At home with Un­cle Monty

Thirty years af­ter the re­lease of With­nail and I, Ara­bella Youens ex­am­ines the stylis­tic legacy of the fic­tional char­ac­ter’s taste for deep Howard-style so­fas and chairs

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Thirty years on from With­nail

and I, Ara­bella Youens re­vis­its the char­ac­ter’s taste for deep Howard-style so­fas and Amelia Thorpe se­lects ex­am­ples of Vic­to­rian up­hol­stery

IN a key scene in the 1987 comic mas­ter­piece With­nail and I, the pro­tag­o­nists—a pair of per­ma­nently ine­bri­ated, out-of-work ac­tors—visit Un­cle Monty’s house in Chelsea to ask if they can bor­row his Cum­brian cot­tage for a holiday. Un­cle Monty, played by the late, great Richard Griffiths, opens the door clutch­ing a large fluffy cat and a wa­ter­ing can and in­vites the pair into his large draw­ing room, launch­ing into a mono­logue about why flow­ers are just ‘pros­ti­tutes for bees’ and some in­nu­endo about the firm­ness of a young car­rot.

The con­trast to the pair’s squat­like flat in Cam­den Town—where liv­ing or­gan­isms grow un­der the pile of dirty plates in the sink—couldn’t be more dra­matic. While With­nail pours the sherry, Monty throws him­self onto his vast sofa in a room that, dec­o­ra­tively speak­ing, com­bines a wil­ful re­jec­tion of moder­nity with spir­ited English ec­cen­tric­ity. This is achieved with a se­duc­tive, if dis­parate, ar­ray of mem­o­ra­bilia, ta­pes­tries, an­i­mal skins and piles of learned books, the sole pur­pose of which is to sup­port the over­weight cat’s de­scent from the sofa.

The scene was filmed at a lo­ca­tion that re­quired lit­tle set dress­ing— the mag­nif­i­cent West House, then the home of Prof Bernard Nevill, de­sign di­rec­tor at Lib­erty dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s. De­signed in 1868 by the Arts-and-crafts ar­chi­tect Philip Webb, it was ac­quired in 1970 by Nevill, who spent sev­eral decades per­fect­ing the in­te­ri­ors be­fore sell­ing the house, in 2011, for a ru­moured £20 mil­lion.

Af­ter fur­ther sous­ing Monty’s senses with a ‘rhe­sus neg­a­tive Bloody Mary’ and re­as­sur­ing him his friend is of sim­i­lar so­cial stock, With­nail heads out of the house dan­gling the keys to the cot­tage and ex­plain­ing an un­writ­ten rule of the Bri­tish up­per classes, where things are ‘free to those that can af­ford it, very ex­pen­sive to those that can’t’.

The rest of the film is set in the mud and rain of the Lake District, where With­nail de­clares to the lo­cal farmer that they’ve gone on holiday ‘by mis­take’. They then try to in­gra­ti­ate them­selves with the pub­li­can by telling him that they are writ­ing for Coun­try Life: ‘We’re do­ing a fea­ture—a sur­vey on ru­ral types. You know, farm­ers, trav­el­ling tin­kers.’ The film, which was orig­i­nally a fail­ure at the box of­fice,

‘house Un­cle Monty’s Chelsea evoked a rich her­itage of faded glory ’

left a last­ing im­pres­sion on the gen­er­a­tions that watched it.

One fan is an­tique dealer, and founder of Jamb, Will Fisher: ‘With­nail and

I not only en­hanced my love of the English coun­try-house in­te­rior, but was also re­spon­si­ble for an ob­ses­sion with overly long leather trench coats,’ he says. ‘Luck­ily for my wife, Charlotte, only the for­mer has stood the test of time—a true coun­try-house in­te­rior is time­less, un­like the lat­ter.’

In­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor Penny Mor­ri­son agrees, adding: ‘Un­cle Monty’s Chelsea house evoked a rich her­itage of faded glory and quirky pieces kept, loved and used by gen­er­a­tions. It in­spired a resur­gence of gen­er­ous, com­fort­able up­hol­stery, big, soft and sump­tu­ous cush­ions, plus tex­tures and ubiq­ui­tous pat­terns.’

This lav­ish com­fort is thanks to the 19th-cen­tury fur­ni­ture man­u­fac­turer Howard & Sons. In con­trast to for­mal Ge­or­gian seat­ing, where the com­fort of a chair came not from the horse­hair or straw seat pad, but the care­fully moulded form of the frame, the Vic­to­ri­ans and, in par­tic­u­lar, Howard & Sons in­tro­duced the spring and, at a stroke, a dif­fer­ent level of ease. ‘Howard & Sons clev­erly re­alised that it could float a feather-down sack on top of the sprung backs, arms and seats, giv­ing ul­ti­mate com­fort,’ ex­plains deal­erde­signer Max Rol­litt, who today re­pro­duces Howard-style chairs us­ing the same tech­nique. ‘Its fur­ni­ture, un­like most of its con­tem­po­raries, also im­proved with age, get­ting com­fier as the fea­tures set­tled and the web­bing re­laxed.’

At around the time that With­nail was re­leased, an­tique dealer Christo­pher

Howe was cut­ting his teeth in the an­tiques trade, trawl­ing coun­try­house sales. His at­ten­tion was first drawn to the work of Howard & Sons af­ter a sale of the con­tents of Elve­den Hall, Suf­folk, for­mer home of ma­hara­jah Duleep Singh.

‘When the ma­hara­jah ac­quired Elve­den, he com­mis­sioned the most ex­tra­or­di­nary, over-scaled pieces from Howard that were spot­ted by the an­tique dealer Ge­orge Sher­lock, who was the first to copy the Howard chairs and sparked off a fash­ion for them that re­mains strong today,’ ex­plains Mr Howe. ‘They just can’t be beaten for quin­tes­sen­tial English style and com­fort.’

In­te­rior designer Susie Atkin­son has made a name cre­at­ing the in­te­ri­ors for the Soho House group us­ing a sig­na­ture com­bi­na­tion of vin­tage and cont- em­po­rary, bring­ing a home-from-home feel to pub­lic spa­ces. One of the key in­gre­di­ents of the look is Howard­style so­fas and chairs.

‘For me, they have never been a fash­ion item. They are like old friends —sit­ting, wait­ing for you to col­lapse into at the end of a day or af­ter a Sun­day lunch,’ she re­flects. ‘I use them in tra­di­tional or con­tem­po­rary in­te­ri­ors as they work well in both. They were made so well with per­fect pro­por­tions and a cer­tain fi­nesse—they are never blocky or bulky and yet they give you a feel­ing of be­ing cos­seted.’ The at­trac­tion for this style of seat­ing looks un­likely to wane—along with the look of a clas­sic coun­try­house in­te­rior. Ac­cord­ing to Toby Lor­ford of Lor­fords An­tiques, which has just re­leased its ‘Cre­ated’ range in the man­ner of Howard, it is a par­tic­u­larly English quirk to ap­pre­ci­ate some­thing weath­ered from time and wear. ‘In this con­sumer­driven built-in ob­so­les­cence, Monty’s so­fas should have been con­signed to the scrap heap,’ he says. ‘And yet the re­vival of Howard & Sons has been me­te­oric.’

A scene from With­nail and I (fac­ing page), and the draw­ing room of West House in Chelsea where the film was shot (above)

The home of Charlotte and Will Fisher, of Jamb (above), and a Howardin­spired sofa by Ge­orge Sher­lock (be­low)

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