The Fowler touch

The Great Hall at Sudbury. Can you spot the Fowler touches? ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

A recent post by the Columnist mentioned carved coral and the threats to that natural resource. At the risk of seeming frivolous, I want to use that as a pretext to show these beautiful coral-coloured curtains at Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire. 

Coral on coral on white. And note the just so arrangement of furniture and objects. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

They were installed in 1969 by John Fowler (1906-1977) who was then working for the National Trust as adviser on historic interiors. The house and the principal contents had been accepted by the Government from the tenth Lord Vernon in 1967  in lieu of inheritance tax and transferred to the National Trust.

As many of the furnishings had gone, the decision was taken to emphasize the magnificent carvings and plasterwork, and to use colour to bring the house alive – hence the shades of coral in the Great Hall. In some ways this use of colour to create an effect was a forerunner of the use of smells and sounds at some properties today.

The Long Gallery. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

In the Long Gallery the ceiling was repainted to tone in with the walls, and the dark polish was taken off the floorboards. Although the result looks very harmonious, it is perhaps not quite historical enough by today’s standards. And that in itself shows how the way we see the past is always changing. 

The Great Staircase. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

As regards the Grand Staircase, Fowler analysed the layers of paint on the balustrade, identified two shades of white which he believed to be the original ones, and repainted the previously dark woodwork in those shades. I think the result looks marvellous, but of course it is also distinctly Fowlerish. What do you think?

10 Responses to “The Fowler touch”

  1. Barbara Says:

    Fowlerish is surely fine. The use of color is spectacular & it only enhances the historic bones. Thank you.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    OK that’s one vote in favour then :)

  3. columnist Says:

    Your use of the pretext is fine by me! Is the portrait in the second photograph a variation of Allan Ramsey’s portrait of George III at Buckingham Palace?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you. According to the Sudbury guidebook, that painting is indeed of George III, but by the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The original, and the original of the accompanying portrait of Queen Charlotte that hangs in the same room, were painted for the Royal Academy in 1779.

  5. Toby Worthington Says:

    Mark Hampton, in his book Legendary Decorators of the Twentieth Century,
    had this to say about JFs work for the National Trust:

    ‘The decision to hire the most fashionable decorator in the land was in some quarters controversial. Then, there was also the current view of historical preservation which seeks to justify every decision with the unassailable conviction that it would originally have been done only one way. John Fowler’s decision to paint the dark woodgrained staircase at Sudbury white, stirred up just the sort of controversy that plagues many restorations. It is said that there was evidence that it had been white. Now, no one knows. As with the Schleswig-Holstein debate, those who knew were either dead, insane, or had forgotten. In any case Sudbury is, in the opinion of many, a more beautiful place today because of John Fowler.’

    Needless to add, I am in full agreement.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you for that extended quote. I hope the Sudbury debate didn’t make anyone go insane :)

    But your quote touches on the question of what we want from our heritage: beauty or truth? Fowler was certainly trying to be truthful, and even if he didn’t entirely succeed, the result does have aesthetic integrity, which is arguably a kind of truth.

    It wouldn’t be done like that today, but of course in forty years time the next generation will find reasons to criticise today’s judgements.

  7. Janet Says:

    Oh, that Fowler pink!!!

  8. KDM Says:

    Came to this party a little late – but Fowler’s beauty is now also the National Trust’s truth – so his work should be saved – and if at only one site – then this is the one. Beautiful yes, but also an interior representative of a time and place – a highlight of my Attingham program. KDM

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Keith, I agree with you. John Fowler is now definitely a heritage asset in his own right.

  10. Tom Carey Says:

    Thank you for these beautiful photos. I am reading John Fowler and John Cornforth’s book on C18th Interior Decoration at the moment. Fowler evidently wanted to challenge preconceptions of what looks antique and recognised that our ancestors were much often bolder with colour than we give them credit for. While he obviously used some licence in choosing his colours I find it hard to believe that he would have falisifed evidence of white paint on the Sudbury staircase, and as someone above has pointed out, the results are so beautiful, they have a truth of their own.

    Not knowing much about the subject myself, I am curious to know what approach would be taken today. Would the floor of the Long Gallery have been kept under a layer of dark polish for instance?

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