“Life at the Hunting Lodge was Camelot”
"What I wanted here was something utterly unpretentious, very comfortable, with a veneer of elegance and informality.”
The grand, but diminutive, Hunting Lodge, former home of John Fowler, co-founder of the esteemed decorating firm Colefax and Fowler, is now home to Nicky Haslam. PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON UPTON
For Love of Country
Nicky Haslam, renowned interior designer and London man-about-town, calls a 16th-century royal hunting lodge in the English countryside his home away from home—rose chintz sofas, portraits, flourishing garden and all
By RITA KONIG
Updated March 24, 2011 12:01 a.m. ET
Driving down to Nicky Haslam's country house from London, listening to the leading interior designer and legendary partygoer sing along to Cole Porter songs on the car stereo, we turn off a perfectly ordinary Hampshire road and into the woods. Immediately, we find ourselves transported from the mundane commuter belt to Little Red Riding Hood territory. Winding along a muddy lane, we come around a bend and see ahead, beyond a tilting, moss-covered wood gate, through the arching boughs of oak and chestnut trees, the Hunting Lodge.
Nicky Haslam, speaking on the phone. Above him is a portrait of his mother painted by the Scottish artist Robin Guthrie. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON UPTON
Haslam's enchanting Jacobean-revival house was built in the 16th century for the Tudor king Henry VII as a resting place from the chase in these once-royal forests. It is said that here his eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, met his fiancée, Catherine of Aragon, upon her arrival in England; Arthur died soon after the wedding, and Catherine subsequently married his younger brother, the future King Henry VIII. Charming history aside, the Lodge's true delight is its miniature grandeur. "The English truly understand the dynamic between buildings and land," Haslam says. "On the continent, the country is tamed into submission round a house, while in America homes are statements in that vast landscape. Most English houses, grand or small, nestle in an intimate pastoral setting."
Once inside, the Lodge is everything that is romantic about England, and perfectly encapsulates that terrible phrase, "English country-house style"—the combination of real beauty, some age, a bit of mud, certainly a potted geranium or two and utter practicality. For practicality is where the English, who never take aesthetics too seriously, reign supreme. The entrance hall alone is a thing of such charm. It is a perfectly proportioned, neat square, the paneled walls painted in a slubby, satin, oystery color. The ceiling has a vague marble effect. "To hide the cracks!" Haslam says. Centered between two doors—one to a cloakroom lined with framed letters from Charles and Camilla—is a console bearing a Baroque bust of an 18th-century nobleman, a pair of plants in cachepots and a basket with various gardening implements. The door handles and fingerplates are all ancient, brass and beautiful. The silk curtains, again in oyster and hung from carved wood pelmets, are a nod to John Fowler, legendary British interior designer and co-founder of Colefax and Fowler, who was the Lodge's previous tenant. Today, there are still quite a few of his elegant, understated hallmarks throughout the house.
Haslam, sitting in an outdoor pavilion PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON UPTON
Haslam leased the house from the National Trust in 1978 or, as he puts it, "the year Mrs. T came to power," and has been adding to the rooms ever since. Each corner is filled with personal details that reflect his eclectic style. There are piles of books on every surface; pictures are stacked under tables and on chairs; end tables are softly lit by pretty shades made from concertinaed Mauny wallpaper. In one room, Haslam has hung the original floorplans for James Wyatt's Waterloo Palace—it was to have been a gift from a grateful nation to the Duke of Wellington after his victory over Napoleon—which would have supposedly been far larger than Versailles but funnily enough proved too expensive to realize. Stacked against that are engravings and drawings from his friends: Graham Sutherland, David Hockney and Lucian Freud. "I don't consciously collect anything drily precious or impersonal; I just seem to have acquired pretty bits over the years and, of course, some of those bits came from now-famous old friends," Haslam says. "I tend to look out for things with a resonance to my youth—artists or objects that seemed romantic all those years ago. I never buy anything purely for its value. I like possessions that smile back at me."
This comfortable country scene is in striking contrast with Haslam's London life, where, in addition to running his thriving design business, his evenings revolve around art openings, the opera, premieres, dinners at The Wolseley and Scott's, shopping at Topman and holiday jaunts on his friends' yachts. He is such a natural man of leisure that it's easy to forget how hardworking he is. When asked about his recent clients, Haslam says, "I really think giving lists of clients is very common. But at a pinch you could mention Ringo Starr, Oleg Deripaska, the Rodney Smiths in New Orleans, both the Saatchi brothers, a mansion in Ireland, a chalet in Klosters, a mas in the Midi, a couple of villas on Cap Ferrat . . ."
Haslam has also been a columnist for the Evening Standard; regularly writes for the Spectator; has contributed to Vanity Fair; is a talented artist—he paints watercolors of the interiors he's designing for his clients; and, as his earlier Cole Porter serenading suggests, he sings. He recently headlined two nights at the Savoy's Beaufort Bar in London.
