From the archive: Nancy Lancaster's apartment in Mayfair (1960)

Anthony Denney

To call where Mrs Lancaster lives in London a 'flat' is like calling the Queen Mary a 'boat', for any normal description applied to these living-quarters in the heart of Mayfair would prove a sizeable understatement.

Basically, Mrs Lancaster has made an apartment above and behind the reticent shop-front of 'Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler', the eminent decorating firm in which she has and takes an active interest. The shop and flat are both part of a house built in the second half of the eighteenth century, and leased in 1821 to the architect, Sir Jeffry Wyatville, whose chief claim to fame is that he gave Windsor Castle that romanticized silhouette.
The house has also the rare treasure of a large paved courtyard with a pool, dolphin fountain, huge fig tree, catalpa tree and troughs of white marguerites.

Now for the house/flat/apartment/duplex itself: Mrs Lancaster's combined drawing-room and dining-room was probably Sir Jeffry's drawing-office, and its splendid proportions—46 feet long by 16 feet wide—and superb coved ceiling, make it one of the most spectacular rooms in London. The unique quality of this room derives partly from its unaccustomed size, but mainly from Mrs Lancaster's bold plan to use as many different shades of yellow as possible, with a highly flexible interpretation of 'yellow'. Thus, the walls are a semi-gloss Pekin yellow, the ceiling is painted in three tones of a subtle beige colour (which I can only call putty grey) the cornice and high skirting-board are a rare trompe l'oeil triumph simulating sienna marble. The curtains are in two shades of golden-yellow taffeta and shantung and hang from gilded wooden rods with brown and yellow cords. Sofas and armchairs are covered in deep yellow shantung with heavy fringes to match. And, marigold yellow cushions. The rare gilt chairs are covered in a special chintz copied by John Fowler from an 1840 design. The Ukrainian rug before the fireplace has, needless to say, a yellow background, and this beautiful object did, in fact, set the colour theme for the room.

Style File: Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler

All this might suggest that Mrs Lancaster is a designer preoccupied with one theme. Not a bit of it. As if to show her freedom from domination by any book of rules, written or unwritten, she has introduced a pair of Venetian white glass chandeliers on either side of an utterly different chandelier in Waterford glass. Then, at the far end of the room, is a double-door with a mirror-surround (flanked by gold pineapple candelabra on painted Regency stands) which opens into a room which could scarcely prove a more dramatic, even melodramatic contrast to the drawing-room. Here is a bang-up-to the-minute, functional bar—complete with sink and lift from the kitchen!

This end of the room is also the dining-room of this dual-purpose luxury. The circular table to be seen in the colour picture is covered with a white silk damask cloth with a deep geranium red fringe.

Such is the barest outline of what must surely be one of the most beautiful and remarkable rooms in London and I am thankful to have the aid of Mr Denney's colour pictures to give graphic point to my simple prose.

One other room in this apartment of enchantment also demands special reference, and that is Mrs Lancaster's bedroom which is as rural-seeming as anything this side of the Wiltshire border. The walls are painted to represent panelling in blue-grey and white. All the furniture is lacquer. Between the windows stands a japanned bureau. The curtains are in coarse linen with a Delft blue design. The small bedroom that can be seen through this bed room has its walls covered with old herbalist drawings.

A bust in white faience of a lady, on a fluted column, makes a focal point at the bottom of a narrow staircase.

And all this seventy yards from Bond Street!