An era of openness

Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 not only marked the birth of the Edwardian era but also ushered in a new period of architecture and interior design. The Victorian period was typified by cluttered, dark interiors, heavy black and purple paint, narrow hallways and gloomy parlours. In its place came electric light, spacious rooms and large windows.

At the start of the 20th century, public transport was evolving fast, and doctors, lawyers and bankers could newly afford to move further out of the city. They rented imposing detached houses in the leafy suburbs around Kew, Richmond and Putney in west London.

Melanie Backe-Hansen, a historian and author of House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door, says: “This period saw the appearance of the Edwardian villa. The new Underground and improved railway links meant people could build in the outskirts of the city, where there was much more space.

“They built mini country houses, called them ‘villas’ to give a semblance of grandeur, and added substantial gardens for their children to play in.”

The new middle classes had fewer servants than had been common in the Victorian era. While landed upper classes still had live-in staff, the residents of these newer houses sometimes employed no more than one maid indoors. This change in lifestyle was reflected in the way the new houses were constructed. “The reception rooms moved to the ground floor, along with the kitchen,” says Backe-Hansen. “With no need to house servants, a family could have the bedrooms on the first floor and the living space on the ground floor.”

This move downstairs led, in turn, to the desire for more windows overlooking large gardens, which also chimed with the Edwardian appetite for a more rural life. Although Edward VII ruled for only nine years (1901 to 1910), the trends associated with Edwardian style are more fluid, with some style historians citing the period’s true origins in the mid-to-late Victorian era, and its conclusion with the first world war.

One of the most famous names associated with the Edwardian era is William Morris who, though he died in 1896, continued to influence interior design and architecture until the 1930s. He led the Arts and Crafts movement, which criticised the Victorian appetite for mass production and what it saw as the inhumane working conditions in factories. Instead, it yearned for a return to small workshops with craftsmen making products from local materials and using traditional methods.

His company, Morris and Co, designed decorative objects for the home, including wallpaper, textiles, furniture and stained glass, with patterns inspired by nature.

Charles Voysey’s pastel designs of birds and flowers are also typical of the period, while the Victorian architect Owen Jones’s book The Grammar of Ornament (1856) was one of the most influential on the Edwardians and is still in print today.

Walls in the period were typically painted in soft yellows and greens as they were the colours of the countryside. The lighter colours were also possible because the spread of cleaner fuels, such as gas and electricity, meant interiors did not get so dirty from the soot and smoke produced by fires and candles.

But it was not just about rural England. As the Edwardians travelled more widely, they brought back influences and styles from abroad. Arthur Lasenby Liberty, founder of the eponymous London store, often stocked exotic pieces to sell in his shop. Japanese bamboo became popular at this time, a stark contrast to heavy Victorian furniture. EW Godwin’s wicker furniture, with its slender legs, also sold well.

“It was a consciously eclectic style of decor,” says Helen Elletson, curator at the William Morris Society. “People were travelling more widely and they would mix British furniture with pieces from other cultures, such as rugs from India and pots from Morocco.”

Debbie Blott runs the Décor Café, a club providing workshops for people who want to update and decorate their homes. She lives in an Edwardian villa in Putney and finds the look is still popular today.

“This modern eclecticism is about carefully mismatched decor. Patchwork sofas from Squint, or armchairs from Carita Rose are perfect examples of this look, as well as painted furniture to tie everything together.”

Ideal wall colours include the soft creams, yellows and green shades of the original Morris & Co collection. “Flaxen, chamomile and fennel are shades that really came into their own in the Edwardian era and they are still really relevant now,” adds Blott.

Louisa Blackmore, owner of online boutique store West Egg, which specialises in sourcing and restoring antique furniture, says: “Chalk paints give a soft matte finish in muted colours that work really well with this look. I like Annie Sloan’s old white and duck egg blue.”

Eve Waldron, an interior designer from Cambridge, has worked on several Edwardian homes and finds their large proportions and original features work well with a modern interior. “I will often use an original detail, such as a patterned tile or a plaster moulding, as the springboard for a scheme. I like Josef Frank fabrics – they are funky and contemporary and they fit really well with this eclectic look.”

But it’s not all about modernising and many owners go to great expense to restore original features, such as the floral tiles used in the classic Edwardian cast-iron fire surround. Another favoured period feature is stained glass windows, which were often installed not just in the front door but in large picture windows.

Gabby Adler, a buying agent in Richmond, says the Edwardian villa is perfect for contemporary family living. “Unlike Victorian houses, which tend to have a series of small, dark rooms, the Edwardians created large, square spaces with lots of windows. This means there is no need to remove internal walls to create the more open-plan style of living [that is favoured today].”

In addition to their grand proportions, Adler points out that many of these villas are now in the prime locations of southwest London and have price tags to match.

“They are proper family houses so people tend to own them for years. A house like this is a very solid investment and the prices haven’t really been affected despite the economic climate. When they do go on sale the prices can be anywhere between £4m and £7m. Buyers fall in love with the huge gardens, large windows and lots of internal space.”

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