Formal dining room in British colonial style - exotic toile, flowers and mahogany.

True British Colonial Style

Formal dining room in British colonial style - exotic toile, flowers and mahogany.
Formal dining room in British colonial style – exotic toile, flowers and mahogany.

BRITISH COLONIAL style has become very popular in the last few years; mahogany furnishings, tropical prints, bamboo and rattan, and such design elements as monkeys, palm trees, ticking stripes, leather and wicker have invaded our homes. However, many consumers have no idea what British Colonial style is, or where it came from. Yet this style has an interesting story to tell.

At one time, about a hundred and fifty years ago, the saying was that “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Under Queen Victoria, the British colonized the world, from India to the West Indies and many places between. Stationed overseas for years, British citizens melded the traditional furnishings from home with the craftsmanship of the locals they governed. Local customs and weather also influenced elements of the style. The Victorians were inveterate collectors; they returned to England with many of the things they had acquired, bringing wicker and bamboo furnishings, Chinese porcelain and rugs to the great houses back home. Explorers and botanists, hired by the queen, collected samples and published prints of the exotic plants and animals they found. A collection that spanned the globe demonstrated the wealth and well-traveled sophistication of the returned expatriate.

Some furnishings were created specifically for travel. Called campaign furniture, these pieces often folded up into trunks or broke down into pieces to be easily packed and moved. Officers’ tents were furnished with beautiful collapsible bed frames, folding mahogany chairs, and writing tables and liquor cabinets installed into steamer trunks. Many trunks had fitted interiors to hold china, glass and silver. Collapsible cups were made of metal or cow’s horn. In the days before paper plates and cups, workaday items were often made of sturdy pewter, shell, bone and tortoiseshell. While original examples of these pieces are expensive today, many are being reproduced and make interesting, even whimsical, additions to our homes. Look for cups made of horn, silver with bone handles, tortoise patterned glass, leather-bound books and letter-writing boxes. They bring to mind the romance of travel, and the leisurely pursuits we have all but abandoned, such as letter-writing and cocktails at sunset.

British expatriates were influenced by the climate and customs of the places they visited, too. The word bungalow, for instance, is an Indian word for a small one and a half story mountain house the wealthier class in India used to escape the summer heat. They had peaked roofs, heavy beams, and porches to catch the breeze. Imported back to England, the bungalow style was perfect for cottages by the sea. When it migrated to America at the end of the nineteenth century, the bungalow was adopted as the perfect small family home. Who would have thought that the quintessential American home actually originated in India? Today the idea of the bungalow conjures up images of summers at the shore, or the charm of sitting on the front porch.

The English also adopted fabrics, such as lighter cottons and linens, in the tropical places they were grown. Curtains of linen were made with ties at the top, so they could be tied to the tent frames to create rooms within the campaign tents, and easily removed for packing. Linen or mattress ticking slipcovers covered the heavy furnishings and protected them from the dust that filtered in through open windows in the heat. Interiors in the tropics were light and airy, punctuated by the occasional floral chintz or mahogany chest from England; linen and cotton clothing replaced wool. Look at the interiors and costumes in the film “Out of Africa” and you’ll really see the style. If you truly want a British Colonial or West Indies style interior, keep in mind that they didn’t have heavy chenille fabrics or the massively oversized furniture we have today. Furniture was small scale, slipcovers were often used, and dark persian rugs were often replaced by more tribal designs such as kilims, or by sisal and seagrass matting. Mosquito netting draped around beds, and bamboo shades often covered windows. You might see a selection of fabrics like these:

On the islands, traditional British furnishings were initially imported; pattern books were also brought, and local craftsmen commissioned to copy the European style furnishings in local woods. Mahogany was commonly used and the earliest colonial antiques can be spotted by their use of the largest, oldest boards as the virgin forests were cut in the New World. Honduran, West Indian, and Barbadian craftsmen, not being as highly trained, simplified the English furnishings to create the less ornate pieces we know today as British Colonial style. Interiors on the islands often adopted the local use of bright color, so it is not uncommon in a historic tropical home to see bright coral or cobalt blue walls setting off the mahogany furniture. This look has also been referred to as West Indian style. It incorporates a much more casual look, perhaps with pine flooring, grass matting, and large bright tropical printed fabrics on the furniture, with the colonial mahogany pieces dominating each room. Fabrics printed for the English marketplace, with a tropical flair, complete the look:

As you can see, British Colonial style encompasses a wide range of design elements and furnishings, from the Caribbean to the Far East, India, Africa and even Hong Kong. All share the influence of far-flung places conquered by the British as they marched around the globe – importing their culture and shipping exotic finds home. It appeals to our sense of the exotic, of adventure, and of romance — a home decorated in the true British Colonial style adds an air of romance and sophistication to today’s casual lifestyle. You can find out more about this interesting style in these books:

© March 2004 Kerry Ann Dame; may not be reproduced without permission.

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