INTERIORS / Style Revivals: Investing in Gilts: 1 Paris Salon: Little Versailles are appearing all over Britain as the refined look of the French salon stages a comeback. Caroline McGhie discovers the ornate delights of life chez Louis

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'BOUDOIR ponce,' splutters Tim Squire-Sanders, head of the furniture department at Bonhams. He was speaking of the gilded Parisian salon style that is flowering in English sitting-rooms once again, as it did two centuries ago. For the very rich, the love of gilded things has never really faded, but in the mainstream the fashion for gilt has come and gone and come again.

Squire-Sanders is a solid English oak and walnut man, so the flamboyance and femininity of the richly decorated pieces of furniture that represent the style stick in his throat like an over-rich pudding. And, as a connoisseur of rare and priceless objects, he bemoans the very availability of salon furniture.

For, these days, 19th-century fauteuils, salon sets, candelabra and gilt mirrors are constantly passing under his nose on the saleroom floor. These are the products of a previous revival of the salon style, which occurred in France in the 19th century, producing many exact copies of the gilded chairs, sofas and other decorative objects from the sumptuous apartments at Versailles that Charles le Brun decorated for Louis XIV in the late 17th century. The new middle classes of that period were hankering after the stylistic indulgences of a previous age. 'There is a lot of it about because people really started to get rich in the middle of the 19th century, and so they made reproductions of the things they liked from previous centuries,' says Squire-Sanders.

The latest revival of interest in the French salon style may be feeding to some extent on the fat of the Eighties. The salon provided its owner with great opportunity to display his wealth and social success. The eye-catching ceilings with the details picked out in gold, the marquetry, the wall-hangings, the silks and damasks, the chandeliers and the mirrors all created a sense of great extravagance.

'Fifty of the richest and most beautiful Venetian mirrors serve as delightful pictures displaying the faces, the expressions and the poses, the smiles, the graces, the charms, the hands, the arms of all the fine company that is entertained in this room,' is how a party thrown by the Archbishop of Sens was described in 1651. It is no coincidence that such a style is chosen by those made wealthy during the Eighties for their London flats or houses, which are principally used for entertaining when they are in town.

It is a style that firmly rejects all modernity and cuts away the cluttered Victorianisation that has dictated so many British interiors in recent years. The arrangement of the furniture in the great Parisian salons was almost severe in its simplicity, with chairs arranged against the walls and brought forward only when they were needed.

But as an intellectual arena, in the tradition of those set up by great hostesses such as Lady Ottoline Morrell and Lady Diana Cooper, the salon has not been so successfully revived. Vivienne Westwood threw a little party last year for assorted famous names, to explore the the viability of the rebirth of the idea, but little has been heard of it since. The setting, appropriately enough, was a classically recreated Parisian salon.

An on-off love affair with France has run through the story of English style, says Joe Friedman, an architectural historian and author of the book Inside Paris. But the difference in the approach between the two nations is accentuated more than ever in the gilded salon. 'The French have always taken the decorative arts more seriously,' he says. 'They are more cultured about it. There is not that informality that there is over here, even in the arrangement of the furniture. In England we tend to mix furnitures and styles for reasons of comfort and practicality.'

Liberty, in Regent Street, has perhaps stood out among English retailers in taking a constant and abiding interest in the arts and crafts. It touched a nerve with its recent display of the French salon and boudoir, with pieces that had been hand-picked in France and shipped in for the purpose. Heather Casimer, who organised the display, says: 'We have never done anything as fanciful as this before, but it seems to be quite fashionable. It is very Les Liaisons Dangereuses. We sold two-thirds of the pieces in a month.'

There were charming little sofas with curved legs and gilded frames, upholstered in silver and gold Lelievre fabrics, set against a background of console tables, statues, chandeliers and a gilded mirror. The importance of mirrors as exciting and desirable objects in the days of Louis XIV cannot be overstated. It was not possible to make large sheet glass until the late 17th century, so a series of plates would be arranged between pillars instead. And the console table, with its single leg tucked underneath, developed as a way of anchoring the glass to the wall.

'People are just fed up with the Eighties pristine look, the black and whites,' says Casimer. ''This is the kind of look that was always very expensive, but now it has become more accessible. People are finding cheaper 19th-century reproductions are available and they want them to look worn and faded.'

