Listen to this article
Why is the past so much more romantic than the present? What is it about castles, four-poster beds, and wolf hounds stretched in front of fires? Why do we thrill to the rumble of a coach and four? It must have been dreadful to live in a castle: damp, smelly, inconvenient. And imagine the tedium of travelling in a coach, with rudimentary springs, and metal-bound wheels, lurching along roads pitted with potholes. Moreover, you’d probably have had toothache, and stays that dug into your stomach.
On the other hand, a set of stays does wonders for the disguise of middle-aged spread in a way that Lycra never can, and galloping horses are far more pleasing to the eye than a 4x4. Open fires are better looking than radiators, and candlelight is more flattering than LEDs. Beauty is an essential ingredient of romance, and in purely aesthetic terms, the past is a romantic feast.
For elegance, prettiness and piquant eroticism, few eras can beat the mid-18th century. The French court at Versailles led the world of fashion. Its king was Louis XV — handsome, shy, athletic, amorous — and for 20 years Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, who became Marquise de Pompadour, was his mistress. Vilified by French nobility as “bourgeoise”, Madame de Pompadour was in fact a woman of great refinement, a gifted musician and actress, and a patron of the arts.
She was also an inveterate shopper and decorator, who filled her several houses — as well as her apartments at Versailles — with porcelain, furnishings, silks, embroideries and paintings by favourite artists, including François Boucher. She had a passion for flowers — her rooms were heady with the scent of fresh blooms — and she loved birds and kept them as pets.
With her taste for truffle soup, champagne and chocolate, she was a woman who knew how to live. The king adored her and, even now, she has the glow of a romantic icon. As Witold Rybczynski comments in his 1986 book Home: A Short History of an Idea, Madame de Pompadour “not only encouraged Louis’s interest in domestic architecture, but also directed it towards the small, the precious and the intimate”.
There are many ways to make use of the “Pompadour style”. Thanks to UK company Surface View, which makes large-scale bespoke prints, it is now possible to cover an entire wall with one of her portraits by Boucher, blown up to fill the space with its gorgeous confection of flowers, frills, bows and lace. From the midst of the painting, Madame de Pompadour’s eyes, described by one contemporary as “the brightest, wittiest and most sparkling I ever saw” gaze with disarming directness. The effect of using the image as wallpaper is utterly different from hanging its reproduction in a frame — the surprise is the scale, which gives it a surreal modernity, without losing any of its ravishing allure.
Taking traditional motifs and beefing them up is a reliable way to get the best of both worlds, combining the decorative charm of the past with the élan of the present. One of the newest designs by The Rug Company is “Oriental Birds” by Paul Smith (known for his trademark stripes), which features colourful birds, exotic flowers and butterflies the size of seagulls. “Thirty years ago,” says Smith, “there was a trend for everything to be very minimal, but now we see interior designers using pieces of furniture from different periods, mixing wallpaper and using lots of colour”.
Fornasetti’s “Farfalle” desk in black lacquer, an updated escritoire scattered with butterflies, is another piece that a latter-day Pompadour might appreciate. One of the reasons we know so much about life in the 18th-century court of Versailles is that its denizens were prolific correspondents. Now that tapping out a text or email can be done from a train or in the dentist’s waiting room, there is something romantic about a handwritten letter, and, by association, about the presence of a small desk, with no holes drilled for wires, set in a bedroom, or by the window of a living room. Beth Scanlon, of Scanlon Apparati, makes exquisite desk accessories, some of which incorporate dioramas taken from 18th-century prints. “I enjoy the very tangible nature of a letter, and I like having somewhere to keep those I receive,” she says.
What do the professional decorators suggest when it comes to romance? Scott Maddux has recently finished a large house in Notting Hill, west London, where he says the most obviously romantic feature is the marble-lined double shower. Although showers were unknown in the 18th century, Maddux’s use of lavishly veined Arabescato would have been familiar in the bathrooms of Versailles. As would the shape, if not the resin composite of the bath. For the real, marble deal, Lapicida makes stone baths fit for emperors.
For anyone seeking to immerse themselves deeper in 18th-century French style, a dining room by design duo Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergeylen offers plenty of ideas. “Interiors should make people look and feel more beautiful,” says Moschino.
Inspired by rooms in Le Petit Trianon, the intimate palace built for Pompadour at Versailles in the 1760s, Moschino and Vergeylen created symmetry in an awkward room of one property in London by adding a false door and window and then created a period feel with panelling and antique furnishings.
The result is a night-time room, and key to its effect are candles and the mirrors in which their light is reflected. Used judiciously, mirror glass brings sparkle and a sense of space to an interior. As here, the secret is antiqued glass. To create this effect, one might employ London design company Rupert Bevan, which uses traditional processes for silvering and distressing mirror glass. The reflections it makes are as soft and flattering as candlelight itself.
Madame de Pompadour was criticised in her lifetime for being extravagant, but she was a woman who respected the artists and craftsmen she commissioned. Anyone wishing to follow in her style, might choose to employ decorative artist Adam Calkin, who has a charmingly romantic style and can paint entire rooms with entwined initials, lovebirds and garlands of roses. London-based designer Marianna Kennedy makes “Rosebud” mirrors that combine water gilding with rose-tinted glass in the manner of Pompadour’s favourite room, which was lined with red lacquer panelling.
Also available via Kennedy are guéridons with lacquer tops polished to a deep sheen by lacquer and paint specialist Pedro da Costa Felgueiras.
Photograph: Jan Baldwin
Slideshow photographs: WLTAG Studio, Jan Baldwin