Friday, October 2, 2009

An original

I began the week with Geoffrey Bennison and so I will end the week with this, the most subtile of decorators. It's hard to understand why some decorators fascinate more than others - sure, personal taste plays a big roll but there is more to it than that - I wouldn't necessarily want to live in one of Mr Bennison's rooms yet I find what of his work I have seen, a delight. How can it be that one whose aesthetic turns more towards the quiet and the relaxing takes such pleasure in such complexity as demonstrated in photos of Geoffrey Bennison's work? I'll open a bottle of Malbec later and therein I shall, no doubt, find an answer. Isn't it always so?

There will be more posts about him in the coming weeks but right now here are pictures of his seaside (Brighton) flat and quotations from a tribute by a life-long friend who clearly missed him very much.

The story of how Geoffrey Bennison began is well-known - first a painter who became an antiquaire by selling some of his own possessions when, after spending years in a Swiss sanatorium, he was told by his bank manager that he was financially bereft. It is his experience as a dealer, combined with sense of color, his ability to create mood and atmosphere, that informed his work as a decorator.

Let me quote Peter Grenville about his life-long friend:

" Geoffrey himself was an original. Funny and endearing, eccentric and affectionately bossy ... A Yorkshireman with a firm sense of reality, he was sophisticated, sensual and at times, sentimental. Although not interested in an form of intellectualism, he was extraordinarily bright. And just as sharp-tongued: only the intrepid challenged him to a match of wits. Incidentally, he was also master of his rather Hogarthian hobby of fancy dress. In this tricky game the Yorkshire lad was transformed into a jolly, seductive, understanding Madame - a personage who might well have run a successful pub with a diverse circle of customers hailing from anywhere between Eaton Square and Wapping."

Mr. Bennison's aesthetic was summed up in his own golden rule "something mad on top of something very good, or something very good on top of something mad." He preferred rich, dark, faded color, a sqawk of pattern subdued by wear and tear, the classical, the grand gesture, the serendipitous, the splendid, the rare, the oriental, the Baroque, and the still small voice of an objet de vertu. In less sure hands such a mix of scale, pattern and color can be cacophony - witness some of the decorators practicing today - yet it was in his hands that mix created the perfect ambience. It might be argued that he was giving the rooms he decorated a fancy dress but in reality they are underpinned with character, understanding and history - much the same as the man.

Mr Glenville again:

"Not that Geoffrey was personally greedy, except perhaps as a gourmand. He lived quite simply, surrounded by a clutter of interesting paintings and paraphernalia. Until the last year of his life, when he created a sumptuous flat of his own in Mayfair, his living-quarters consisted of an attic at the top of a six-floor walk-up London office building in the extremely unresidential precincts of Golden Square in London. He despised all financial extravagance, except in matters of purchasing and arranging things of beauty; for the right object, cost was immaterial, however great or small."

Quotations from WoI May, 1985.
Photos by James Mortimer from Living in Vogue by Judy Brittain and Patrick Kinmonth, .


  1. These certainly appeal to me. Thanks.

  2. Loved the history lesson. Bennison is new to me. I will not forget, "a sqawk of pattern subdued by wear and tear" wonderful!

  3. An interesting character. It's good to see the parallel between his personality and work. I like the substance under the fancy dress and above all,"something mad on top of something very good, or something very good on top of something mad." Thanks for the intro.