A New Minimalism Expressed in English Country House Taste

A beautiful Sussex Dining Room in the English Country House Taste

I have to own that I much prefer a rich layered interior in the English Country House Taste to the austerity of modern minimalism. There is such a joy in an eclectic mixture of objects which speak of our place in the procession of history and of our own stories – objects which reflect the patchwork quilt of our lives.
The Sussex Dining Room you see here gives voice to that English Country House Taste. The first spring sunlight reflects on the Dutch display cabinet’s glass panels as it gives life to the silver-plated, flower filled wine-cooler of Campana Urn form and the pair of candelabrum with their glass spear drops.

A Chinese blue and white bowl and a polychrome enamel dish decorated with scattered flowers rest on top of the Dutch walnut display cabinet. Both date from the mid-17th/early 18th century Kangxi period when the Dutch and the British East India Company competed for trade in the Far East. As a curator at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam once remarked to me with a wry grin “The Dutch and the English – keeping it sharp”. The Chinese pieces are flanked by two earthenware Dutch Delft tin glazed blue and white vases.

There is a delight to a display cabinet. Curated objects jostle for attention and compliment one another. The alcove cabinet with its crisp painted white gloss and Regency blue interior frames the eclectic mixture of porcelain: figures in the 18th century taste, a Royal Crown Derby vase, a Dresden bottle vase decorated with summer flowers and a Chinese Qianlong period famille rose teapot with a silver handle.

There is nothing new in these scenes except the artistic composition of furniture and objects arranged like pieces in a painting.

Here is minimalism at its height. Not the austerity of throwaway contemporary minimalism driven by fashion, but a minimalist approach to how we walk in the world.

Everything you see in this room is personal and beautiful. The quality of manufacture and design honours the finite and precious materials from which these things were made. They have already delighted many generations and they will continue to delight and serve generations to come too.

These pieces and the interiors they create are not bland or homogenous but unique, allowing us to give expression to who we are. The comfortable, inclusive and timeless taste of the English country house is once again on the rise.

Perhaps, rather than being herded into uniformity, we might embrace a new minimalism which English Country House Taste gives expression to. It allows us to speak of who we are; embracing antique and vintage pieces to create generous, gathering homes whilst treading lightly on the world.

Celebrating the Past as We Embrace the Future

A celebration of old and new expressed in English Country House taste

Our homes are important to us and English Country House taste reflects our nation. We have always embraced the ‘modern’ over the centuries whilst, of course, keeping one eye on the past. After all the English are a processional people – we celebrate the past as we confidently embrace the future. And English Country House taste is not provincial but international reflecting our nation’s global, outward facing, mercantile character.

This week I am returning to the 1970s home of two Sussex collectors where, in an eclectic interior, old meets new.

The contemporary oak cabinet is undemanding of our eye, rather it provides the basis for a composition of objects. Texture and colour are at the heart of English taste. Here a Provençal earthenware bowl filled with fruit is framed by a 1970s Scandinavian Arabia ceramic table lamp of geometric design, and a bronze bust by the anglicised Jewish Estonian artist Dora Gordine (1895-1991). Dora Gordine drew inspiration from the post-impressionist sculptor, Aristide Maillol. A contemporary of Jacob Epstein, Gordine inspired the famous British sculptor Anthony Caro. The bust dates from 1928 and depicts a woman called Clarette Feron.

The drama of Patrick Heron’s screenprint ‘Winchester Red I’ from 1968 displays the utter confidence of this important British modernist artist and art critic.

Patrick Heron (1920-1999) was inspired by Henri Matisse. He shared Matisse’s obsession with colour, rhythms, patterns and tone inspired by the natural world.

In 1956 Heron moved to St Ives in Cornwall joining a colony of modern British artists. The Cornish landscape and environment inspired his art throughout his life and career.

