Turn your home into a monkey house, because the cheeky animals have taken over as this year's motif, says Hester Lacey
Sunflowers are very much last year's motif. Monkeys are swinging in to take their place, in all shapes, sizes and materials.

They've already invaded the fourth floor at Dickins & Jones on London's Regent Street, appearing on pottery, china and soft furnishings, and sculpted, printed or decoupaged as bookends, vases, trays and planters.

"People have nice feelings towards monkeys, they raise a smile," says Sue Walker, buyer for Dickins & Jones decorative home department. "They're friendly, and people often also think they're lucky.

"When I started looking this year in Europe and the States, I found them everywhere. There are lots of monkeys made of ceramics, metal monkeys on napkin rings and servers, and monkeys embroidered on napkins and placemats. And they are often dressed up in wonderful little outfits."

Some of these monkeys are thoroughly modern, but many of them are in a far more venerable style - that of the 18th century, when the monkey motif first became popular. From around 1700 onwards, French and British aristocrats would decorate their rooms with singerie paintings: idyllic country scenes featuring monkeys rather than people wandering in the landscape.

One of the best examples that remains in this country is at Monkey Island Hotel, in the village of Bray-on-Thames, near Maidenhead. The Monkey Room, now Grade I listed, was formerly a fishing lodge. It is now a cosy sitting- room with plump sofas (complete, of course, with monkey-embroidered cushions), and a temple to all things simian.

The ceiling, commissioned around 1730 by Charles Spencer, Duke of Marlborough, is a riot of uncannily human monkeys huntin', shootin' and fishin', accompanied by otters, herons and kingfishers. Its central panel, a pair of monkey lovers being towed across the sea by two huge fish, is a parody of Raphael's Triumph of Galatea and Caracci's Galatea (well, in those days people would have got the joke straightaway and found it witty).

The monkeys were painted by Andien de Clermont, one of several French artists much in demand for their monkeying about. Several brace of stuffed monkeys and a set of framed sketches of the ceiling design complete the effect - although monkeys were not universally popular, even at the time. Lady Newdigate visited in 1748, and observed that Marlborough had spent pounds 8,000 on "only two disagreeable buildings, one of which consists of a parlour and a kitchen, ye parlour painted all over with monkeys".

Other renowned monkey painters were Jean-Baptiste Audebert and Etienne Drian. Examples of monkey-works on a smaller scale can be seen at Leeds Castle; monkey studies were a favourite of the late owner, Lady Baillie, who kept two pictures of pairs of monkeys in her bedroom.

Nina Campbell is also a long-time fan of monkeys. One of her latest fabric/wallpaper designs for Osborne & Little, "Tamarin", features tamarin monkeys cheekily pulling the tails of some unfortunate peacocks. "My interest in monkeys stems from the singerie panels of the 18th century," she says. "I don't like horrible, ugly monkeys. I have been well-disposed to monkeys since I was a child, because of Zephir in the Babar the Elephant books - he was quite a sophisticated monkey, he would look after Babar."

The "Tamarin" design is far from childish, however. "It is very sophisticated," says Campbell. "Although, if you look back at how monkeys have been used in the past, they have been sophisticated for quite a while. I would put it in passages, staircases, perhaps the dining room or a fun, family room. The design flows very well, and the monkeys don't leer out at you, so it's quite subtle."

Campbell's Chelsea shop always has the odd monkey somewhere in one of her designs. Another range that features monkeys is the "Asticou" fabric range. Here the chinoiserie monkeys are scrambling through the branches. Her own personal collection includes ormolu monkey candlesticks and a chair upholstered in tapestry featuring monkeys playing musical instruments.

"One year, for an exhibition, I wanted to create a French chateau feel," she explains, "so I had two huge moss monkeys made, and we dressed them up. After the exhibition I could't bear to throw them out, so they sat on my bookcases until they crumbled away. They were rather wonderful."

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