Ten of the most beautiful rooms in Britain - and decorating ideas we can glean from them

Ten rooms from the pantheon of all-time greats – some old, some new, some in-between, ranging in type from palace to farmhouse to flat

What makes a room truly beautiful? Decorating being more art than science there’s no straightforward answer. Rather, it’s a combination of proportion, purpose and content – and, often, a beguiling history that proves the proverbial cherry on the cake. The narrative doesn’t have to relate to the room itself, it can be held within the furniture and objects.

In the Garden Room at Clarence House, designed for King Charles when he was still Prince of Wales by the great Robert Kime, is the piano that Noel Coward used to play when he visited the late Queen’s mother, wife of George VI; knowing that, the empty room comes alive with imagined scenes involving much merriment and pink gin. Historical biographer Flora Fraser’s chintz drawing room by Nicky Haslam and Studio QD is visually spectacular, even the columns have been covered in Bloomsbury by Rose Tarlow from Tissus d’Helene. However, without the antique pieces and family portraits, the room might have felt a bit flat.

It’s not possible to recreate these rooms exactly, but there is always something to learn from them. So here are ten rooms from the pantheon of all-time greats – some old, some new, some in-between, ranging in type from palace to farmhouse to flat.

1. The Great Kitchen at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton

Begun in 1787, King George IV commissioned what is now known as Brighton Pavilion when he was still Prince of Wales. Built in three stages, the current appearance with its domes and minarets is the work of John Nash; the King, then Prince Regent, was influenced by a visit to Sezincote House in the Cotswolds and directed Nash accordingly. The interior was by the great 19th century decorator Frederick Crace, and a decorative painter named Robert Jones. Heavily influenced by both Chinese and Indian fashion, with Mughal and Islamic architectural elements, the whole Pavilion is a prime example of the exoticism that was the alternative to the more mainstream classicism of Regency times. It’s open to the public – which is a treat – though it’s not exactly as it was. Queen Victoria was not a fan of either Brighton (too busy) or the Pavilion (it doesn’t have sea views) and stripped it of all she could, including much of the hand-painted wallpaper. She sold the building to Brighton, and it was used as a hospital during the First World War, specifically for Indian soldiers; paintings from that time show rows of beds lined up beneath the domed ceilings and majestic chandeliers.

The Great Kitchen at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton

Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

It has since been restored; George V and Queen Mary returned a slew of the original fittings that had been languishing at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, and Queen Elizabeth II gave the Pavilion over 100 items of furniture on permanent loan. But one of the most remarkable rooms is the kitchen, which Queen Victoria took very little from, and which, unlike most service rooms of that period, has decorative details by way of cast iron columns topped with painted copper palm leaves, and copper detailing on the hood to the huge open fire; five spit roast meats were able to be cooked at the same time. The walls are lined with bespoke cabinets and open shelves made by a local carpenter, and there is a vast skylight, as well as the windows. It was stocked with the most cutting-edge contraptions, the King used to take his guests in to show them off, and still looks suitable for modern life, now. There are lessons: embrace new technology in cooking, decorate even service rooms in the same way as the rest of the house (palm trees abound throughout the Pavilion) and make use of specialist decorative painters.

2. Flora Fraser’s drawing room, by Nicky Haslam and Studio QD

Chintz is one of the defining ingredients of English country house style (albeit by way of India); what makes this room so arresting is its omnipresence. The same pattern - Bloomsbury by Rose Tarlow from Tissus d’Helene – is used for the curtains, walls, furniture, cushions and even, in a stroke of genius, the pillars, “which I don’t think anybody had ever done before,” says Nicky Haslam. The innovation gives the matchy-matchy method a contemporary exuberance, tempered by Flora’s collection of art and antiques.

Simon Upton

A masterclass in decorating with florals, also worth noting is how light and airy the room feels, despite the wealth of its contents. Mirrors have been well employed, and its position on the first floor of the house, rather than the ground floor, means that it receives more natural daylight than it would otherwise.

3. The Music Room at Faringdon House

Faringdon House was immortalised by Nancy Mitford in The Pursuit of Love as Merlinford, the home of the eccentric Lord Merlin – who was inspired by the house’s actual proprietor, Lord Berners. She described “Angelica Kauffman ceilings, a Chippendale staircase, furniture by Sheraton and Hepplewhite; in the hall there hung two Watteaus.” Then, she wrote about the actual house for this magazine, eulogising it as where she would have liked to have spent the Blitz.

