Islands, Jungles and the Raj
Creating the romance of the British colonial look
in New England

By Dorothy V Malcolm

Click to see larger image

Article first appeared in “Home Improvement,” Fall 2001, CNC/Herald Media Publishing, Boston.

How many of us cried with Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa” when she played the leading role of Danish author, Karen Blixen, (aka Isak Dinesen); or Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen;” or Mrs. Moore in “A Passage to India”? If images of ceiling fans, wicker chairs nestled in palm trees, paisley shawls draped over camp chairs, steamer trunks, pitched tents on safari, Darjeeling tea in china teacups, trophies and animal skins — if these conjure daydreams of adventure and romance, then count yourself in as having been lured into and under the spell of the British colonial look.

It’s so popular today and probably the easiest and most versatile look to achieve with existing furnishings; and it’s especially geared for people who want “that look,” but on a shoestring. Just think of the following words and let your imagination fly: sultry, casual, jungle, languid, safari, tropics, leather, a burning relentless sun, batik, antlers, cane, tortoiseshell. I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to stroll out to the verandah, don my pith helmet, stretch out in a wicker chaise and watch the sunset, gin-and-tonic in hand. Just a few images and ideas to capture the essence of that era.

To better understand how this eclectic and exotic look evolved, let’s open the history books for a moment and explore its evolution. For more than three centuries, England ruled an empire that spanned more than one-quarter of the world, from Africa, to India, to Singapore, to Australia and to the West, and lest we forget, our own American colonies. Thus the phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

With the East India Company came explorations, the vibrant British flag flying over steamy jungles, trading posts, vast deserts, never-ending plains, and busy seaports. With the flag of Great Britain, came an influx of transplanted English, Scottish and Irish families to the jungles of Africa, the hill stations of India, and island plantations of the Caribbean.

British furnishings, brought by steamer to African, Indian and Caribbean shores, had to be adapted to tropical climates. For instance, rooms became less cluttered, simpler, more “airy,” at least by Victorian standards. The height of colonization in the late 1800s found British expats arriving at exotic ports and soon realizing they would have to partially-embrace the native lifestyle and local furnishings to survive the unremitting heat. However, local styles and products never outweighed the essential “Englishness” of a household.

And that’s at the heart of British colonial look — the sometimes formal and elegantly-robust Victorian style combined with the necessary practicalities of the airy, relatively effortless décor and furnishings of tropical climes.

The look is so popular that Thomasville Furniture Company has created the “Ernest Hemingway Collection” of furniture and accessories to portray the author-adventurer’s escapades in Africa while on safari and big-game hunting. And some may remember that Sears, about 25 years ago, had an interesting collection of “Campaign Furniture” and accessories that captured the military look of life in India during the time of the British Raj.

To get a really first-hand feel for the British colonial look, we turned our attention momentarily from our geographic reverie of “A Passage to India” and “Out of Africa” to Boston. The Ethan Allen Gallery of Fine Furniture on Route 37, less than a half-mile from the South Shore Plaza, has a fascinating array of vignettes of furniture and accessories that captures the essence of the British colonial style. Called “The British Classic Collection,” it depicts what life in the Caribbean Islands, the English-Indian Raj, and the African jungle safari might have looked and felt like.

Manager, Lisa Greenberg has been instrumental in incorporating the British colonial motif to existing styles within the walls of this established early-American furniture store that caters to New England-traditional sensibilities. Greenberg loves the British colonial look and encourages her designers and sales staff to mix and match—and clearly, to have fun with—interpreting the “casual lushness” of the British colonial style.

According to interior designer Joan Falco, “The British colonial look is not too formal mainly because it’s warm and inviting without being stuffy.“ The look is conducive to country cottage British Colonial, to grand manor house British colonial, to hunting lodge British colonial. Falco goes on the say that unlike most formal 18th and 19th-century decor, “This style uses lots of natural materials, such as bamboo, leather, dark woods mixed with light, stone and even marble.”

Falco, who is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers (A.S.I.D.) is also credentialled with the N.C.I.D.Q. (National Council of Interior Design Qualifications) believes strongly that this look is conducive to many existing styles. For instance, if you have colonial/early American/country style in your own home, Falco feels the transition from “American country” to British colonial is relatively easy. She reminds us that American colonial/early American design was based upon the English style of its day; that it’s just a simpler version of what would have been found in English homes.

She further notes that various details in the British classic look also depicts myriad elements for to create the British colonial feel: “For more of an island look, the pineapple motif is significant in furniture design. Cane and wicker are certainly important features. And reeding [carved parallel/corrugated lines] on picture or mirror frames and on the aprons of tables is prominent.”

Besides early-American and country motifs, the look lends itself equally well to contemporary furniture and modern design. Consider the following:

  • a teak coffee table with an animal skin-like rug underneath
  • a palm tree (real or otherwise) in the corner, dramatic uplighting from the base of it
  • tortoiseshell blinds or ivory linen roman shades on the windows
  • khaki or textured upholstery or slipcovers on the sofa with animal-or-rainforest-patterned toss pillows
  • perhaps a sleek leather (leather-look) or cane chair in the other corner
  • a few pieces of brass and some books on the tables; and your choice of wall accessories — a Picasso next to an African tribal mask? — and why not!
  • top it off with either a subtle ivory or beige, or dramatic russet wall paint, and/or faux finish, or nubby grasscloth wallcovering
  • some candles, a ceiling fan; and yes, another potted palm.
  • These elements co-mingle easily and the look is clean, dramatic, still clearly contemporary, yet unmistakably British colonial.

