Why is eccentricity such a big part of English interior design?

Eccentricity is still a famed element within English interior design. How has it survived so long?

The hallway at Nicky Haslam's house in the Cotswolds

Simon Upton

It was Dame Edith Sitwell who stated that eccentricity exists particularly in the English, because of “that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and the birth right of the British nation.” Her book The English Eccentrics was published in 1933 and includes such characters as the amphibious Lord Rokeby, who seldom left his bath, and Curricle Coats, who wore a suit sewn with diamonds. Both men genuinely existed; Sitwell drew from real life. She didn’t, however, analyse the whys and wherefores of idiosyncratic interiors, which Alidad declares are markedly more significant here than elsewhere: “Every country has eccentrics, but in Britain they seem to be the majority.” Born and raised in Tehran and then Switzerland, Alidad makes this pronouncement with a certainty that others might lack. It’s hard to look at yourself from a distance with a dispassionate eye.

But consider, if you will, a recent round-up of the most beautiful rooms in Britain; while all of them owe more to creativity than compliance, many are also decidedly unconventional (which is the dictionary definition of eccentric), or at least were, at the time. Standouts include Charleston Farmhouse, with its all over hand-painted decoration, and Bright Young Thing Stephen Tennant’s Wilsford Manor, exquisitely eulogised by Nicky Haslam. Tennant was the inspiration for Cedric Hampton in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, and for Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and was known as ‘the last professional beauty’; he spent 17 years ‘resting’ in bed, surrounded by jewellery, drawings, and postcards of Elvis Presley. Nicky writes of a ceiling covered in shells, and a room where the theme is black lace over white satin – which sounds gopping, but evidently was a triumph. So how did we develop such anomalous tastes? And is it possible that all our homes owe a debt to such eccentricity, whether we realise it or not?

The English poet Dame Edith Sitwell with her brother, the author Sir Osbert Sitwell

Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images

“I think the core of English eccentricity has to do with collecting,” says Brandon Schubert – which is something that Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, author of English Garden Eccentrics, has also identified, declaring “many eccentric gardeners are also collectors who continue to add new elements to their gardens over many years.” Brandon, who, similarly to Alidad, did not grow up here but in Texas, dates the start to when “international exploration became this country’s primary focus. You’d have colonial settlers and would-be business tycoons travelling all over the globe and bringing back rare and fascinating objects – Grand Tour mementos, rare pine trees from Chile, crates of Chinese porcelain.” Collecting became something anyone with adequate means did, others emulated them, “and a passion for collecting became part of the national ethos of Britain, which continues to this day. And I think that the British are still hungrier than other nations to import things from abroad.”

With collecting comes the question of display. “Homes started to be populated with things that didn’t exactly ‘belong’,” continues Brandon. “But as they were passed down from generation to generation, they became part of everyday life, until an elephant-foot stick stand started to look like part of the furniture, so to speak.” Combined with what Olivia Outred describes as a “national inability to throw things away”, it explains why the British are often surprised to learn that their interiors are considered eccentric by others. As a nation we have become entirely accustomed to, say, “a sofa from a great aunt next to a side table from a great-great grandfather next to a floor lamp purchased when electricity became fashionable next to an Italian marble bust.” Brandon describes it as being “like some kind of domestic geological core sample, a comfortable relationship of things that do not relate to each other,” and goes on to suggest we’ll have thrown a textile brought back from the Far East in the 18th century over the worn sofa, and thought nothing of it. Finally, we’ll have piled on dogs, “which make even the grandest room look more casual,” says Alidad. (Stephen Tennant had uncaged pet lizards.)

Anthony Andrews as Lord Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, for whom famed eccentric Stephen Tennant was an inspiration

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The mismatch has only developed since then – and, explains Nina Campbell, become part of both decorating lore and law. “When I worked for John Fowler, he once said to me that a decorator should never complete a room on paper. You always have to leave yourself room to add something that will bring a spark – and you can’t do that on a floor plan.” She tells the story of “a wonderful Chinese client” who walked into a room she had done for him, and, looking aghast, proclaimed “nothing matches!” Before recognising “but everything goes”.

Within this incongruity, continues Nina, is wit, which Alidad agrees with, mentioning the British self-deprecating sense of humour, and the late Duchess of Devonshire’s positioning of a cardboard cut-out of Elvis (him again) with Meissen porcelain, along with her having used live baby chickens as a table display. For his part, and in his own homes, Alidad has been known to combine valuable Middle Eastern antiquities with Ikea, “which I’m not sure I would have done if I’d based myself and my business in New York, or Paris,” he says. “Here, though, it works, because people understand it, and even appreciate it. It’s often the combination of something ridiculous with something amazing that makes an English home.” Olivia points out that the confidence to do this is again something that has been passed down through the generations, citing the American-born Nancy Lancaster’s tobacco bedroom at Haseley Court. “She did it all using calico, to check that the scheme would work before she made up the hangings in silk or taffeta – and then decided that she loved the calico, which would never have featured in a grand country house at that time, so she kept it.”

Similar gumption and independent thought threads itself through Nicky Haslam’s interiors. Witness the chandelier in his Oxfordshire home made of a cake tin, a plant support, a tin star, and pods of an Indian oak apple tree. Then there are the plastic birds he’s given a monochrome paint job and displayed in his flat in London, where they look infinitely more precious than they are. “Spray anything white, and it will look like porcelain, or plaster,” he says, and proudly declares himself a fan of the well-done fake, thus maintaining the earlier point about a sense of humour. Nicky is a master of reinvention – and that same determination to carry through a creative whim is ultimately what gave rise to Charleston; Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were looking for a new way of living that didn’t adhere to societal norms of the time.

The homemade chandelier in Nicky Haslam’s Oxfordshire home

Simon Upton

If none of this sounds particularly odd, but instead entirely relatable – who doesn’t love collecting, who doesn’t enjoy putting together an interesting tablescape, and who doesn’t take pride in making something cheap look much more expensive? – know that, in the opinion of some, there’s eccentricity at the roots. Perhaps it’s better not to dwell on it. “To be a professional eccentric can be rather tiresome,” suggests Nina, invoking the ‘don’t try too hard’ attitude that speaks directly to Sitwell’s point about infallibility. Long may our interiors retain their unintentional individuality.

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