13 March 2012

British Colonial Style

So I was thinking more about style, and it occurs to me that I tend to reference favorite films and television series when trying to put a name or genre to what appeals to me: Out of Africa; A Passage to India; Jewel in the Crown; Flame Trees of Thika.

What all these beautiful and evocative set designs seem to have in common is British Colonial style.  This sent me on a mission to see what others have to say about this style, and I found this on the HGTV site: 

British Colonial Style
Any time civilized people live in a very tropical climate, an interesting juxtaposition of styles arises — out of tradition and necessity. The British Colonial style during the Golden Age of Piracy of the 1600 and 1700s was no exception. China and silver among other refined items were imported from Britain, but that elegance was tempered with the realities of island life: the need to stay cool and the available local resources. British colonists were in the Caribbean to harvest the rare woods of the area, primarily mahogany — and that rich dark wood in furniture and flooring became a signature of the style. Instead of the heavy trappings of a British home, draperies and bed linens were lighter and more flowing, and walls were kept in paler hues to reflect the light.

 British Colonial Basics
  • Use dark woods in your furnishings, either real mahogany or your own version created with stain or paint, and opt for dark floors to create the base for the look.
  • Walls don't have to be white, but should be light — sea tones of pale green or blue look great against dark wood. A highly reflective color is best (in paint, reflective quality is measured in LRV, light reflectance value; go for 40 percent LRV or more).
  • Add textural interest with woven elements, such as baskets or sisal rugs.
  • Intersperse pieces of china, silver or crystal for a look of elegance.
  • Get fresh with flowers (pop them in an antique china bowl) or add a tropical palm or fern. Greenery looks great against the dark woods and light linens.
  • Stain light wood darker to capture the richness of mahogany, a wood that was harvested in the Caribbean islands.
  • A three-panel screen can disguise an unsightly door. It was behind such screens that ladies of the day changed their tightly corseted clothes.
  • Create "island" touches with reeding (in the headboard and room divider) and wicker (in a night table).
  • Add faux leather to provide a touch of richness and Old World grace.

Many years ago, I'd purchased a copy of British Colonial Style by Tricia Foley (1993).  The images you see throughout this post are from her lovely book. 

Looking around my parlor at the steamer trunk, the dark furniture, the piles of old books, the crowded mantle, the stacked wicker hampers, the paisely shawls, the dark bamboo shades and interior shutters, the old Cricket balls and pots of greenery I see that there is more method to my style than I first thought!

I'm not sure if the book is still available,
but for anyone who enjoys this style, I recommend it!


  1. The book isn't in print anymore, and I've known about it for a few years now. You wouldn't believe what the going price for a copy is. You are so lucky to have gotten a one when you did. I love Tricia Foley. And I love BC style. I'm sure I've been greatly influenced by both Merchant Ivory films and Ralph Lauren. But Out of Africa had a HUGE impact on me! Fun to see some pages from the book.

  2. Oh dear, what a shame! That makes me glad I was able to get it when I did. I also adore the clothing from that period. Thanks to films like "Dr. Zhivago", I haven't worn a skirt or dress shorter than mid-calf length since I was in high school, and "Out of Africa" and Merchant-Ivory only reinforced that trend!