The Yellow Room at 39, Brook Street: Perfection in design from the woman with ‘the finest taste of anyone in the world’ and her talented artisan partner
Jack Watkins takes a look at the Yellow Room, the famed space in Mayfair that brought out the very best in Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler.
Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler were a fractious pairing, ‘the most unhappy unmarried couple in England,’ as Lancaster’s aunt Nancy Astor put it, but their imaginative dynamic brought spectacular results. Not the least of their creations was the Yellow Room, at 39, Brook Street, Mayfair, ‘a tour de force in decorating and one of the finest rooms created in the post-war period,’ according to their biographer Martin Wood.
They came from different ends of the spectrum. Lancaster, the daughter of a wealthy cotton broker, had been born in the leafy Old South state of Virginia and moved to England in 1927. Lacking formal training, she had a talent for redesigning the interiors of large English houses to suit the ends of comfort, as well as elegance, and acquired the oft-quoted reputation of having ‘the finest taste of anyone in the world’. The irony of one of the main originators of the academically doubtful, so-called English country-house style being an American has been much noted.
Fowler was a genuine artisan with a talent for creating stylish interiors, specialising in wallpaper (he painted chinoiserie wallpaper by hand), printing and upholstery. He began working for Sibyl Colefax’s interior-decorating business in Mayfair in 1938, the firm name changing to Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler a year later (as it remains).
Although she designed for the elite, Colefax’s views accorded with those of Fowler’s, that ‘a room must be essentially comfortable, not only to the body but to the eye… well behaved but free from too many rules… mannered yet casual and unselfconscious’. He would find another partner with a similar philosophy when Lancaster bought out her friend Colefax in 1948.
Lancaster shared his liking for ‘humble elegance’ and their re-use of the well-worn in the creation of interiors of easy dishevelment chimed with post-war austerity. However, the business’s financial footing wasn’t the strongest, so, in 1957, the ground floor of 39, Brook Street was sub-let. Lancaster, who had sold her London house, took out a lease on the upstairs rooms to create a new apartment.
This was no ordinary pied-à-terre. The property, which dated back to the 1720s, was once the home and office of Sir Jeffry Wyatville, of the Wyatt architectural dynasty, most noted for his rebuilding of Windsor Castle (39, Brook Street is Grade II* listed and bears an English Heritage blue plaque to Wyatville). What had been his drawing office, destined to become the fêted Yellow Room, measured 46ft by 16ft and had a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Now, it was to serve as a dining room, sitting room, office and library all in one.
The idea of painting the room a lively yellow was, apparently, Fowler’s. As many shades as possible were used, leading commentators over the years to describe it as egg-yolk, buttercup, buttah yellah, golden, pekin or plain glossy. Not content with leaving it at that, Fowler then applied layers of glaze so that the walls shimmered in the light. Unfortunately, the room was painted so many times to build up the colour that it proved impossible to re-create it accurately in a later restoration.‘If every piece is perfect, the room becomes a museum and lifeless,’ Lancaster once said, and the Yellow Room became the ultimate example of what she called ‘studied carefulness’, a stage set for clients to view the partnership’s work. Items of furniture were eclectically acquired from antique dealers, country-house auctions and warehouses, their dates ranging from the 18th to the 20th century. Venetian chandeliers hung either side of a larger one of Waterford glass. A trompe l’oeil effect simulated Siena marble on the skirting boards and cornice, which also had painted festoons. Fowler copied an 1840s design for the chintz chair coverings.
In his obituary of Lancaster, published in The Independent on her death aged 96 in 1994, Hugo Vickers described the room as holding two or 50 people in equal comfort and noted that it was always filled with flowers.
The room was restored in the 1990s, although the company showrooms have since relocated to Pimlico and the address is now home to a luxury boutique.