‘Winchester Red I’, although abstract, is trying to find a visual equivalence for the shapes and forms we experience in nature. The reds change radically in their relationship to one another affected by the shifting light in this room. Like the sun breaking through scudding clouds it expresses the rhythm of light and shade in the landscape. Heron’s vocabulary of colour is very much his own. He challenges our imaginations to experience something beyond our immediate perception and to renew our understanding the world.

Similarly the shared experience of Covid-19 and being at home is challenging all of us to reassess our engagement with the world and our communities – to rediscover what is truly important and enough. Amongst those I speak to virtually and encounter whilst exercising and observing social distancing there is growing desire for change born out of the shared experience of Covid-19. The conversation is hope filled and speaks with a common voice. It talks of family and community, of fairness and opportunity, of care for others, a celebration of the example, courage and compassion expressed by all those working in our NHS, and a recognition of the importance of those working on our local newspapers, our farms, in our supermarkets, in manufacturing, the bin men, delivery drivers and post office workers. There is a real and determined sense of a need for rebalancing and renewal in our nation with strong servant leadership to enable us to work together for the common good.

The world will not be the same after the experience of Covid-19. We are a processional nation so I hope and pray that with one eye firmly on the past we will celebrate and renew all that is good in our nation whilst we confidently embrace the future.

The Joy of English Country House Taste

A gathering, eclectic Sussex dining room in the English Country House taste

If I’m honest I much prefer a rich, textural English Country House interior over the austerity of minimalism. English Country House Taste is layered and eclectic always reflecting the taste and interests of a family and often the patchwork quilt of a family’s stories and interests over generations. It is unpretentious, layered and evolving.

My Grandparents had lived through the Second World War. Their home was generous but not grand, its interiors rich, eclectic and beautifully conceived. Although quite open in design it was made up of a series of spaces to gather and enjoy the company of friends and family.

Two sofas enfolded the fireplace with flanking armchairs and a Regency single-pedestal Pembroke table – the draw always smelt of pipe tobacco and 2B pencils. Chinese porcelain vases served as table lamps with crisp pleated shades, the walls filled with paintings and a bookcase because outward facing lively minds mattered. In the dining room a George V oak gateleg dining table reflected the light from the garden on its richly bees-waxed top surrounded by Georgian chairs. And to the side a chrome and red lacquer drinks trolley held a decanter of Madeira with an assortment of favourite glasses. These two areas were defined by a mahogany bureau which sat confidently against a wall between them.

The dining room you see here evokes these memories. It is at the heart of a 1970s Sussex home. The Waterford glasses sparkle in the sun light, reflected in the George III Sheffield plate candlesticks by Matthew Boulton which have just the right amount of wear to reveal the soft copper under the silver. The crisp white damask table cloths are modern and non-iron laid upon a Georgian oak gateleg table with later repairs and complimented by the Heals Arts and Crafts trellis back chairs. A rare Victorian scumbled pine housekeeper’s cupboard from Jersey has joyous glass handles. It is filled with an eclectic array of collectors’ objects which speak of lively minds and the toning of two connoisseurs’ eyes. You can just glimpse a confident Victorian mahogany whatnot in the background which has been re-purposed to disguise a laptop and printer. All is set off by a red Kilim rug with geometric patterns in forget-me-not blue.

The comfortable and timeless taste of the English country house is once again on the rise. It briefly, in the measure of hundreds of years, fell victim to the likes of IKEA. Furniture joined the ranks of the disposable commodity; something which still sits uncomfortably with my sense of the need for good stewardship of the world and its resources. Proper furniture became ‘brown’. The austerity of minimalism had arrived.

But once again I regularly hear people remark “Oh my Granny had one of those!” Often the things we most love will have come from, or have associations with, our grandparents or an older generation. After all grandparents are home grown heroes!

In response to their experience of war and separation my Grandparent’s generation made gathering, welcoming homes in the English Country House taste and I feel confident that we, in our turn, will do the same after the experience of Covid-19.

I am going to lay our dining table with our best glasses, cutlery and candlesticks in the English Country House tradition this weekend and ask my family and friends to join us online for a virtual supper party – let me know how yours goes!