Islands, Jungles and
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
or ivory linen roman shades on the windows
khaki or textured
upholstery or slipcovers on the sofa with animal-or-rainforest-patterned toss
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
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
proudly-displayed old, chipped china pieces (plates, teapots,
pitchers-and-bowls), Victorian-style wicker and rattan baskets
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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