Monday, March 21, 2011

The decorator and the writer

Twenty-eight years ago I bought my first issue of The World of Interiors and was immediately captivated, especially by an article about Grange House, the redecoration of which was done by David Hicks for a London businessman and his family. Grange House seemed to me to be the most comfortable and stylish of English country houses - not too grand, nothing pompous and actually great fun.

Imagine, then, my surprise when - and I don't remember precisely how much later - I discovered that the name of the house and its owners were completely fictitious. I've never found the explanation for the subterfuge and it could be there is an official one somewhere, but I missed it.

The story is this, and I quote the writer of the article:

"David Hicks' most recent, and coincidentally one of his favourite, commissions was to redesign Grange House - a pretty, rather small farm-house in Oxfordshire - for a London businessman, Peter Westbury, his American wife, Louise, and their two children. He confesses that the reason he enjoyed the job so much was due mainly to the Westbury's sense of style and taste - a style so much attuned to his own that he became involved in redesigning their garden as well.....

"The Hicks' maxim - that he sees himself merely as an interpreter of his client's taste - never once presented a difference of opinion in the case of Grange House. He was dealing, too, with a family who had formerly lived in a much grander house and who had quite a collection of possessions; so they were able to chose the best of these, which give the house its distinct personal style."

By now you're probably saying "but, I thought that house was ..." and you'd be right. Grange House was, in fact, The Grove, and Peter and Louise Westbury were David and Pamela Hicks - their former "much grander house" being Britwell House.

The story as presented is quite cohesive, with lots of telling, or misleading, details - for example:

"Although Grange House is fairly old - early 18th century - with a double-height drawing-room added on in 1825, it clearly couldn't be too grand, except for the drawing-room, where David Hicks felt justified in adding a stately touch or two. But, because Peter and Louise were used to living in more generous surroundings, he felt that he had to give them a sense of scale to get away, as much as possible, from the existing cottagey atmosphere.....

"Granting that, in this instance, David Hicks had a great deal of possessions to chose from, he finds that on the whole (especially in the United States) his clients have none, or don't wish to use what they do have, preferring to start afresh. They want to be told what to collect and his advice often extends to buying antiques too. 'I think it is terribly nice, and flattering, and I suppose it's better than making mistakes ... but it does seem odd to me......'

"The pale-blue dining room, is a tribute to Hicks' skill, as the most dominating feature, and extremely attractive and decorative mural en grisaille with silver and pale-blue, executed for the Westburys' previous house, had to be included. The original beamed ceiling was obviously unsuitable for anything so sophisticated, and the room wasn't tall enough, so the floor had to be dug out to fit it in. The dining-table is, surprisingly, a plywood top on a circular drum base, covered in a Hicks-designed print. 'I can't see the point of spending a lot of money on a table and then covering it up with a table-cloth - and I happen to like table-cloths....'

"David Hicks and Peter Westbury designed Peter's dressing-room as an audacious combination of bedroom, bathroom, and library to take Peter's collection of books which go over, around and under the window. A 19th century chintz with a black ground and autumn colors was used for the bedspread and roman-blind, whilst the bath alcove is lined with Gothic engravings. ...

"As David Hicks was nearing the end of resdesigning Grange House, the garden began, increasingly, to take up more of everyone's thoughts. He hadn't been asked to help with garden-design in the past, although, having just written a book on the subject, it is obviously a consuming interest of his, and, in this case, he was able to design it from scratch. 'Of course you can see it is still a young, new garden which needs to a good ten years to mature.' "

As I say, a cohesive tale with lots of telling details, and they really must have enjoyed, the writer and the decorator, constructing this quite entertaining work of fiction! And, while on the subject of fiction, I can't help but notice that there isn't an abundance of tablescaping in these early photographs of Hicks' house, and I wonder if perhaps, on occasion, they too were fiction, those tablescapes - stories invented for the moment and the camera lens.

There is another way, of course, of looking at the dearth of objets on Hicks' tables. Until quite recently, rooms were not photographed in a state of freewheeling clutter, beset with the risible detritus of lives lived untidily in rooms created for the camera lens - the ficionalization of interiors, about which, months ago, I wrote a small essay. It was an essay in which I also expressed the belief that there is a tendency to write adoringly about aristocracy, royalty and celebrity as icons of style, their deplorable behavior and affiliations being ignored. But, that is a story, or non sequitur if you will, for another day.

"It is easy, in elegant diction
To call it an innocent fiction;
But it comes in the same category
As telling a regular story."

W.S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance

Photographs by James Mortimer to accompany text by Annabel von Hoffmannsthal for The World of Interiors, December/January 1983.

Quotations are from Annabel von Hoffmannsthal's text.


  1. There were many things that I have long admired about Grange House, a.k.a. The Grove. But there is a history of fictionalizing the text that goes with photos of interiors that continues today! So much is made up to flatter the owner, build up the decorator's c.v., or just create a more interesting story for the reader.

  2. How fascinating to see the interiors of The Grove, after recently finding and posting a video of the gardens, (under "Taking the long view").

    I think it's the nature of the beast that there is self-promotion required for interior designers, and the better you are at it, the more clients you very often have.