Andrew Montgomery

The house now belongs to the writer Sofka Zinovieff, who is Lord Berners’ granddaughter. She was 25 when she inherited it and living in a flat above a shop in Greece. Various people have resided in the house in the time between Lord Berners’ death and Sofka and her family moving in permanently – including Sofka’s brother and his wife, and tenants – but the house maintains the same Mitfordian wonder and beauty without having inadvertently become a shrine, which can occasionally happen in a house with such heritage. Rather, Sofka and her husband Vassilis’s own treasures, collected on their travels, exist in perfect harmony with what was left behind. The whole is a lesson in maintaining an interior that is traditional but not tired – as well as proof that, on moving into a new-to-you house, you don’t necessarily have to replace bathrooms (or anything else). The music room is still, to quote Nancy, “as pretty, cozy and characteristic as a room could be.”

Andrew Montgomery

4. Rose Uniacke’s bedroom

Rose is famed for her particular brand of aspirational minimalism – the kind that has the power to convert you to her cause of “generous wasted space” in the pursuit of serene, uncluttered beauty. This bedroom, in Rose’s house in Pimlico that dates from 1860, feels large because it is; several room were combined to make it so. It is also flooded with light; Rose decided on the layout when “I stood in this space one morning, in the sunlight, and it was suddenly obvious where we should sleep.” Ensuring that our homes work for us, regardless of how the previous occupants lived in them or where they had their bedroom or kitchen, is something we can all – and should all – consider.

Francois Halard

Then, the symmetry of pairs of tables, mirrors, lamps and leaning photographs “reflects us,” says Rose, or her and her husband. The mixture of ancient glassware, 17th century lacquer and a 20th century piece by Carlo Scarpa creates a feeling of timelessness, while the soft drape of heavy fabric on the bed and the bedside tables breathes luxury, and calm.

Francois Halard

5. Alidad’s dining room

The Iranian-born Alidad started as a specialist in Islamic Art at Sotheby’s, and no other British interior designer has so successfully blended the best of East and West to create an aesthetic that is so singularly their own, and yet so aspired to. His richly layered interiors might combine suzani needlework with Turkestan cushions, Georgian furniture with modern sculpture – and even, in his own homes, the odd bit of Ikea.

His dining room in London, where the walls are covered in leather panels embossed, hand painted with colourful flowers and fruits, and the ceiling has been given a faux-coffered effect, is the ultimate proof that size need not occlude splendour – which is valuable reassurance for those of us who live in smaller houses, with smaller rooms.

Simon Brown

6. The Garden Room at Clarence House, by Robert Kime

The late Robert Kime came to interior design via antique dealing, textile collecting and an abiding passion for putting rooms together. King Charles, as Prince of Wales, was his most famous client, and wrote the foreword to Kime’s eponymously titled book, describing his preferred decorator as creating rooms from which it was “hard to drag yourself away”, due to their being “welcoming, interesting and above all, comforting.”

Tessa Traeger

It was in 2002 that Kime took on the task of transforming Clarence House into a home for Prince Charles, the then Duchess of Cornwall, and the young Prince Harry. It had previously been the London home of Prince Charles’s Grandmother, wife of King George VI (before that, it was briefly lived in by the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip before she became Queen and they moved into Buckingham Palace.) Kime applied a light touch, changing colour schemes, moving and regrouping furniture, and recovering upholstered pieces.

And thus we have the Garden Room. As befitting an heir to the throne, it leans more towards grandeur than prettiness, but it is a grandeur that, it should be noted, skilfully offers inducement to linger – specifically on that sofa upholstered in a colourful antique fabric, with sufficient cushions to be able to position any number in the hollow of your back, or behind your head. Visual interest abounds in what hangs on the walls, while the lamp, placed on a stand that is itself on a plinth, brings a pleasing suggestion of improvised convenience. The open piano and mass of flowers position this antique-filled room firmly in the present day.