    So transitional, eclectic and adaptable is the British colonial style that even if you have a veritable mish-mash of odds and ends taking up space in a studio apartment, college dorm, or cottage in the woods—and the most obvious feature is Mom’s hand-me-downs and Grandma’s cast-offs of the 1930s, 40s and 50s—consider yourself lucky! “Shabby Chic” is one look that’s so in it will probably never be out and works with several styles and looks.

    Shabby Chic translates itself effortlessly and near-perfectly to the British colonial look:

  • folding tables, old wicker chairs with linen, hanky-covered toss pillows
  • a beat-up armoire, free-standing, folding screens in the corner that help to hide nothing in particular (or an untidy corner)
  • old ivory linens or sheer/voile curtains; Indian chintz bedcovers, paisley throws
  • old brass and iron beds or hand-painted or faux-finished bedsteads
  • kerosene lanterns; proudly-displayed old, chipped china pieces (plates, teapots, pitchers-and-bowls), Victorian-style wicker and rattan baskets
  • softly-painted walls, or a faux color-wash, pale or “tea-stained” floral wallpaper
  • a straw hat, a moth-eaten parasol, wild flowers in a fragile porcelain pitcher or bold roses in an ornamented but faded old bowl
  • All these elements combined do create a beguiling assemblage of what might be referred to as “Shabby Chic goes British colonial.” It’s a look, a statement, and it’s a clever fantasy of enormous wit and whimsy.

    Look in your closet, your attic, your cellar—your mother’s cellar—and chances are better than good you’ll find the necessary means to achieve this captivating look. An old paisley shawl, a rolled-up Indian or oriental rug crouching in the corner, unusually-shaped wicker baskets, black and white photographs, old, trophy cups with a time-worn patina, a tarnished silver whiskey flask.

    Now look in your own surroundings—ceiling fans, lacy sheer curtains, sisal or coir rugs, potted palm plants, bamboo shades, louvered doors or shutters, a few pieces of brass, silverplate or shiny pewter.

    And now look to local yard sales and flea markets—seek out leather articles or furniture, old wicker chairs or tables, batik, chintz, paisley, zebra or leopard fabrics; large (even bulky) chairs and other furnishings, antlers and animal skin-type rugs, which needn’t be real, (sheepskin or Greek flokati rugs will do). Consider anything that smacks of exotic animals like monkeys, elephants, tigers, giraffes; flora and fauna, such as orchids, lilies, dramatic plants, interesting fronds and grasses, brass and bamboo planters, and the all-pervading palm.

    If you want a more safari look, think about incorporating a pith helmet; really old binoculars, a vintage Brownie camera or turn-of-the-last-century typewriter or Victrola; facsimiles of 19th -century maps; old, inoperable firearms, spears and native shields; khaki-colored fabrics; grasscloth walls (wallpaper or faux-painted finishes), wood blinds or linen-look shades; a leather-upholstered sofa or zebra or leopard-patterned chair.

    For an Indian look, cane and wicker anything; soften the feel of the room with tapestries; mosquito netting over a bed or sofa, chintz fabrics and throws (not chintz as in large, cabbage roses found in country cottages, but the stylized imports of Indian florals and paisleys), gorgeous silk saris; white or brown or wood ceiling fans; dark wood-paneled, or creamy ivory walls; maroon-reds, russets and saffron golds and ochre for accent colors.

    After a vacation to the Caribbean, you may have fallen in love with the look and feel of the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, the Cayman or Virgin Islands—formerly British colonies. Think in terms of the ocean, blues and greens and turquoises; stark whites to deflect the sun; soft pink-apricot walls reminiscent of island bungalows; bamboo anything, starched linens, ceiling fans and of course, the ubiquitous shutters or shades.

    And the most important accent piece of all — palms and more palms, real or silk, those flailing fronds instantly create a look of things sultry, casual, sensual and exotic; and cast wonderful shadows, evocative of zebra stripes, when either theatrically uplit or backlit.

    To soften a decidedly masculine feel to British colonial style, try mosquito-netting hanging above, falling behind and alongside a leather sofa. If your prefer an ultra feminine look, go for Shabby Chic with it’s painted furniture and lacy and flowery theme. If it’s country you fancy, think early-Americana goes Shabby Chic with linens, lace on the windows and flourishes of tropical rainforests and exotic flowers in place of plaids, checks and other “country” themes.

    Perhaps it’s needless to say, with all the effort put into maintaining the population of endangered species, not to mention the callousness of big-game hunting, no one condones or recommends that kind of authenticity to capture the décor of British colonial — it’s a look, merely that — evoking an era that will probably never return. There are too many wonderful reproductions out there to achieve the British colonial style without plundering our natural wildlife.

    But it was a different sort of time. There was an innocence and brutality, imperialism and expansion, adventure and romance the world is likely never to come across again. Perhaps the only pioneering left to do is up there, in the skies. But we can decorate our homes with nostalgia for African safaris, pitched tents and serving tea al fresco while en route to Nairobi; or drinking a freshly-squeezed lemonade on a balcony overlooking the Caribbean at sundown, the smell of a mango savanna drifting through tropical breezes, the only sound is the tide’s ebb and flow upon virgin beaches; and of languid rides high upon a gaily-decorated elephant with a large parasol perched atop its carriage, watching a polo or cricket game by a tea plantation, the shrouded Taj Mahal way off in the distance. Despite the bravado, it was an enchanted time nonetheless.

    All material produced and maintained by Dorothy Malcolm dba Verbatim-Ink.   Not to be reproduced without permission.