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Interior World of the White Queen

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Syrie Maugham was a businesswoman and beauty whose interior designs became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. However her relationships with a series of prominent men left her personal life in tatters. Frances Larson tells her story.

A fashionable crowd surround Syrie (wearing a dark dress and seated on the sofa) at a party given by the couturier Victor Stiebel at his Mayfair home, 1933. Getty Images/Hulton Archive‘You’re too late, my dear, much too late,’ the American interior decorator, Elsie de Wolfe, told an ambitious Syrie Maugham in 1920. ‘The decorating field is already overcrowded.’ It was an easy quip to make, but the ‘decorating field’ was still small enough for de Wolfe to know her competitors socially. One or two well-connected women had established furniture shops in Britain in the opening decades of the 20th century, offering advice and accessories to clients who were seeking something different at home. But interior decorating was a pursuit that had yet to find its full force, either culturally or commercially.

What, then, would de Wolfe have made of the obsession for home decoration that has gripped the nation since the boom of the mid-1990s? Interior decorating has become big business. Our homes are subjected to our constant attentions, modifications and financial investments, partly because we express our individuality in our choice of paint colour, furniture and curtain material. It hasn’t always been so. Syrie Maugham and Elsie de Wolfe entered the ‘decorating field’ as the broader cultural ties that bound individual identity to domestic style were tightening inexorably. Personal experience had taught Maugham about the power of possessions over the human psyche and in later life she revelled in the artistic and commercial possibilities that power afforded her.

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