7. The Hall at Stephen Tennant’s Wilsford Manor, by Syrie Maugham

Syrie Maugham was one of the thththmost influential decorators of the 20th century, renowned for her all-white drawing room, and Stephen Tennant was the brightest of the Bright Young Things. His mother was a beauty, and was painted by Sargeant, and his friends included Rex Whistler, Cecil Beaton, the Sitwells, and the Mitfords. He had an affair with the poet Siegfried Sassoon, which was partially explored in the biographical film, Benediction, which is on Netflix now. I watched it hoping that Tennant’s interiors would be recreated – but they weren’t – and you can’t go and see them, because they no longer exist. However Nicky Haslam visited Wilsford Manor when Tennant still lived there (it was his mother’s house, first – and even when he lived there it technically belonged to his brother) and described the hall thus:

“Pink velvet swags cover what walls aren’t painted with gold stars on powder blue, a gleaming silver ceiling, turquoise fur rugs over white fur rugs over fraying Aubusson. White and gilt carved rope furniture with white leather upholstery draped with vivid Chinese shawls and red Indian blankets. Light struggles out from crystal brackets or hollowed shells layered with cobwebs” . . .

It sounds utterly fabulous, by way of Miss Havisham, Camden Market in the 90s, and Hollywood Regency – the teaching here is to go all out fantasy, if that is what you want, and to allow your house to make an entrance.

Wilsford Manor shortly before its contents were auctioned in 1987

Neville Marriner/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

8. The Studio at Charleston Farmhouse

Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) and her lover, Duncan Grant, took on the lease of Charleston Farmhouse in 1916; for the first two years, Grant’s other lover, David Garnett, lived with them. Then, Vanessa’s husband, Clive Bell, moved in. It was not a conventional living arrangement – and nor was their approach to interior design. Rather, inspired by Italian fresco-painting and the post-Impressionists, they painted every available surface – walls, doors, fireplaces, lamps, chairs – and more.

And just as their art spilled over into the house, so their life spilled into their shared studio – so much so that eventually Vanessa moved into another studio in the attic in order to escape the ongoing party downstairs. Despite this, it was in many ways the perfect home office, being entirely in keeping with the other rooms. Decoration abounds, and in one corner stands a glass-fronted dresser holding plates from the Famous Women Dinner Service, commissioned by Kenneth Clark in 1932. There are doors out to the garden (which was designed by Roger Fry) and chairs are covered in bits of material that they found attractive or interesting.

It’s a look that has inspired a host of interiors since, some more successfully than others. For lesson we should be taking is less about an attempt to copy what Bell and Grant made look so effortless (but which wasn’t, necessarily, which you’ll know if you’ve tried) but the idea of freedom to decorate and live as we want. (Although, having read many Bloomsbury Group biographies, a word of warning: open marriages are seldom recipes for domestic bliss.)

Paul Massey
Paul Massey

9. Nathalie Farman-Farma’s Sitting Room

Oranges are not the only fruit – and chintz is far from the only decorative fabric. Nathalie Farman-Farma’s Georgian house in Chelsea is filled with pattern that owes its origins to Eastern Europe and Central Asia, via Natalie’s own textile line, Décors Barbares. Adding to the beauty of the room is Natalie’s exceptional collection: she loves carved and painted wood, Easten European icons, 19th century furniture from Sweden and Russia, French lamps and antique frames – and has spent time finding the right ones. It brings the whole house an undeniable Proustian charm, and reinforcing that link is the terracotta bust of a sailor that used to belong to the great French decorator, Madeleine Castaing.

Miguel Flores-Vianna

Nathalie has written for House & Garden on why we should all collect, detailing the creative inspiration that is has given her, and also the joy it brings – both in meeting people, and then remembering them, via the objets that she has amassed. “Collecting is on some fundamental level a way of honouring and treasuring memories,” she says.

10. Hay's Mews by John Fowler

John Fowler was a co-founder of Colefax & Fowler, and decorated Hay's Mews for the actress Joan Dennis. He was renowned for his ‘humble elegance’ – essentially a creative response to war time rationing and limited resources. In the spirit of make do and mend, he endlessly re-used and re-worked fabrics – trimming them, altering their drape, and learning how to create significant effect with something very simple. He studied Regency window treatments and historic costume and applied the same principles both to vast country houses, and much more modest abodes – this definitely falls into the latter camp.

The Day Time Delight is in fact a translation of Bonheur du Jour, a specific type of lady’s writing desk, introduced in Paris c.1760 - which this is. Light, graceful, and practical as well as a vehicle for displaying ornaments, Fowler’s treatment here shows that you don’t need an entire room to create an exceptionally beautiful corner. The theatricality of the curtains and the bucket of white flowers nod towards Dennis’s profession; can you picture a lovelier spot in which to do your morning correspondence?