7 Sep 2011
avatar Author: Nicky Haslam

Three of my closest friends have died recently, two were artists and one a decorator whose rooms were sublimely artistically put together. Oddly enough both Cy Twombly and Lucian Freud were brilliant decorators, Cy’s Rome apartment was photographed by Horst for American Vogue in the 1960s and remains iconic and his house in Gaeta on the Italian coast is was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. All in shades grey white, high canopies, Elizabethan canopied beds and grey white slipped covered furniture against grey white walls with his own astonishing plaster sculptures.  Every room in Lucian’s house in London was a sort of scrubby tea coloured walls hung with his favourite paintings, not his, but Francis Bacons and Frank Auerbach. These were very private environments but Tom Parr on the other hand worked for a mass of famous people, I recently wrote an obituary of Tom for the Daily Telegraph.

Thomas Simon Parr, who died recently, led a charmed life. By this I mean that life charmed him, and he radiated and reflected that charm in everything he did, saw, touched, or said, and particularly on those he loved. This quality of being charmed never deserted him, even in the last long years of his illness, and he will certainly have taken it with him to his hereafter. 

There was nothing cloying about Tom; blessed with ideal height and long limbs, he was elegant without being dandified, acerbic but never cruel, knowledgeable and never a pedant, religious and cultured but not rigid, social but far from a snob. It was almost impossible to mention a book he hadn’t read, a film he hadn’t seen, an opera he didn’t know by heart, let alone a Broadway musical; or, indeed, an international figure Tom hadn’t met, often leading to a vivid, thumbnail description. But, most, his friends will miss his laughter, which almost instantly induced tears to be dabbed by a vetiver-scented handkerchief: and, of course, his unerring eye.

All of these, but the last particularly, contributed to his career as one of England’s leading post-war decorators…a term he proudly preferred to interior designer. Following then-compulsory National Service  in the army, and a stint in a parentally insisted-on job in the industrial midlands, he set up a decorating partnership with the equally talented and handsome young David Hicks.

From the moment they started the business, initially in the round building then known as the Gasometer in Lowndes Street, Belgravia, Hicks and Parr was the ne plus ultra of their chosen role. After years of dowdy rep, faded cretonnes and Fablon, London society was dazzled by the simplicity of, say, two dozen Zulu warrior’s lances hung horizontally, stainless steel and tan leather chairs, vast baroque marble torsos dramatised by megawatt uplighters, all set on pale rugs from Cogolin. They revived the pre-war palette of Syrie Maugham, white on white, neutral with neutral, stabbed with hot pinks and lime green. As the trend-obsessed wife of the famous fashion photographer John French exclaimed “When Hicks and Parr said ‘beige’, who was I to lag behind?’

Tom was from his youth an inveterate traveller, visiting the countries, cities and houses the war had precluded, while his social grace gave him immediate access to the grandest and most amusing hosts and salons. It was in one of these, the Agnelli’s, that Tom met the great Sicilian jeweller, Fulco, Duke of Verdura, who was to become his beloved companion and influence for the many years until Fulco’s death.

By this time, David Hicks’ star had rocketed sky-high; his persuasive eye, personality, and looks had brought about a dazzling engagement, engineered by Chips Channon, to the queen’s favourite cousin Lady Pamela Mountbatten. David had no relatives apart from his mother; asked who would be on the groom’s side of the Romsey Abbey, Tom loyally replied “Well, Ma and Parr, I suppose”. When David confidentially told Tom’s close friend Tony Armstong-Jones of his forthcoming grand marriage, Tony smiled enigmatically “Oh, I don’t call that grand”…..Tony’s own engagement to Princess Margaret was announced a few days later. But Tom preferred a less exuberant life-style, and when they decided to call quits on Hicks and Parr, he joined the pre-eminent decorating firm of Colefax and Fowler, still run by the brilliant and volatile Nancy Lancaster; they took to one another like ducks to water. When both John Fowler and Mrs Lancaster retired, Tom became head of the firm, carrying on and expanding their clientele, which included many mutual friends. Prominent among them were David and Caroline Somerset—soon to inherit Badminton—where Tom was to achieve some of his finest work.

Tom Parr was born in 1930 in London, his sister Rosemary a few years later. Her youngest daughter married Lord Balneil; one of Tom’s chief delights was having his young great-nephews and nieces to stay for holidays. And he was also deeply touched to be asked to advise on the redecoration of Balcarres  Castle, one of his last commissions.

After his father’s early death, Tom’s mother, Vere, from whom he inherited his sense of humour and taste, married Sir Antony Burney, a director of the Debenhams Group and thus ideally placed to guide his step-son’s career. But even so astute a businessman could not have foreseen the heights Tom achieved as Chairman of Colefax and Fowler. There, the charm that Tom delighted in were reflected in his decorations for a legion of worldwide clients, from Dame Vivien Duffield to the Ford dynasty and Chateau Latour,  many of whom became his lifelong friends.

It was these friends who were particularly happy for him when, soon after Fulco Verdura’s death, Tom met the Munich banker Klaus Scheinart. Throwing countries and caution to the winds, together they found, bought, and moved to, a stylishly-architected pavilion tucked into a fold of valley near Opio in the Alps Maritime. At La Casella, Tom created a series of rooms that became a benchmark of simple grandeur….sun, books, music, laughter and flower-filled, the flowers coming from the gardens that Klaus revealed himself to be a genius at creating, and which became more structurally ambitious, lusher, and evermore romantic with every season.

And thus it was in this charm-exuding house, surrounded by these glorious gardens, that for a decade Tom Parr unflinchingly and courageously bore his debilitating disease. But even Parkinson’s could not still Tom’s knowledge, his friendships, his innate elegance, the all- observant eye that still ran with tears of laughter. Or, of course, his appreciation of his charmed life.

To read the obituary as it appeared in the Daily Telegraph, please click here.

6 Responses to “Tom Parr”

  1. avatar Shelley says:

    Funny enough, I just this morning finished the book Colefax and Fowler, which I read cover to cover like a novel I found it so interesting. Because of that, I saw the name Tom Parr and knew exactly who is was, which is an unusual experience for me, not being the type of person who could ever employ a decorator. Please accept my simpathy for the loss of your friend.

  2. avatar linda says:

    For me it is the seemingly effortlessness of Tom Parr’s style – so difficult to describe – perhaps “la descent du main” in equestrian terms – the epitome of haute – which distinguised his work. No doubt he would have loved you for such an appreciative, beautiful obituary.

  3. avatar Gaye Tapp says:

    a beautiful remembrance of a friend and his work- The relaxed elegance-timelessness of these personal rooms, especially the last-never cease to amaze the eye or surprise.

  4. avatar Gaye Tapp says:

    Came back to read this again-and the Daily Telegraph piece, both are just BEAUTIFULLY written and expressed. PGT

  5. avatar Alexander von Kotze says:

    What a beautifully expressed piece on dear Tom. Much missed by so many.

  6. avatar grahame white says:

    so sad to hear he has left us…met him back in the eighties when he was working on an apartment in the Albany for a friend J.P Marque …living in Normandy now so out of touch…but a visit to the med next month inspired me to intend to look him up…alas a little too late ….I hope God has great designs for him, or maybe he has great designs for God……

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