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.
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 squat-like 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, 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 dealer-designer 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 country-house 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 contemporary, bringing a home-from-home feel to public spaces. One of the key ingredients of the look is Howard-style 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 country-house 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 consumer-driven 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.’
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