    Personally I find over exaggeratation and name dropping rather distateful, and it would more likely turn me off the sales pitch.

  3. I loved this post and the idea of fictionalizing.

  4. Columnist, thank you. There are better photographs or at least better versions of these in latest book about Hicks. I have always liked David Hicks' work and remember his London shop - from the windows. The clarity of his work and his superb color sense are what remains after all these years.

    I agree about over exaggeration and name dropping but they are the essence of self-marketiing - something that is never going to diminish.

  5. The Devoted Classicist, thank you.

    I agree with you when you write that much is made up to flatter the owner and build up the decorator's c.v., and about creating a more interesting story for the reader. There I part company with magazine editors - I am not looking for a story. Frankly, if I never again knew who actually inhabited the spaces I'd be perfectly happy, but I think I am not typical in that.

  6. "Frankly, if I never again knew who actually inhabited the spaces I'd be perfectly happy, but I think I am not typical in that."

    Brother of mine! Oh, and this Q & A interview business running rampant, no thank you.

  7. If ever there was a WTF? response to a magazine piece, this
    was it~ in spades. What was WOI thinking?

  8. Toby Worthinigton, thank you.

    As I write in the post, the article was completely coherent and plausible. As you say,a WTF moment.

  9. I always assumed that the Westbury alias was simply to put burgulars off the scent. The fact that the 'Westburys' had the pick of the Mountbatten booty from Britwell: Rex Whistler's panels, instantly gave the game away.

    Hicks would have thought that anybody who mattered or might have given him work, would see through the farago and understand the reason for the deception. There were probably lots of break-ins in country houses in Oxon. in the 80s, WoI shifted the Westburys to Wilts. Maybe they cooked up the story in the American Bar in the Westbury Hotel in Bond Street?

  10. Bruce Barone, thank you. You, I think, might know the demand for propping more intimately.

  11. Anonymous, thank you.

    When I first read the article about the Westburys I just took it at face value, but whatever the reason, it was a clever and still is an entertaining piece of writing. I'm sure, looking back, I knew nothing about Britwell or Brook House where the murals had first hung.

  12. Flo, thank you.

    "This Q & A interview business running rampant, no thank you." I fully agree - they're trite, vacuous and the lazy writer's way of writing an article.

  13. (The trouble with trying to go fast is that I press send and then forget to do the word verification. Now I just may be comment N° 13 !)
    I wanted to say I thought this an amusing subterfuge. One can hesitate about revealing all. What I had always heard of the decorating world here would have me concur with Anon. I’m astounded at the quantity of decoration magazines we have, and most of what you see in terms of interiors is belongs to decorators, fashion designers, furniture or fabric manufacturers. That’s a way promoting business and self.
    Incidentally, what I find silly these days is to see pictures with stray cups of this and glasses of that to show the lived in, cozy effect, but I guess it's harmless.

  14. It is all about having your own book now- just enough of the magazine spreads to promote the Book. Lifestyle is more appealing along with the well placed bibelot , or lv bag and louboutin shoes- Branding in all things. this article in comparison seems A Lark to what runs rampant today. I recently discussed some photographs with a designer - about using them on my blog (she is a friend) with the publication of them in future-I will wait-though she did not ask me to, along with the apparent "redo" of the mag stylists the room sadly -I might no recognize the rooms at all. I shall wait and see. I have to say though along with this I think an interview format is very good-there are few writers that have not used it, and we can admire a royal's style, a designer's work without condoning their bad behavior- the sin is glorifying one's own mediocrity, & publishing it. Oddly that is the "business" we work in whether it be the 60's or the present. pgt

  15. I have tried for days to remember who the English writer was who wrote extensively about his/her garden while living in a London basement apartment with no garden at all! At least this little subterfuge had some terra firma firmly attached even if it had to be excavated to support the illusion/delusion.

  16. home before dark, was it the, I think, US born, Lanning Roper?

  17. le style et la matiere, thank you and my apologies for the late reply. I take up your point about propping in Sunday's post - I don't disagree that it is harmless but do question whether or why its really necessary.

  18. little augury, thank you and my apologies for a late response. Judging by what I see in the bookstores vanity publishing is on the rise - masses of books written about or by decorators and the content seems completely interchangeable to me. I have a friend whose rooms appeared in a magazine and the simply were not the rooms as he had arranged them.

  19. home before dark, thank you. I have no idea who that might have been - I have never heard of it. I see that Anonymous wonders if it might have been Lanning Roper I cannot offer any explanation. My apologies.

  20. "I've never found the explanation for the subterfuge and it could be there is an official one somewhere, but I missed it." The reason for the subterfuge was to mask the fact Hick's had been forced to downsize as his business began to flounder. As to why his business began to flounder, we need only look at that ridiculous combination of bedroom, bath and library. Can any sane person justify keeping books under a sink, with the risk of it leaking? Hicks had remarkable talent but, too often, he gave-in to the pursuit of novelty. That was an approach that might have dazzled in the era when men and women alike wondered about in kaftans and the word "groovy" was used without irony, but it wasn't going to last. Still, the Grange was amazingly beautiful, apart from the "groovy" carpets.