At its height in the late 19th century, the British Empire was 100 times larger than Britain itself. Its territory extended from Africa to India and the Caribbean, as Britain imported new commodities such as tea and rubber, and became one of the major powers of the time.
While it is easy to get caught up in the sense of the age of globetrotting adventure, it is also important to remember that the history of colonialism was often not pretty. For the British crown, the lands it colonized were simply sources of raw materials for trade, and it was willing to violently subjugate (or enslave) the natives in search of wealth and power.
It is important to remember these things when talking about an aspect of the period that is still celebrated: the emergence of classical British colonial decoration. With its eclectic approach and careful interplay of soft, airy tones and dark accents, the prevailing style of the period remains popular to this day. It is also less stifling (and more versatile) than you might expect. We’ll talk to you about some of the basics.
Elements of British Colonial Decoration
At its height, British colonial decoration combined reduced aspects of Victorian design with details drawn from local materials and traditions. Whitewashed walls and transparent fabrics contrasted with native teak or mahogany, while the use of palms, ferns and other natural elements reflected a fascination with local plant life.
The influence of Asian, Caribbean and African design can also be felt in the use of eclectic fabrics, distinctive prints and unique accessories collected from world travel. Meanwhile, the use of rattan and bamboo furniture (as well as items such as folding writing tables) provided another dimension of texture that is essentially colonial.
Overall, British colonial decoration represents a marriage of traditional (but modern) approaches to the Western world with stylistic elements taken from the colonized nations. In these spaces, the decoration tends to be airy and bright, with wavy fabrics and plantation-style shutters designed to provide a refreshing atmosphere in what were generally warm, tropical climates.
Incorporating British Colonial Decoration
The central element of British colonial decoration is the contrast of light and dark tones. Consider using a soft white paint for the walls and equipping the windows with light and transparent fabrics for that feeling of a cool oasis in a tropical environment.
You can combine the contrasting look of dark wood floors from the period by using a stain on your own, while adding other wood accents such as plantation shutters or a classic canopy bed.
This style of decorating also offers many opportunities to showcase your favorite pieces of art and decorations acquired during travels abroad; these add visual interest while remaining true to the aesthetics of the time. You can reuse items such as vintage trunks and suitcases to add to the atmosphere of a joyful adventure.
The current trend of using botanical prints and vegetation also fits well with a classic British colonial approach. This is one occasion where everything old is really new again: many of these contemporary touches would not have been out of place during the original colonial era, and they can also contribute to that light-dark interaction that defines the style’s color palette.
Why the history of British colonial decoration is important
There is nothing wrong with decorating your house with a British colonial style. It is a beautiful aesthetic that remains to this day for a reason. But if you decide to adopt it as your own, it is important to recognize the historical reality behind how it came about in the first place.
The British Empire was not a benign ruler over the lands under its control. It took power by force and violently subjugated most attempts at resistance.
In the 1870s, India lost more than five million people to famine while under British rule, even as the country exported crucial grain for its own food supply to the rest of the world. In Kenya, up to 1.5 million members of the Kiyuku ethnic group were detained in concentration camps after organizing a political uprising against colonial rule.
That is only a small sample of what British imperialism meant to the colonized. But just as we can appreciate the works of art created during the darkest periods of history, we can recognize (and even celebrate) the beauty of the aesthetic characteristic of the time.
Now, it is you who choose to decorate your home in this way or opt for other decorations that do not have such a dark history behind them.