John Fowler at Clandon Park

John Fowler transformed Clandon to show off the English Country House Style © 856004/Anthony Parkinson

John Fowler transformed Clandon to show off the English Country House Style

John Fowler is possibly the most influential interior designer of his generation, described by the Duchess of Devonshire as ‘the Prince of decorators’.  He changed tastes and fashions like no other designer of the 20th century.

Learning his trade

John Beresford Fowler was born in Lingfield in 1906.  He left school at 16 and joined a large firm of commercial decorators in Soho. It was there that he learned his craft.

By 1934, Fowler had set up his own business on the Kings Road in Chelsea, a short walk from Sibyl Colefax’s Argyll House where he joined her as partner of Colefax & Fowler in 1938.  Nancy Lancaster purchased the company in 1944, the business relationship between Fowler and Lancaster was difficult.  Lady Astor, Nancy’s aunt, referred to them as 'the most unhappy unmarried couple in England'.

Fowler worked in some of Britain’s most important historic buildings including Buckingham Palace, Chequers, Holyroodhouse and the Bank of England.  His career spanned the important post-war period when there was huge interest in renewing country houses.

A defining style

The 'English Country House Style', often thought of as integral to English houses, is actually largely Fowler’s invention.  With Colefax and later Lancaster, he evolved a look that was enormously popular.  Inspired by Palladian country houses, its ideals were based on elegance, taste and comfort.  Its colours and themes are still used today.

Fowler at Clandon

In 1968, Fowler was offered an opportunity to refurbish Clandon Park and provide advice on the display of the newly acquired Gubbay collection.  Fowler’s primary aim was to be true to Clandon’s Georgian origins and to reveal what was authentic.

However, his restoration did not always reflect this because of assumptions he mistakenly made.  An early pioneer of paint scrapes to reveal historic decorative schemes, his discoveries were sometimes incorrectly used as a basis for re-decoration.  Some other choices bore the hallmark of his own famous style.  The end result was a combination of traditional and contemporary practice that still provokes debate.

It would be wrong to judge Fowler’s work at Clandon without putting it into context.  He undertook a pioneering and brave approach, transforming a house that was empty and neglected.  Architectural historian John Cornforth said that Fowler, 'strove for beauty within the limits of evidence rather than a strict reproduction' and this certainly applies to his work at Clandon.