Great interior designers: Sibyl Colefax

sybil colefax

Celebrated for her timeless style, Sibyl Colefax is one of the great influences on classic English interior design - and her name lives on in the company she founded, Colefax and Fowler. Here’s her story…

When we think of the designers in the quintessential English country house style, Sibyl Colefax is one of the first to spring to mind. Her spirit and influence live on in the highly successful company she founded almost 90 years ago, originally as Sibyl  Colefax Limited, and from 1938 to the present day as Colefax and Fowler

Sibyl  was also one of the most celebrated society hostesses of the 1920s and ‘30s, with an enviable address book and an equally enviable client list. So what was the secret of Sibyl’s success and why does her approach to interior design still speak to us today?  We have been finding out about the life of this remarkable woman and, inspired by her approach to design, we’ve put together a capsule collection of lighting and accessories that will add style – and glamour – to a 21st century home.

The library at the National Trust's Plas Newydd, Anglesey - one of the few remaining original Sibyl Colefax interiors. Image: creative commons


A Florentine education

Born in Wimbledon in 1874, Sibyl Halsey might well have stepped from the pages of an Edwardian novel (think What Maisie Knew).  The Halseys were well known and well connected – the great journalist and political thinker Walter Bagehot was Sibyl’s uncle – and Sibyl spent her formative years in Cawnpore, under the British Raj. But her parents’ marriage was unhappy and Sybil was often sent to stay with one or more of her formidable aunts. Her education was, at best, rudimentary and when her parents eventually separated, Sybil had to adjust to a life of slender means. With limited funds at their disposal, Sybil and her mother would spend their days moving from one out-of-season European resort to another.

All this changed, however, when Mrs and Miss Halsey arrived in Florence in 1894. Sibyl, who was not yet 20, discovered a whole new world when she was taken up by the leading lights of the city’s British community of intellectuals - writers, artists and aesthetes  - including Roger Fry and Bernard Berenson. 

The time Sibyl spent with them provided a shy young woman with an education, self-confidence, and an appreciation of the importance of friendship, all of which would provide a strong foundation and blueprint for her future life.


Marriage, Chelsea and friendship

A new century marked a new beginning when, in 1901, Sibyl Halsey married barrister Arthur Colefax, and the couple moved into their first home in Onslow Square, South Kensington. It was here and at the Colefaxes’ country house in Sussex, Old Buckhurst, that Sybil and Arthur would create a happy family life for themselves and their sons, Peter and Michael. And it was here that Sibyl began to develop her own ideas about interior design and decoration, fuelled in part by her passion for entertaining.

Like so many, however, the Colefaxes were adversely affected by WWI. Although Arthur was knighted for his services to the war effort, the couples’ finances were considerably diminished; Old Buckhurst and the Onslow Square house had to be sold. The proceeds were used to buy Argyll House on Chelsea’s Kings Road but despite what might have seemed, on the face of it, a setback, the 18th century house and its location offered the ideal setting in which Sibyl could build her reputation as a society hostess par excellence. 

Sibyl went to work with gusto on the 18th century house, transforming the interior with an eclectic choice of furniture, furnishings, and architectural salvage. Old mirrors were hung on the ivory painted walls; the floors were covered in brightly coloured rugs, and there was a plethora of matched pairs – chairs and vases, for example – and a great deal of chintz. The elegant rooms were lit by chandeliers and wall sconces, and the furniture arranged so that guests could relax and enjoy each other’s company and scintillating conversation. 

Argyll House became the crucible in which Sibyl Colefax created her distinctive style, the perfect English country house blend of comfort and luxury, with plenty of talking points.

The painting ‘Argyll House Hall - a Summer’s Day’ by Sir John Lavery depicts Sibyl Colefax and Syrie Maugham in Argyll House.

The 15 years that Sibyl spent at Argyll House were the happiest of her life. Her guest list was legendary and her circle included literary giants such as Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh. Argyll House was where the leading artists and actors of the day rubbed shoulders with politicians and aristocrats and it was where Sibyl forged lifelong friendships. 

