The Yellow Room at 39 Brook Street: Perfection in Woman’s Design with “The Best Taste of Anyone in the World” and her talented artisan partner
Jack Watkins takes a look at the Yellow Room, the famous Mayfair space that brought out the best of Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler.
Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler were a discordant couple, “England’s most unhappy single couple,” as Lancaster’s aunt Nancy Astor put it, but their imaginative drive yielded dramatic results. Not the least of their designs was the Yellow Room, at 39, Brook Street, Mayfair, ‘a tour de force in decoration and one of the most beautiful pieces 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, was born in the leafy state of Old South Virginia and moved to England in 1927. Lacking formal training, she had a knack for redesigning the interiors of great English houses to adapt them for comfort. , as well as elegance, and has earned the oft-cited reputation for having “the best taste of anyone in the world.” The irony that one of the main initiators of the so-called academically dubious English country house style was an American has been widely noted.
Fowler was a true craftsman with a knack for creating elegant interiors, specializing in wallpaper (he painted chinoiserie wallpaper by hand), printing and upholstery. He started working for Sibyl Colefax’s interior design business in Mayfair in 1938, the company name changed to Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler a year later (as it still is).
Although she designed for the elite, Colefax’s views dovetailed with Fowler’s, that “a room should be essentially comfortable, not only for the body but for the eyes … He will find another partner with a similar philosophy when Lancaster bought out his friend Colefax in 1948.
Lancaster shared his taste for “humble elegance” and their re-use of the antiquated in creating interiors of simple tousle punctuated by post-war austerity. The company’s financial base was not the strongest, however, so in 1957 the ground floor at 39 Brook Street was sublet. Lancaster, who had sold his London home, took a lease on the upstairs bedrooms to create a new apartment.
It was not ordinary pied a terre. The property, which dates back to the 1720s, was once the home and office of Sir Jeffry Wyatville, of the Wyatt architectural dynasty, best known for his reconstruction of Windsor Castle (39, Brook Street is Grade II * listed and bears a English heritage blue plaque at Wyatville). What had been his drawing office, destined to become the famous Yellow Room, was 46 feet by 16 feet and had a barrel-vaulted ceiling. From now on, it was to serve as a dining room, living room, office and library at the same time.
The idea of painting the room bright yellow was, apparently, Fowler’s. As many shades as possible have been used, which has led reviewers over the years to describe it as egg yolk, buttercup, buttah yellah, golden, peking, or plain brilliant. Not content to stop there, Fowler then applied coats of glaze to make the walls sparkle in the light. Unfortunately, the piece has been painted so many times to enhance the color that it has proven impossible to accurately recreate it in a subsequent restoration.“If every room is perfect, the room becomes a museum and lifeless,” Lancaster said, and the yellow room became the ultimate example of what she called “studied caution,” a scene allowing patrons to see the work of the partnership. The furniture was eclectically acquired from antique dealers, bastide auctions and warehouses, their dates ranging from the 18th to the 20th century. Venetian chandeliers hung on either side of a taller Waterford glass. A optical illusion effect simulated Siena marble on the plinths and cornice, which also had painted swags. Fowler copied an 1840s design for chintz chair covers.
In his Lancaster obituary, published in The independent Upon his death at the age of 96 in 1994, Hugo Vickers described the room as containing two or 50 people in equal comfort and noted that it was always filled with flowers.
The hall was restored in the 1990s, although the company’s showrooms have since moved to Pimlico and the address is now home to a luxury boutique.
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