Fiction and truth

The Drawing Room at Fenton House, as redecorated by John Fowler in 1973. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Drawing Room at Fenton House, as redecorated by John Fowler in 1973. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Those who have followed the debates around the Stephen Poliakoff’s recent TV series Dancing on the Edge and its sometimes convoluted (or seemingly convoluted) plot may appreciate the interiors at Fenton House, in Hampstead, north London. Fenton House was used as a location for Dancing on the Edge, and features as the house of the wealthy, charming and determinedly superficial Arthur Donaldson.

Another view of the Drawing Room. The curtain flounces were inspired by similar examples seen by John Fowler at Kasteel Duivenvoorde in the Netherlands. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Another view of the Drawing Room. The curtain flounces were inspired by similar examples seen by John Fowler at Kasteel Duivenvoorde in the Netherlands. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Although Fenton House was built around 1686, its neo-Georgian interiors reflect its ownership from 1936 by Katherine, Lady Binning, who left it to the National Trust on her death in 1952. She had been married to the heir of the Earl of Haddington, and Fenton House was furnished with Haddington family heirlooms as well as with the collections she had inherited from her mother, Milicent Salting, and the latter’s brother-in-law, George Salting.

The Oriental Room at Fenton House, also redecorated by John Fowler. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Oriental Room at Fenton House, also redecorated by John Fowler. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

As some of the furnishings were returned to the various Haddington houses after 1952, certain rooms at Fenton House were left somewhat bare. In 1973 the National Trust invited the decorator John Fowler to help refurbish the house and give it a mellow, lived-in atmosphere. Fowler aficionados will recognise the subtle multi-tone painted woodwork in several rooms, the varied upholstery fabrics and the sophisticated curtain treatments.

Mid-20th-century white King Pyramid telephone, acquired for Fenton House in 2003. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Mid-20th-century white King Pyramid telephone, acquired for Fenton House in 2003. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

So there is a strong element of fiction in the presentation of Fenton House, giving an added poignancy to its use as a sumptuous film set. But as Poliakoff’s work demonstrates, if fiction is successful it acquires a certain kind of truth.

18 Responses to “Fiction and truth”

  1. Susan Walter Says:

    Quite a controversial admission I would have thought. There will be a certain section of the public very critical of any stage set like presentation of an NT house (and a lot who won’t notice or care). Of course, all Trust houses are a sort of frozen in time conceit to a lesser or greater extent. It’s a real conundrum for curators to manage, and involves all sorts of related side issues, such as taste (yours, the public’s, the former occupants); original objects v repro; how much provinance matters. The more you think about it the more convoluted it becomes. Too tricky for me.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I don’t think the artifice of the historic interior is controversial at all – indeed, I think we should celebrate it as part of its interest and beauty.

    All historic interiors are artificial in some way or other, simply because you cannot ever completely stop the clock. Each attempt to preserve the past, however dedicated, scholarly or scientific, is to some extent a recreation.

    But if you are recreating a historic setting then you are in fact engaging with it, trying to understand it, trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes – which if done well is a wonderful mixture of science, scholarship and art.

    And you can use artificial means to give people an authentic experience, complete with goosebumps, Proustian moments, and so on. That is the beautiful paradox, the alchemy of the historic house 🙂

    It definitely is a conundrum for curators, as you say, and for conservators and for everyone else involved. But personally I find the artifice involved endlessly fascinating (which is the nerd in me): the little tricks, the ineffable bits of magic that create genuine atmosphere and meaning out of disparate objects and surfaces.

    Come to think of it, almost every post in this blog has been essentially about that: the alchemy.

  3. Herts Says:

    Last time I visited Fenton, there were some excellent William Nicholsons and some other very good 20th century British
    paintings on show bequeathed by a famous local actor,

    Don’t think that the bigoted Lady Binning (of whom James Lees – Milne wrote at length in his Diaries) would have approved of Dancing in the Dark or its author and certainly wouldn’t have let it be filmed in her house!

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes there is that collection at Fenton, plus some amazing musical instruments which is another separate collection.

    I don’t know that much about Lady Binning – why do you describe her as bigoted? You shouldn’t necessarily believe everything James Lees-Milne wrote about people, as he could be very opinionated and intolerant (or ‘fastidious’, according to your point of view) 🙂 In that respect he was a bit like Horace Walpole – gossipy and evocative, but also extremely subjective.

  5. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    The presentation of a historic house’s interior is an interpretation anyway, so I applaud the 1973 decision to have John Fowler guide the exhibition.

  6. Herts Says:

    I quote from J L-M’s Prophesying Peace (1977) Page 146: ‘At the end of tea she (Lady Binning) disclosed that she was anti-democratic, very pro-German and pro-Nazi. She denied that the Germans had committed atrocities and declared that the Jews were the root of all evil… ‘

  7. deana Says:

    If I may say (as a production designer by trade) being able to use real houses is what gives a production enormous production value that you just can’t afford to make up from scratch most of the time. I for one love that things in the house are real and fine. It gives people who can’t or haven’t traveled to NT houses a chance to see them and a reason to see them in person (and see what changes were made for shooting –ie furniture moved from all over the place).

    I look forward to the series when it comes to the US.

