Decorating a house for the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich can take some unexpected turns. The designer Nicky Haslam chose to channel the final scene from 1945 film Ziegfeld Follies, in which Kathryn Grayson emerges, singing, from clouds of pink and mauve soap bubbles.
“In the background is a white desert of women swaying in the wind like Dalí drawings,” he says, gesturing with his hands while his signature Vogue cigarette sends a dancing plume of smoke to the ceiling. “We put that on a white screen coming up from the steps.” He grins. “And then Roman bought that f------ awful Big Sue by Lucian Freud!”
He is referring to Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which Abramovich bought for £17 million in 1995. The sale of the nude set a world record at the time for a work by a living artist sold at auction. Haslam likes working for Russians. “They don’t have any hang-ups,” he says. “Almost every nation has a kind of taboo and the Russians don’t, they are quite open.”
Britain’s most famous interior decorator turned 80 at the end of September, but he is still working prolifically. Not just as a decorator but as a cabaret singer and a writer. It is hard to believe he is 80 at all. He’s wearing a hoodie, dark orange Converse shoes and a baseball cap. His hair is white but his goatee is black. He is still definitively, idiosyncratically cool.
Now he is selling up. Haslam has leased The Hunting Lodge in Winchfield, Hampshire, from the National Trust since 1978. It was in the grounds of this mystical, triple-gabled country house that Henry VIII’s brother Arthur first met Catherine of Aragon. But Haslam is leaving the history behind, and moving full time to his apartment in west London. The maintenance has started to drag. “If you have it, you have to keep it perfectly,” he says, “and I’m happier living in London at my age.”
So, perhaps with a homing instinct for a social event, he is auctioning off its entire contents next month at a dedicated house sale with Bonhams. “I could get really sentimental about everything and cry my eyes out, but who wants to do that?” he says. “I like the idea of someone sympathetic buying the things one has liked.”
Haslam’s list of sympathetic people is long and glittering. His things map a chameleon career path through all the places to see and be seen of the past 80 years. After leaving school (Eton), Haslam moved into a flat in London’s East End with the photographer David Bailey.
In 1961, they moved to New York together, where Haslam worked at US Vogue under Diana Vreeland, became friends with Andy Warhol (“he was much sweeter than people think, very gentle”) and then started as America’s youngest art director at Show magazine. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones stayed at his flat while touring.
“The people I met, Martin Luther King, Frank Sinatra, all those people, it was their stories that made it. Their stories and their point of view rubs off on one, if one is prepared to listen,” says Haslam. It was a time when “there were wonderful girls in backless dresses, dancing and whispering in people’s ears,” and “people went out to lunch, grandly. You never went out to dinner”.
Then he fell in love, upped sticks and moved to Arizona to breed horses. “Why did I become a cowboy? Because I wanted to wear the gear!” Next stop, LA. He returned to the UK in the Seventies, where he started his decorating business, NH Design.
In addition to Abramovich, his clients have included Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, and Bryan Ferry who, incidentally, Haslam says, has since “turned himself into the best decorator in the world”. “If you want a house done, ask Bryan Ferry. He is a genius at decoration. He says I taught him but, I mean, it was a very quick lesson.”
More recently, Haslam has also produced a line of quite deliberately inflammatory tea towels (or “washing up clawths”) titled “Things Nicky Haslam Thinks Are Common”, which includes Farrow & Ball, swans, hedge funds, Uber, “being on time”, and sorbets.
The most recent bemoaned “very private people”. Isn’t a house sale the ultimate antithesis of being precious? “I suppose it’s a bit of a reveal, isn’t it,” he says. I wonder if anything will surprise people. Haslam ponders. “I think they will sort of find I’m not showy.”
I had declined to call Haslam’s bluff when he offered me a gin and tonic, so we are drinking tea from a white pot in the kitchen. He passes me a plate of ginger nuts and chocolate digestives. His comment rings true: the house is at once homely and fantastical, and feels entirely secret. A deer stares from the brambles beside the long, unmarked track that leads to it. It’s surrounded by woods and the wind and rain whip through the tall oak trees. The brick Jacobean facade is cloaked in vines, a few of which bear bunches of green, pearlescent grapes. A bust on the porch table is flanked by flowers and two fake, glowing candles.
The pages of the embossed leather-bound guest book are positively scrawled with celebrity, including the signatures of Marc Quinn, Tom Stoppard, David Hicks and Jill Day-Lewis (mother of Daniel). (Incidentally, “comments in visitors’ books” was included in the list of “Things Nicky Haslam Thinks Are Common”.)
The living room walls are painted in a mixture of bull’s blood and distemper. “It’s exactly the colour of Elastoplast,” says Haslam. “It makes people look wonderful.” Each room is tiny – in the Tudor core they are no more than 12ft wide – with low ceilings and thick walls. “You can’t be fat and you can’t be tall,” says Haslam.
One sofa was sourced from a skip at the side of the road in Edinburgh in the Sixties. “That has a great resonance,” says Haslam, “I remember that very well. Trying to get it into the car!” There’s a portrait of Coco Chanel by Cecil Beaton and a fan that was a gift from the 20th-century taste-maker Nancy Lancaster, who wrote to commend Haslam after he decorated a church for a wedding.
A Marie Antoinette bust used to belong to Haslam’s father. “I am obsessed with Marie Antoinette,” he declares. Haslam bought a portrait of her lover Axel von Fersen from the house sale of the hostess and diplomat’s wife Evangeline Bruce. “If you put the portrait of Fersen in front of Marie Antoinette, I promise you she smiles. I absolutely promise you.”
Upstairs, there’s a KitKat Chunky on Haslam’s bedside table. The carpet in the bathroom looks like camouflage print moss. A bedroom wardrobe resembles an old-fashioned beach tent. It is octagonal and domed, and upholstered in green and white stripes.
The windows are latticed and look out on to a lawn flanked by pleached hornbeam trees that lead to a wild meadow and a small lake. Elizabeth I once visited and was entertained by a mock sea battle at the nearby home of the Seymour family at Elvetham. Has Haslam hosted similarly glorious parties here? “I had one big party for my 40th here, but it’s hard getting people down this lane,” he recalls. “Someone ended up in the ditch.”
He has the warmth and charm of someone who is genuinely interested in those he meets. “People think social life means you just go to parties, drink champagne and shriek with laughter,” says Haslam. “It’s not that. It’s to actually find another direction.”
“I like history,” he adds, “I find the thread fascinating and the thread is also in the walls of houses, the way houses talk to you. I am a great believer that walls have eyes and they tell you what to do.”
Nicky Haslam – The Contents of the Hunting Lodge sale takes place on Weds Nov 20 at Bonhams New Bond Street; bonhams.com