She ran Sibyl Colefax Ltd at first with Peggy Ward, the Countess Munster. Then in 1938 when the countess stepped down, Lady Colefax took on the talented painter John Fowler as partner. In 1944 the business moved to its current premises at 39 Brook Street, Mayfair. That same year, Nancy Lancaster took it over, and renamed it Colefax & Fowler — and it remains one of the best-known names in interior design.
Lot 79: by Romain de Tirtoff — Erté — a 1926 oriental costume design for the Folies Bergère (£800-£1,200, left): Lot 203: a mythical hero from Rajasthan, mid 19th century, 14in high (£700-£1,000)
At Christie’s next week, the company will offer 60 items as the opening part of a grand interior design auction. Desirable and pretty lots among the 300 coming up include several delicate pairs of wall lamps — for decorative lighting that not only flatters, but of course banishes trailing flexes. Lot 15 is a pair of silver-grey tole three-branch lights, for £800-£1,200; lot 22 are ethereal parcel-gilt lights with leaves, for £600-£900, and lot 44 is a striking French pair of lights in nickel-plate, shaped like large shells, at £500-£800.
Colefax & Fowler doesn’t do tired or eccentric, so everything in the sale is well-made and useful, including an unusually shaped mahogany armchair re-covered in a geometric print, for £800-£1,200, and a big break-fronted early 19th-century bookcase in elm, for £3,000-£5,000. It’s a hefty price — but it’s a hefty bookcase. A star buy is an oak centre table with intriguing spiral- carved legs, with a label indicating that it was owned by Queen Victoria’s fifth child, Princess Helena. The table was probably in her residence in Pall Mall. Because of this regal pedigree it may jump its estimate of £800-£1,200.
Lot 242: a beechwood sofa, early 20th century, in green Toile de Jouy (£1,500-£2,500)
Where Colefax & Fowler is famous for the sort of relaxed, comfortable grandeur that goes with old money — nothing too extreme and definitely nothing flashy — the larger, second part of this same sale is taken up by the exuberant and wonderfully eclectic home contents collection of interior designer Lex Aitken — who died aged 83 in Sydney last year — and his partner, the dress designer and illustrator, Alfredo Bouret Gonzalez. Diana, Princess of Wales was a client of Gonzalez’s London fashion boutique, Mexicana.
Australian-born Aitken spent his working life dealing from his eponymous London shop at 84 Pimlico Road to clients and friends who included the painter Lucian Freud. Since this is a home contents sale there is a bit of everything, but every item conjures up a glamorous life of elegant dinner parties, cocktails, and lounging on sofas striking poses, surrounded by covetable things. There are about 240 lots from the couple’s lifetime of collecting, focusing on an international range of fine and interesting paintings, drawings, busts and sculpture, plus ceramics that include lot 147, a pair of peony-decorated Japanese vases and covers with lions on top for £600-£1,000.
Lot 240: a pair of American palm tree tole lamps, 30in tall (£800-£1,200)
A Louis XVI-style beech sofa dressed in Toile de Jouy is charming and offers fair value at £1,500-£2,500. As with Colefax & Fowler, there are some good lamps. A pair of table lamps shaped like stylised palm trees is guaranteed to add pizzazz to any room (lot 240, £800-£1,200), and there are a couple of ornate mirrors that will do the same. For a colourful splash of Twenties chic, an unusual set of dressing table dishes and caskets in opaline, lot 238, is on for £600-£1,000.
But here the star buys are among the couple’s art collection. There is an excellent large George Romney oil of 21-year-old Mrs Moody, in a then-fashionable white muslin dress, done in 1786. Uncertainty over the bidding on this puts its estimate at a wide £40,000-£60,000 and it may well go higher, so this is serious stuff. At entry-level price is a George Watts sketch of a woman, beautifully observed, estimated at just £300-£400 (lot 249).
Also for budding collectors are two watercolours by Erté — the Russian-born French artist and designer Romain de Tirtoff — one a fashion illustration (lot 77), the other a 1926 costume design for the Folies Bergère (lot 79). Erté has risen in value, and these dainty pictures are put at £800-£1,200.
Lot 24: a George III figured elm break-fronted bookcase, early 19th century (£3,000-£5,000)
In complete tonal contrast in its gilded frame is lot 158, a small oil portrait of a gentleman’s head, by a follower of the 17th-century painter Frans Pourbus II, with a guide of £600-£1,000. There are also some small, very pretty Indian paintings in characteristic sherbet colours.
House sales are always fascinating, and this entire sale offers such a wide choice that it deserves the tag of “something for everyone” — as long, that is, as you like things that are interesting, intriguing and elegant.
- The Art of Design: The Lex Aitken and Alfredo Bouret Gonzalez collection, and Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler sale, is at Christie’s South Kensington on June 4, 2014. Visit www.christies.com.