On the Fringe: A Life in Decorating
Imogen Taylor with Martin Wood (Pimpernel Press, £50)
‘DAVID, We don’t want you.’ With these words, the Duchess of Windsor dismissed the Duke of Windsor from Colefax and Fowler while discussing interior designs. ‘she reminded me, i hate to say, more of a snake than anything,’ the author adds.
such crisp cameos pepper 90year-old interior decorator imogen Taylor’s memoir. As sharp as an upholsterer’s tack, miss Taylor worked at Colefax for 50 years and offers a rare account of a lost world. starting at the bottom in 1949, she rose from assisting John Fowler to becoming a partner of the business in 1966. After leaving, she bought her first private car at 72 and, at 78, a neglected house in France.
The glamorous world of swagged silk and passementerie in grandly decorated houses, mostly in england, unfolds through sketches of illustrious clients and a clearsighted account of Fowler: ‘John was, by nature, indolent.’
For her first job, in Kenya, miss Taylor invented metal trays of paraffin at the feet of a four-poster to stop termites climbing up and eating the hangings. At Nancy Astor’s, she kicked over a bucket of white paint and a great stretch of bespoke carpet had to be rewoven. heiress Drue heinz, of the baked-beans family, was ‘spoiled and difficult’; Vivien Leigh, although beautiful, was also ‘difficult’. Dolly Rothschild, the second richest woman in england, slept in an iron bedstead and drove her own Rover; she ‘would come into Colefax wearing a mackintosh—but the mackintosh was lined with fur—carrying a marks & spencer bag.’
The author’s first encounter with pamela harriman, sir Winston Churchill’s daughter-in-law, who only wanted net curtains, is memorable. Arriving at her apartment she found harriman stark naked on the bed, having a massage: ‘All i could see was her ginger hair and marble-white body.’
When designer Tom parr bought half the business in 1960, he made the eccentrically old-school affair more commercial. however, like Fowler, he had a temper: ‘The Duchess of Cornwall was one of the assistants who fell victim to one of his tantrums.’
As well as unflagging aperçus, miss Taylor gives a warm account of the craftspeople she worked with, many of whose intricate trades are now lost. The closing chapters, renovating her home in France, are vivid. here is a woman with a great appetite for life, who, for half a century, created what she modestly calls—using Nancy Astor’s term—‘ambience’, for others to enjoy. Philippa Stockley