Though many may find the style too flamboyant, the sheer craftsmanship involved in the gilding, the tassel-making and the decoration is awe-inspiring. Rosaria and Rodrigo Titian, who run a studio that specialises in gilding and lacquering, worked on restoring the stools in the Arabesque style for the Queen's House at Greenwich when it was being restored by English Heritage. Arabesque work is particularly difficult, since it involves painting a special pigment over the gilding with gum Arabic and then drawing freehand over it in such a way that it reveals the gilt beneath.

Hundreds of hours can be put into the gilding of one piece. The sheets of gold used are as fragile as butterfly wings and come in the form of tiny booklets. The sheets are flattened on to the workshop table with a breath and lifted on squirrel-hair brushes on to the chair-leg or console that is being decorated. Then the whole thing may be scraped with little hockey sticks made of agate in order to achieve the distressed look that people want. Sometimes gold paint mixed with egg-white, known as shell gold, is used.

The Titians' own flat (pictured here) is decorated with their work - the gilt leather Chinese-style screen, the water-gilded Louis XVI- style chair, the chairs they designed themselves with trompe l'oeil swag-backs, the heavily japanned corner cupboard - a decorative style that was also popular in the mid-17th century. The great flourishes in the hallway are the extraordinary console tables, held up by dolphins which they gilded themselves.

In their bedroom they have placed a little late 19th-century French dressing-table with a marble top which they picked up smothered in white gloss paint and proceeded to strip and distress. Rosaria feels the delicate 19th-century French sofa is more French provincial in style than Parisian, so she has restrained herself from gilding it. The extravagance of the lace on the double bed is thanks to wedding presents from their respective families.

There are people permanently kept in employment by the love of old French things at the moment. They trawl the French flea markets to bring back the choice pickings from old chateaux, sometimes searching for specific items that people have asked for. There is a constant hunger to be satisfied for chandeliers - the more glass drops the better - and the wall sconces that augment the look.

Judy Greenwood, who runs an antiques shop in the Fulham Road, will have a waiting list of potential buyers for certain items when they come in - such as the sofa and chairs covered in their original tapestry, all in various stages of shredding, that arrived this month. She also goes so far as to sell old French chintz curtains, French hemp and linen sheets, and bedspreads which look as if they had just been snatched from their four-posters. She finds it is all much more fun than any other style, which she refers to as 'brown furniture'.

John Crowell at Beaumont & Fletcher believes that the current love of gilt, providing it is scratched and battered, is part of the general nostalgia that has settled upon the whole world of merchandising at the moment. It goes with the beeswax candles, the reproduction tapestries, the proliferation of baskets. 'There is a distinct rebellion against the Eighties thing where all the curtains were John Fowler with rosettes and swags in bright, hard chintzes, and every surface so freshly painted that every room looked as if it had been done up in the last year,' he says.

'Now the atmosphere can be much older, more relaxed, less trying-to-impress. We do fake gilt mirrors that might not fool Sotheby's but you can buy them for pounds 1,000 rather than pounds 15,000 to pounds 20,000, and they look as if they have been around for a couple of hundred years. If you put them by really fine pieces of furniture they look quite happy.' Even rich Americans may buy one or two key pieces, then complement them with imitation objects.

With the gilded salon has come a blurring of the line between antique dealers and decorators. Antique dealers make no bones about stocking copies these days, but this is distressed repro, made to look as if it had been languishing in a chateau for generations.

There are many who are still only just getting over the stripped pine look of the Seventies. For them, the gilt salon style is surprisingly forgiving. It mixes well with their old stripped chests of drawers and goes with the new distressed painted rustic kitchens that are replacing the old fitted wood kitchens.

Until it gives way to a darker, heavier style, which is inevitable as the seasons of taste change, there is plenty of it to pick from. In the antiques business they privately refer to it in a Del-Boy-meets-the-three-musketeers shorthand as the 'Louis 'otel' style. French hotels are full of it, apparently. -

THE FRENCH SALON SHOPPING GUIDE

FABRICS

Lelievre, 16 Berners Street, London W1P 3DD, tel: 071-636 3461, makes silks and damasks that look like waterfalls of gold, scarlet and silver, based on some of the 15,000 or so designs that are stored in the company archives. They are woven on hand-threaded looms (10,000 to 12,000 threads are all transfered from the comb to the warp by hand) in a mill in the mountains outside Lyons, some of them on old machines that still use shuttles. Prices range from pounds 100 to pounds 1,100 per metre.