  8. Simply Grand Says:

    “Fiction” is such a loaded word.And while purists (another loaded word) may argue with the historicity of Fowler’s take on things, at this point, his made-from-whole-cloth scheme is historic in its own right, and, therefore–to my mind–1973 is just as valid a date as any other. That’s the luxury of the Trusts’s being in charge of lots of houses: there are also lots of different approaches to showing them. In the interest in balance, it’s good to show as many as possible.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Herts, if Lady Binning held views like that then strangely enough she would have fitted in quite well as one of the cast of Dancing on the Edge, wouldn’t she? And it proves one of the points I think Poliakoff is trying to make, namely that those views, which seem so extraordinary now, were relatively widespread in Britain in the 1930s.

    Deana, yes I read the other day that Daniel Day-Lewis tries to totally inhabit the characters he plays, and for actors like that it must be useful to have a ‘real’ setting to work in – although this post and the subsequent comments also seem to indicate how unreal reality can sometimes be, and how unexpectedly real fiction can be 🙂

    Simply Grand, yes this post and the is subsequent comments are turning into a symposium on the different meanings of the word ‘fiction’ 🙂

    And I agree with you that it is fascinating and instructive to compare different approaches to ‘conservation’ and different historic places each with their own unique layers of circumstance and taste and personality.

    And of course (as I just realised) 1973 is now 40 years ago – well and truly history 🙂

  10. Toby Worthington Says:

    Atmosphere and Alchemy–the two essentials for house decoration whether historic or not. I have visited Fenton House several times and it seems to me a perfect example of the much vaunted, seldom actually seen,’ Humble Elegance’ espoused by John Fowler. There is a kind of offhand sophistication, a mood of quirkiness and charm that is more closely related to Fowler’s private work than to what he usually did for the Trust–and which is entirely suited to Fenton House in terms of scale and style. The progression of moods culminates in the Yellow Drawing Room with its swoon-worthy curtains, about which I say a nightly prayer to the gods of Style, that they be retained forever. What matter, if they are not authentic to the house, whatever that may mean?

  11. Susan Walter Says:

    I think the ‘authentic experience’ is very important, but it inevitably means something slightly different to every visitor. It’s a meaninless phrase if taken literally, but if responded to emotionally and intuitively can be useful code. The trick is for the curator not to make the visitor feel they are being manipulated, but engaged. In reality the two things mean the same, but one implies control, the other sharing. The historic interior is full of loaded jargon and marketing speak. The controversy I alluded to in my first comment has to do with being able to present a historic interior in a way that makes the visitor feel welcome, not an outsider looking in at clever people entertaining themselves by creating their vision of an historic interior. There also has to be the ‘space’ for truly beautiful objects to speak for themselves. Sorry — am I over thinking this? 🙂

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Toby I am picturing you mentioning the Fenton/Fowler/Duivenvoorde curtains in your prayers – excellent 🙂

    And interesting that you consider the Fenton interiors a good example of Fowler’s ‘humble elegance’ – perhaps the relatively modest scale of the house helped to bring that out.

    I completely agree with you Susan. As a conservation charity the National Trust has the duty to share these places with the public, and to put the visitor’s experience first. And, as you said in your first comment, the conundrum or challenge is to combine ‘access’ – the visitor’s experience – with ‘conservation’ – the care of the places and objects.

    And your comment about each visitor’s experience being different is also rather interesting philosophically, because it implies that actually there is an unlimited number of ‘Fenton Houses’ out there, as each new (or repeat) visitor (or television director, or television viewer, or blog reader) has a unique experience of the house – which is an exhilarating thought 🙂

  13. Toby Worthington Says:

    In my breathless praise for the Fenton House drawing room curtains I left out the detail that delighted me most, and that was
    the eyelet holes punched through the pinked flounces. And the fact
    of those flounces being individually sewn on like petals on a rose.
    Knowing that Mr Fowler based the design on a description of something conveyed to him by a visitor to Kasteel Duivenvoorde in the Netherlands I have sought images of the original, but in vain.
    Would Emile be able to advise?

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I, too, did an online search for the Duivenvoorde Blauwe Slaapkamer (Blue Bedroom) where the inspiration for these curtains supposedly hangs, but like you I couldn’t find anything! We will have to undertake a physical pilgrimage to Voorschoten, Zuid Holland, in order do proper homage 🙂

  15. Andrew Says:


  16. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, you are amazing! Now Toby doesn’t have to make his arduous pilgrimage to Voorschoten 🙂

    And interesting to see how Fowler improved on the the original by heightening the valance a bit in his Fenton version, thereby giving the whole thing slightly more harmonious proportions.

    • Toby Worthington Says:

      ‘Ask and ye shall receive’– at least here on NT Treasure Hunt.
      Fascinating to see the original inspiration and the subsequent
      evolution into something with an entirely different effect. The Fowler
      valances were not only attached to a serpentine lathe, but they
      were unlined–presumably as a way of allowing more light from
      the top of window. The chintz was a Colefax & Fowler design called Caroline which was custom coloured in magenta and lime yellow–the pattern being non-directional, which allowed for the valance to be run sideways, precluding seams. In other words, there was a reason behind all those decorating decisions. Nothing arbitrary about any of it!

  17. Andrew Says:

    I do my best. 🙂 Interesting wallpaper, and vaguely Paisley swirls on the carpet. Surely not blue though.

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