The best houses reflect the inhabitant, and the Lodge is brimming with tokens of Haslam's humor and buzzing social life. In the sitting room, the walls are painted in oxblood mixed with distemper. "It's the color of old cloth Elastoplast," says Haslam of its similarity to Band-Aids. "They used to paint the outside of buildings with it to stop the flies from coming inside." The glazed wood mantelpiece is lined with photographs, invitations and Christmas cards, which seems odd given that it's October. But then, one is from the late Princess of Wales and another is a framed "Christmas 1965" photograph from Cecil Beaton. Over the past 50 years, Haslam has rolled like a snowball through life, collecting colorful friends, including rock stars, movie stars, royalty, oligarchs, Etonians, couturiers, photographers, artists and godchildren, to whom he collectively dedicated "Redeeming Features," his 2009 memoir. "We've all got Nicky stories, but you have to pardon him for whatever he's done, because he's such a life enhancer. When you're with him it is like the sun comes out," says Hannah Rothschild, who recently directed a documentary, "Hi Society," about the designer.
The purpose of my visit is to see the Lodge's latest addition, the garden room. The outbuilding was originally designed by Fowler but had become run down over the years. "I wanted to make it part of the main house even though the two are not connected," Haslam says. "It clearly needed a fireplace and when I found this dotty Rococo number, I knew that a whole makeover was imminent!" He also decided to redesign the attached working greenhouse. From the main house of the Lodge, one walks through a Gothic door in the sitting room and out onto the lawn. Double lines of pleached hornbeam trees lead down to a hidden flower garden and an obelisk-posted white gate. Beyond, a meadow with a rough-cut ride ends at the bank of a lake.
It is spectacularly pretty, even more so because of the lawn, which is mowed in a different pattern each week. During my visit, it was cut on the diagonal and, as a very detail-oriented Haslam pointed out, the lines moved uninterrupted through the gateposts. Looking back from this vantage point, the main house looks like an 18th-century tiara, built in the palest handmade pink bricks with a roofline topped by three soaring gables. Roses, vines and magnolias garland the leaded arabesque windows, under which rest antique metal benches. A lantern with candles inside hangs from one of the vines.
The anteroom off the sitting room, with a portrait of Haslam's mother by the Scottish painter Robin Guthrie. PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON UPTON
To continue to the garden room, one passes through the leaf-shaded greenhouse, painted in the subtlest shade of gray-green and lined by a waist-high shelf stacked with dozens of aged terra-cotta pots, geraniums and other green things awaiting instruction. An open cupboard displays a collection of blue-and-white china, a gift from his friend Annabel Astor (mother of Samantha Cameron, the British Prime Minister's wife). Then, through a tiny vestibule papered by Fowler in something 18th century, silver and flowery, one comes into the new garden room.
The interior is lovely and quite different from the Lodge. It has a double cube footprint with an airy, pitched ceiling and three large French windows. A pair of sofas flanking the fireplace are upholstered in rose chintz. Many of Haslam's own fabrics are here, including a pair of show-wood chairs covered in a rickrack stripe he calls Zephyr after his black Pekingese dog. The lavender Balcony Stripe curtains are also the decorator's creation, available through his firm, NH Design. There are other Haslam originals, too: a plastic pineapple ice bucket on the drinks tray that he found somewhere long forgotten and painted white with green detailing, as well as wall sconces also painted white with green spots. It's a charming room built for Haslam's larger groups of friends. "When I entertain, I like it to appear as casual as possible, but in fact I will have orchestrated everything quite carefully, by producing surprises for the eye, mouth and ear," he says. "I prefer to do it all myself. I'm a pretty good cook and the house is too small to tell the help where things should go."
In winter, Haslam entertains in the Lodge's frescoed dining room, as he did last December when he threw a 16-person New Year's Eve party. In summer, he prefers one of the garden pavilions, with drinks before and after in the garden room. Since the house is located less than 40 miles from London, the designer enjoys inviting people for Sunday lunch, such as his "greatest friend" Min Hogg, founder of the style bible The World of Interiors, neighbors like Jemma and Arthur Mornington (she is the makeup artist Jemma Kidd; he is the heir to the Duke of Wellington), and Tom Stoppard, who has learned to be careful of the house's low doorways.
The walls in the sitting room are painted in oxblood with distemper. The Marie Antoinette bust, which Haslam describes as "a very good 19th-century copy" of the Houdon original, belonged to the designer's father and sits next to a bunch of flowers picked up at the supermarket. ENLARGE
The walls in the sitting room are painted in oxblood with distemper. The Marie Antoinette bust, which Haslam describes as "a very good 19th-century copy" of the Houdon original, belonged to the designer's father and sits next to a bunch of flowers picked up at the supermarket.
I stayed the night and after dinner we sat at the kitchen table listening to old tunes on Spotify, a new free website that plays what seems like every song ever recorded. It was funny, really, as Haslam nipped off to the fridge for a delicious bottle of Yquem, to think how I was in the house of one of London's most glittering and long-standing socialites, a man who knows and has partied with everyone. And yet here we were, cozily sitting in the kitchen of a wonderfully decorated house, with the spirit of John Fowler and some royal romance hanging in the air.