Nobilis-Fontan Ltd, 1 and 2 Cedar Studios, 45 Glebe Place, London SW3 5JE, tel: 071-352 3870, make toile de Jouy depicting 18th-century illustrations of French rural life. The fabrics start at around pounds 57 per metre, the hand-blocked wallpapers at pounds 82 per roll (but the rolls are wider than the standard width). They also produce damasks copied from old French and Italian designs, starting at pounds 80 per metre. One cotton damask, woven on a silk loom so that it looks like silk, costs around pounds 115 per metre. The tapestries can be bought for pounds 165 per metre.

FURNITURE

Liberty, 210-220 Regent Street, London W1R 6AH, tel: 071-734 1234, has a collection hand- picked from France. A late 19th-century painted bed with an armoire and bedside cabinet at pounds 3,750. A late 19th-century, Louis XVI-style, gilt wood fauteuil, covered in Lelievre fabric, at pounds 1,250, which is wide enough to accommodate your crinoline when you sit down. A late 19th-century, Louis XVI-style painted and carved canape and two fauteuils with Aubusson-style upholstery (needlepoint sprays of old roses and ribbons) at pounds 3,250. And much more.

Bonhams, the auctioneers, Montpelier Street, London SW7 1HH, tel: 071-584 9161, have sales which have included 19th-century furniture and sculpture, and top-quality Versailles copies from cabinet-maker Henry Dasson, some Mellier and Co. bourgeois pieces, and lots of unknown factory-made pieces. Pieces that need regilding can be picked up at any of the Tuesday sales.

CHANDELIERS

Nicholas Chandor and Claire Edwards, tel: 071-249 5418, specialise in buying-trips to France. Every weekend they trawl the French markets, picking up chandeliers, mirrors and salon sets, to order. But what should you look for in a chandelier? 'Lots of drops,' says Claire. They start at pounds 150 and go on rising as high as you like.

CURTAINALIA

Frances Soubeyran, 12 Atlas Mews, Ramsgate Street, London E8 2NA, tel: 071-241 1064, makes special trimmings to order, with fabrics and yarns dyed according to your wish. She charges from pounds 25 a metre per yard for fringing, hand-woven on a miniature loom, with several warps carrying different weights in order to achieve the right tension. Braids or gimp braids (hand-made yarn strengthened with gut or wire) cost from pounds 20 per metre; while her tassels, shaped like pears, urns, pods and steeples, start at pounds 50.

GILDERS

For restoration work try Titian Studio, Unit 4, 326 Kensal Road, London W10 5BN, tel: 081- 960 6247. They do transfer gilding, water gilding, oil gilding, lacquering and other decorative effects. Highly skilled craftsmen use squirrel-hair brushes to place the leaves of gold, as light as flower petals, on to the furniture, then dry-scrape with agate to distress it. Broken carvings on mirrors or chairs can be precisely copied by using moulds or hand-carving. Their book Gilding & Lacquering (Letts pounds 10.95) is a good beginners' guide to doing it yourself.

OBJECTS

French gilt mirrors, chandeliers, figures, decorative whatnots from Deans Antiques, 52-53 Camden Passage, London N1 8EA, tel: 071-354 9940. Dean Gipson picks up truckfuls from the French flea markets. The late 19th-century reproduction mirrors range from pounds 250 to pounds 3,000; pairs of painted chairs cost pounds 950, the gilded ones cost pounds 1,650 per pair. Console tables sell for between pounds 800 and pounds 2,500.

Judy Greenwood, 657 Fulham Road, London SW6 5PY, tel: 071-736 6037, has pickings gleaned from chateaux country and the faded glory of private flats in Paris. She also sells chandeliers, wall sconces at pounds 190, and antique 19th-century silk brocade curtains at pounds 200 to pounds 300 per pair. The chintz ones sell for a bit less. French hemp and linen sheets are priced at pounds 25 to pounds 50. Six chairs, in various stages of shredding, are selling for between pounds 300 and pounds 500, and a sofa at pounds 600 to pounds 700.

(Photographs omitted)

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