Lady Colefax began decorating in 1930. She was well-connected and also ahead of her time: her circle of friends and acquaintances provided her with clients and she became a very successful businesswoman. British diplomat Harold Nicholson wrote in his diary: ‘Lunch with Sibyl Colefax at Boulestin. She tells me that she has made £2,000 last year by her own efforts. She gets up by candle-light and fusses till midnight. A brave woman’.
Sibyl’s talent for creating comfortable interiors that were stylish but never pretentious was the secret of her appeal to her influential clients. She was friendly with royalty, including the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, with entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin and Cole Porter, and with much of the British aristocracy. When, in 1938, her services were so in demand that she needed to expand, she asked a rising young star of interior decorating, John Fowler, to join her in her business at Bruton Street in Mayfair. In 1939, the company name was changed to Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler.
Through the 1920s and into the 1930s John Fowler had developed his decorating skills at the London firm of Thornton Smith and then in the decoration studio of Peter Jones, where he learned techniques such as painting Chinoiserie wallpaper by hand. By the time Sibyl Colefax invited him to join her he had been working for a few years under his own name from premises on the King’s Road. Lady Colefax’s business provided John Fowler with the introductions he needed and the partnership prospered. His talent for creating glamorous interiors on a comparatively modest budget was to prove a sought-after ability in due course, in post-war austerity Britain.
At the beginning of 1944, Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler Ltd moved its business to 39 Brook Street (once the home and office of distinguished early 19th century architect, Sir Jeffry Wyatville). On the day the new shop opened, John Fowler noted in his diary: ‘Lovely day and lots of people. Good sales’.
Fowler’s decorative flair and scholarly eye were behind the company’s continuing success and its reputation for beautifully fashioned draperies, convivial and comfortable seating arrangements. A sense of relaxed elegance grew. He later went on to work with the National Trust, conserving Great Britain’s most important historical houses; significant commissions included Clandon Park, Lyme Park, Sudbury Hall, Claydon House and Uppark House. His exceptional skills prompted his friend the late Duchess of Devonshire to describe John Fowler as ‘the prince of decorators’, a sobriquet that stuck.
The American heiress Nancy Lancaster had long been settled in England with a reputation amongst those who knew her of having the ‘finest taste of anyone in the world’. In 1948, she bought the country’s best-known decorating firm from her friend Sibyl Colefax. Nancy Lancaster’s impressive social connections brought the company into a grand new era, and her transatlantic links incidentally enabled her to establish a working relationship with Sister Parish Design in New York.
In 1954, Nancy Lancaster bought Haseley Court, a large country house in Oxfordshire. She and John Fowler worked closely together on its restoration and decoration, and the beautiful rooms they created there together epitomised the English country house style for which Colefax and Fowler became celebrated.
In 1957, Nancy Lancaster sold her London house and took a 25-year lease on a set of rooms 'over the shop' at 39 Brook Street. John Fowler persuaded her to paint the large drawing room a startling, glossy yellow. Original and innovative at the time, the Yellow Room proved to be a source of inspiration for many over the following years, becoming perhaps the best-known and most influential interior in the history of English interior decoration. 39 Brook Street and its decoration, including the Yellow Room, is now Grade II* listed.
Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler’s business partnership lasted over 20 years and was tempestuous at times, prompting her aunt, Nancy Astor, to refer to the pair as ‘frankly the most unhappy unmarried couple I have ever met’. Their talents and tastes were complementary; combined, they made a truly formidable decorating duo. His association with Nancy Lancaster opened doors at the very highest level for Fowler, enabling him to work, for example, at Chequers, the official country residence of the Prime Minister, or on the Audience Room at Buckingham Palace, for Her Majesty the Queen.
In 1960, Tom Parr, who had previously been in partnership with David Hicks in a decorating business in Knightsbridge, acquired a significant shareholding in Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler Ltd and was subsequently appointed chairman. John Fowler, by now increasingly involved in his role as adviser on historic properties to the National Trust, was winding down his work for private clients and was content to leave the leadership of the company to Tom Parr.
Parr’s combination of business acumen and decorating experience gave Colefax and Fowler a new sense of direction. Under his guidance, the number of decorating teams within the company expanded. Alongside Parr himself, Imogen Taylor (who had been John Fowler’s assistant for many years) ran her own team, and they were soon joined by Stanley Falconer, Chester Jones, David Laws and subsequently Wendy Nicholls (who is today the managing director of the company’s decorating division, Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler), Vivien Greenock and Roger Banks-Pye.
John Fowler retired in 1971, a significant departure for the company. Tom Parr therafter initiated the diversification of the decorating business into the retailing of fabrics and wallpapers. In 1973, The Chintz Shop, on Ebury Street, was opened, launching Colefax and Fowler’s first off-the-shelf fabric collections. The first range to include wallpapers was The Brook Collection, in 1982. These early collections gave the company greater visibility to people other than its traditionally elite private clientele, and developed the firm’s historic identity to make it accessible to a wider market, inviting customers to take home with them a piece of English country house style.
George Oakes, the talented artist who had worked closely with John Fowler on many private commissions, led the textile design studio, besides continuing to be responsible for the company’s painted works. His chintzes drew on mid-to-late nineteenth-century documents alongside occasional Regency and 18th-century patterns, and undoubtedly greatly influenced fabric fashions in the 1970s and 1980s. The first collections included the renowned Bowood and Fuchsia chintzes, which retain their popularity and have remained in production ever since.
1980s – Present
David Green was appointed Chief Executive of Colefax and Fowler in 1986 and became Chairman a decade later, on Tom Parr’s retirement in 1996. His arrival heralded a period of great expansion for the company as it extended its global reach and was listed on the London Stock Exchange.
Under David Green’s guidance, Colefax and Fowler acquired the US textile firms Cowtan and Tout (a brand sold only in the US, founded in 1924 and acquired in 1988), the British textile brand, Jane Churchill (founded in 1982 and acquired in 1989), Jack Lenor Larsen (founded in 1952 and acquired in 1997), the French fabric house Manuel Canovas (founded in 1963 and acquired in 1998), and the British furniture maker Kingcome Sofas (founded in 1971 and acquired in 1989).
The interior decorating business continues to flourish, reverting to its original trading name of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler in the 1990s.
The number of staff of the small company founded by Lady Colefax, which had totalled 19 when Nancy Lancaster bought it and reached 70 by 1984, today exceeds 300. In keeping with its heritage, the company’s head office remains in the heart of Mayfair.