Waugh’s Country House: Through the Vita-glass Brightly

A new book out this week is described as a social history of¬†the interwar period. This is called The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House, 1918-1939 by Adrian Tinniswood and is reviewed in the current issue of The Economist. According to portions of the book available on the internet, Evelyn Waugh is cited on elements of country house style and design. A¬†discussion of ¬†country house modernization mentions an ad featuring a refurbished 15c. house near Chelmsford with a¬†“Vita-glass sunroom” as well as a swimming pool. Tinniswood cites Waugh’s use of this same glass¬†in his fictional creation of Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s replacement¬†of her¬†Tudor country house King’s Thursday by modernist architect Otto Silenus. In this new¬†structure, “the aluminium blinds shot up, and the sun poured in through the Vita-glass, filling the room with beneficent rays.” (Decline and¬†Fall, New York, 2012, p. 176). As explained by Tinniswood, Vita-glass was a British invention that was marketed as allowing into the house all the healthful ultra violet rays of the sun (promoting suntan, vitamin D and even killing germs) just as though one were outdoors, where one also had to cope with unheathful English cold and damp.

In another context, the book describes the transformation of socialite Sybil Colefax into an interior decorator, necessary due to diminution of her husband’s income in the 1930s. The results of her work have not, according Tinniswood, withstood the test of time. Evelyn Waugh recommended her to his brother Alec to decorate his house at Edrington. Evelyn urged that “you will be saved the kind of mistakes that are made by decorators who are not used to dealing with persons of quality, and she’s businesslike” (Alec Waugh, Best Wine Last, London, 1978, p. 57).¬†Neither of these predictions turned out to be the case. According to Alec, Colefax¬†was always late for appointments, filled the house with inappropriate furniture, and hung the drapery inside out.

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