along the lines of Uppark, might be possible.  What is lost forever however is the John Fowler overlay of interpretation and decoration the house received in the late 50s and 60s.  In memoriam, we are reposting this 2009 ode to the house by Toby Worthington.

THE FOWLER TOUCH: In which guest blogger Toby Worthington shares his first impressions of Clandon Park, Surrey, and a Favorite Room

Travel does not entirely suit me. Preferring the comfort of my own bed and the meals that emerge from my own kitchen, I am content to sit in a comfortable armchair surrounded by piles of books on English houses. One of those books, indeed the best of the lot, was John Cornforth's The Inspiration of the Past; and on one occasion when I was poring over the author's evocative passages about the restoration of Clandon Park, my companion stirred me out of a trance with the simple question:"Why not see it for yourself?" That was twenty years ago and the journey was, I realize now, something of a pilgrimage that led to a close inspection of the finest example of John Fowler's work for the National Trust.

Built by the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni for the 2nd Earl of Onslow in the 1720s, Clandon Park is a house that has been described, variously, as gaunt, forbidding, and unwelcoming~no doubt because, by the late 1960s, most of its contents had been dispersed; what funds there were had been spent on essential structural repairs, so that as a result, there was little to show for this in the appearance of the interiors.

A fairy godmother appeared, not a moment too soon, in the form of a bequest, along with a substantial endowment, from Mrs David Gubbay (born Hannah Ezra, her mother was a Sassoon), and though her unrivaled collection of porcelain birds and satinwood furniture would seem at odds with the robust architecture of the house, those discrepancies of scale and weight would produce, in the skilled hands of John Fowler, one the most appealing rooms in all of Clandon Park, the Hunting Room. More of that anon; but first, a brisk tour of other parts of the house.




CEILING OF GREAT HALL, attributed to the plasterers Artari and Bugutti.

THE PALLADIO ROOM, in which the bold 1730 ceiling and the 1780 Revillon wallpaper were linked by color.

with Mr Fowler's coloring~an object lesson in how to paint architectural ornament

The overmantel, formerly whitewashed, was marbled to restore integrity to the chimney wall.

DOOR SURROUND IN THE SALOON Another lesson in architectural painting.


A room at the south east corner of the house, of a relative intimacy, the Hunting Room seems to
me a demonstration of John Fowler's well-mannered( but never boring) approach to assembling materials, furnishings, pattern and colour in a way that is endlessly satisfying. As mentioned earlier, Mrs Gubbay had a penchant for Chinese porcelain birds, and over the years bought a number of fine rococo brackets on which to display them in an authentic 18th century way.

The room takes its name from a set of understated tapestries that were installed against an equally understated background of Mr Fowler's much loved diamond cloth dyed in tobacco brown and outlined, surprisingly, in a braid of sharp green grosgrain.

Typical of John Fowler's approach, the woodwork is dragged in 3 shades of stony white and the skirting boards follow the universal Palladian system of being painted off-black.

with its elegant chandelier bag.

now in the Morning Room. Note pancake squab cushion.

Festooned chintz at the windows in the Hunting Room.

For reasons of appearance as well as economy, John Fowler introduced festoon curtains made of
printed cotton in the brown and white Seaweed pattern, edged in bittersweet chocolate brown chintz and decked out in maltese bows at the headings. It was at this stage that I began to understand the brilliant counterpoint of elements both humble and grand~indeed, that was the secret of Mr Fowler's magic touch~but my musings were interrupted by an opinionated woman who was stationed in the room as guide on that particular afternoon. She gave those charming curtains a withering glance.

"All wrong, those curtains. Very Laura Ashley." A remark which seemed to me at the time, to be putting the cart before the horse. But nothing could deflate me on that occasion. From that point on, a sense of calm came over me regarding my own work~all doubts put temporarily to rest in the presence of this, the "real thing" that was before me at nearly arm's length, to study, analyze, and savor. No more guessing, or being teased by photographs in books or magazines.

The details of a house have an altogether different impact when witnessed, like a meal actually tasted as opposed to the printed recipe. In this instance, what might have been a house of icy grandeur was transformed into something that met the highest aesthetic standards while putting the visitor completely at ease. As James Lees-Milne said at John Fowler's funeral, "No art scholar whose learning had been instilled into him by professors, but one of nature's enthusiasts whose immense knowledge had been picked up by the wayside, John was the least academic of men. Yet nothing was allowed to stand in the way of getting a thing right."

Top photo courtesy of National Trust; all other photos courtesy of Toby Worthington


Cote de Texas said...

fascinating article - just like the man himself.


little augury said...

why comment on perfection? ah ha! just to say it is all perfect- la

Blue said...

Excellent! A good series of posts.

home before dark said...

Makes me want to pull my chair up to yours and say, "Please tell me everything you know." I have planted the seed in different sites now here to you directly (both of us being rather private, I know not your e-mail): I think you, Magnaverde, An Aesthete's Lament and HOBAC should have a Table Of Your Choosing—all brilliant, knowledgeable, opinionated but never shrill or petty, male, counterpoint to the—Skirted Round Table. You wouldn't have to leave the comforts of home, but your voice and your ideas would be heard around the world. And, I must say, loved and adored. I'm sure your friend Joni one of great ones on SRT could help make this happen. Do Think About This!

magnaverde said...

It's wonderful to see the specific details of a room like this, which seldom show up when the primary goal is to make a lovely photograph. The subtleties of Fowler's paintork on the ceiling would likely bleach out if the exposure were set to for the dark walls, and I love the shot of the doorcase. Fowler's clever way of picking out the component layers of the block modillons' moldings puts me in the mind of a tray of napoleons on on the desserts table, and the results look equally delicious.

I hope, if the National Trust should ever get all pedantic on us & try to aim for more historically accurate interpretation in of their houses, that they'll leave some of Fowler's more imaginative touches alone. By now, his post-WWII work should be considered historic in its own right, and it would be aesthetic vandalism undo the giddy paintwork on that spectacular black-&-white overmantel in the name of 'correctness'.

Seeing great interiors is always a thrill, but it would be light years better if one could always see them with a guide as knowledgable as Mr. Worthington. Thanks for sharing your pictures and your insights, Toby. And thanks for giving him the chance, Emily.

Toby Worthington said...

Dear Home Before Dark, what you are proposing sounds to me like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party out of Alice's adventures, but I'm all for it, so long as the table isn't skirted and so long as you'll be present
as well~pouring out the tea along with your own invigorating observations.

Toby Worthington said...

Magnaverde, one of the things that kept cropping up in my research for this post was awareness of an insidious trend for questioning John Fowler's most carefully considered work. This sort of apostasy is not altogether new, since as early as 1972 James Lees Milne was questioning the validity of Mr Fowler's approach to the restoration of Clandon Park; but recently there have been serious doubts imposed upon JF's schemes, and it seems to be all the fashion among certain circles in the UK to dismiss his work as inauthentic. Indeed, a recent publication refers to JF's work as not innately English at all, but rather, "an American invention".
Doubtless this owes something to his connection with Mrs Lancaster ~not that such a link makes that judgment any more reasonable! But from the sound of things there is a movement afoot to obliterate many things which struck me as being unassailably right under JF's inspired direction, and as you say, one day that overmantel may find it self white-washed all over again.

magnaverde said...

Toby, it's the old, blurry line between truth & "the facts." Sometimes, they overlap, but often, they don't.

Twenty-five years ago, I spent six months flat on my back with a dislocated disk, unable to much of anything but nap & read. One day, my once-a-week cleaning woman was dusting my bedroom, and she paused as she picked up a paperback copy of "Bleak House" that was lying near my sickbed. She looked at the cover, which showed a painting of a woman in an somberly decorated 1880s interior, then looked around. "Looks like this place."
The room in the painting was much more elegant than mine, but I took her words as a compliment. "That's a really great book" I told her.
She turned the book over & looked at the blurb on the back. "Is it true? she asked.
"Actually, it's a novel."
"I see. So it didn't actually happen?"
"Well, no. It's a novel."
She made sort of a face. "So it's just made-up storying..."
"Well, yes, basically."
She put the book back down & wiped her hands on her apron, like they were soiled and looked at me like I was a spoiled child. "Then I wouldn't be interested. I don't read things that aren't true." If she could have sent me to bed for the day, she would have, but I was already there.

I'm reminded of Jesus' words to the persnickety Pharisees: "You have strained out the gnat & gulped down the camel."

magnaverde said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Janet said...

There is a warmth and depth to these rooms not often found in houses of this scale. Fowler's magic touch has become an integral part of the fabric of the place. Excellent choice, Mr. Worthington.

TJB said...

"There is a warmth and depth to these rooms not often found in houses of this scale." So true, and how fitting that Mr. Worthington should choose this for his guest post, as his own work embodies that same quality of imbuing elegant appointments with warmth and a very human touch.

Rose C'est La Vie said...

A stunning post by Toby Worthington, who wears his considerable learning lightly. I can't add anything knowledgeable myself but I know I'm sold on the tobacco brown walls with the sharp green grosgrain braid. Thank goodness someone is keeping JF's legacy secure. I shall visit Clandon Park as soon as possible now.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Emily for providing a forum for these guest bloggers. As one who considers Mr. Worthington a dear friend I am nonetheless held at rapt attention whenever he tells a story. I have a funny story myself of a day we made the pilgrimage together to Clandon Park only to find it an off day when they were closed. We had to be satisfied to wander the grounds and peer in windows while I longed to see in person those tobacco coloured walls with their acid green trims and the fabulous porcelain birds on brackets. It was not meant to be. There were other Fowler treats in store however and lasting impressions were made. In particular Fenton House in Hampstead which is a treasure trove of Fowler's mastery. Hope to see you again when you're in town! Roy

Emily Evans Eerdmans said...

Roy, how lucky were you to accompany the Tobster on the Fowler pilgrimage! (and how lucky am I that these superstar commenters showered my space with their insights)

I have never been to Fenton Park, and on the list it goes. Two summers ago, I visited the National Trust property Uppark and could immediately discern the Fowler touch in the gloriously pink painted walls and caned Louis XV chairs painted much like the one seen in this post - which is perhaps why his work on historic properties runs into trouble.... I am of two minds - an historic house should be a faithful document, BUT sometimes being faithful can make the end result dead and flat whereas Fowler's work always sings....


soodie :: said...

yes, EEE great idea that you have done this forum. and Mr. Worthington, truly, your knowledge and different perspective is most unusual -- rich and with great and enormous depth. please consider more of this...

An Aesthete's Lament said...

Somehow, to my regret, I missed this post. I am taken by the birds on brackets (impossibly charming and so pretty) but most especially by the mention of John Fowler's diamond cloth. For some reason I never heard of diamond cloth, which is an oversight of major proportions. I was especially delighted to read Mr Worthington's mention of the three-tone-white dragged woodwork. This is a powerful detail that so many people overlook. I once had an argument with someone over the beauty of using various tones of white instead of one uniform coat of a single shade of white. I didn't win that argument at all but I hope readers of this post will take the time to notice EXACTLY how those varied tones of white SCULPT the woodwork and make it stand out, subtly, in a way that a single plain coat of plain white just wouldn't. To some this careful painting may seem fussy, antiquated, and just plain excessive in terms of effort—but when you see the gentle relationships between Fowler's shades of white, it honestly makes one want to repaint one's whole house. The woodwork in my house is only done in White Dove, and I am seriously thinking about doing it over this winter, to make more of an effort.

The Peak of Chic said...

Excellent post Mr. Worthington! Of course I'm greatly appreciative of this history lesson, and oh those detail shots. Much of Mr. Fowler's work was so very subtle that it gets lost in overall room shots. Only in these photos do we see the way in which JF treated those glorious ceilings and woodwork. And diamond cloth was new to me as well. Was it mentioned in Martin Wood's book and I missed it?

Anonymous said...

Hi dear
I have constructed a new house recently, now i want to decorate it's interior design,in your blog here i saw a lot of Interlined Curtains , it make me that i will use these curtains in my home for interior design of home.....

Mrs. Blandings said...

I have saved this for the day that the house was quiet so I could read it - savor it, really. While there are many bloggers I enjoy, there are a few commenters who make me feel that they have left jewels for me each time they stop by; Toby is one. All the wonder of this home has been touched upon here and I will just say "thank you" again to Emily for allowing Toby to continue my education. I'm grateful to both of you.

Those birds! The ribbon!

Anonymous said...

I live in England and have visited Clandon Park twice. I can honestly say that John Fowler's work there is utter genius. All the colours, curtains and paint effects are beautiful to look at. It's only when you see these things in real life that you realise what imagination John Fowler put into his work. I hope the National Trust don't undo his fine work at Clandon; it would be a great loss if they did. His work makes it look like a house that's really lived in, which is the opposite effect of the approach that authenticists advocate. Furthermore, Clandon contains little of its original content, so it could never again appear as it was in the Eighteenth century.

Anonymous said...

Clandon Park has unfortunately burned down