Interior designer, Syrie Maugham, was the next-door neighbour; not a business rival although entertaining was a different matter; Sibyl kept a tight grip on her address book and guest list. The Prince of Wales was a regular visitor, as was Wallis Simpson, and Sibyl was loyal to the couple to the end of her life.

Changes of fortune and new ventures

All this entertaining came at a price for the Colefaxes, and the Wall Street Crash also hit them hard. So, in 1933, Sibyl decided to capitalise on her talent for interior design and, in partnership with Peggy Ward, Countess of Munster, an established fashion designer and interior decorator, launched Sibyl Colefax Limited. 

The entrance hall and library, Lord North Street, Westminster.

Just three years later, however, Sir Arthur died. Sibyl had to sell Argyll House and its contents and moved to a much smaller house in Lord North Street, Westminster. Despite all that had happened, Sibyl’s enviable combination of talent, connections and work ethic stood the firm in good stead; its reputation grew rapidly and friends remained as loyal to her in business as they were socially.

Yet another turning point came in 1938, when Sibyl went into partnership with the highly regarded decorator, John Fowler (who really deserves a post of his own…) 

John Fowler: ‘prince of decorators’.  Image credit: Colefax and Fowler

As Colefax and Fowler, the firm rose to all the challenges of the Second World War, Sibyl and John became adept at sourcing surplus government textiles to transform interiors, and were early pioneers of upcycled furniture. 

But, by 1944, Sibyl’s health had deteriorated and she took the hard decision to sell her share of Colefax and Fowler to Nancy Lancaster (then Nancy Tree). Sibyl  died at her home in Lord North Street in 1950.

The name of the firm has remained unchanged, however, and today the unmistakeable interior design skills of Colefax and Fowler are as much in demand as ever.  

Few examples remain of Sibyl’s design schemes but, if you want to experience the impact of an original Colefax interior, then head for Plas Newydd in Anglesey, now in the care of the National Trust. In the 1930s, the then owners, Sibyl's friends, the 6th Marquess and Marchioness of Anglesey, commissioned her to design new interiors for the house.

Lady Anglesey’s bedroom featured several of Sibyl’s signature design touches: pairs, for example – lamps, cushions, and comfortable chairs – as well as an antique mirror, chintz, and a chandelier.

Lady Anglesey’s bedroom, Plas Newydd. Image credit.

Plas Newydd. Image credit


Lighting, Sibyl-style

Sibyl Colefax always insisted on good lighting, both for her clients and in her own homes. Inspired by the Argyll House years, we’ve assembled a special selection of Pooky pieces.

She loved a convivial atmosphere, and artfully placed table lamps – on artfully placed tables – had a role to play in creating just the right setting. She was also partial to a touch of chinoiserie, so what better than our blue and white ceramic Gingembre table lamp? It’s based on the shape and style of a traditional Chinese ginger jar, but we’ve given it a modern twist with a geometrical rather than pastoral pattern. Add a dramatic stonewashed linen shade in flame like this one: a guaranteed talking point!

gingembreGingembre table lamp

Paired pieces, including lighting, featured frequently in Sibyl Colefax’s design schemes. How about a pair of our elegant glass and brass Keneggy table lamps on your dressing table... No dressing table? Put them on your bedside tables instead.

keneggyKeneggy table lamp

Who doesn’t love a wall sconce? We do and so did Sibyl. Our Skystar, made of staggered strips of pressed recycled glass has a hint of 1930s film star glamour but with a decidedly contemporary feel. Two on each wall should do the trick.

Skystar wall sconce


Curious to know more about the life of this remarkable designer and society hostess? Look out for a copy of A Passion for Friendship: Sibyl Colefax & her Circle, by Kirsty McLeod (published by Michael Joseph, London 1991).

See also:

Great interior designers: Nancy Lancaster

Great interior designers: Elsie de Wolfe

Great interior designers: Syrie Maugham

Classic interior design styles and how to light them: English country house


Image top: Sibyl Colefax. Image credit: