Whisper it… has Farrow & Ball finally jumped the Dead Salmon?

·6-min read
The only way is Downpipe: Farrow & Ball been sold to Danish company Hempel for £500 million
The only way is Downpipe: Farrow & Ball been sold to Danish company Hempel for £500 million

Everyone knows the name Farrow & Ball. It’s up there with heritage brands like Barbour and Aga, with a similar reputation for being expensive, classy and quintessentially British.

Now the poshest paint in the UK has been sold to Danish company Hempel for £500 million – an event that has been heralded as evidence that working from home during the pandemic has fuelled an interior design explosion, and the end of an era when Farrow & Ball was the paint that proved you had made it.

Is this the tipping point? The moment at which, by virtue of its extraordinary success, Farrow & Ball becomes the Waitrose of paint and no longer the exclusive choice for people in the know? In a new survey of what Brits consider to be truly posh, Barbour, Land Rover and Aga make the list but, notably, there is no mention of F&B.

Since the early Nineties, Farrow & Ball has been the most accessible entry point to the lifestyle of the tasteful landed classes. Originally revived as a brand by the National Trust, which developed a range of oil based paints in colours found in their most celebrated interiors (Sudbury Yellow for Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, for example), it took off like a rocket and never looked back.

What they had, no one else was doing and it appealed to the metropolitan elite as much as the owners of shooting lodges and Georgian manor houses. The quality and depth of the colours exceeded anything available at the time, but it was the heritage aspect that guaranteed Farrow and Ball’s extraordinary success.

The brand’s very British oddball paint colours – Elephant’s Breath, Rectory Red, India Yellow – were redolent of empire and rambling country houses, boot rooms, pantries and private libraries; promising a lifestyle before lifestyle was a word and paint colour curators were a thing. (Naturally Farrow and Ball now has their own colour consultant, Joa Studholme, who offers private consultations for approximately £230 an hour).

In the new BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, the Radlett’s house Alconleigh (actually Rousham House in Oxfordshire) is precisely the sort of place from which the Farrow and Ball colour chart has been sourced. Viewers can drool over the interiors and know that a quick trip to F&B, for a few of their tester pots, and they too could have a Peignoir bedroom or a Calamine pink bathroom.

Authentic, historically accurate, always confident of its lineage and eye, Farrow & Ball quickly became a brand that stood for the sort of taste money can’t buy, but that you can buy and slap on your own walls and floors. When that fashion took off in the Nineties, the company ensured that their silvery floor undercoat was the only one that guaranteed the paint wouldn’t scrape off immediately, just as their fractionally off whites became the only whites that wouldn’t look too cold, too bright or too blue. For decades, all over the UK painters have been scratching their heads mystified as they gaze into a litre of something that looks a lot like magnolia but goes by the name of Lime White and costs almost twice as much.

Of course, the temptation had always been to copy the colours with the aid of a local paint shop’s matching service, and many have done over the years. But always with a heavy heart, knowing that the results would be a few degrees off perfection and that would mean their walls were not decorated in the exact colour chosen by Debo Devonshire.

In the end, most of us have been prepared to pay over the odds to guarantee the peace of mind you only get with cast iron impeccable references (Inchyra Blue, for example, was created in 2015 specifically for the outbuildings on the Scottish estate of Lord and Lady Inchyra). Only Farrow & Ball had the power to turn your modest little terraced house with the low ceilings into a place the Mitfords might have called home.

And over the years a Farrow & Ball paint job has become shorthand for gentrification. “See the local pub has been Farrow & Balled”, you might say, and it probably has. There’s a good chance that a signature wall is picked out in Down Pipe Gray, featuring faux ibex antlers, or there’s a bar area in Railings.

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Front doors that were once black gloss are now painted in Lamp Room Grey. Head to a country house hotel and you expect the woodwork to be Blackened and the bathroom Arsenic. According to Studholme, there are still people who are prepared to spend six hours in consultation with her to get the perfect shade of off-white, but even so, what once felt like the discerning choice of people who have the time to worry about these things, has become middle of the road.

There are endless precedents for this gear shift from aspirational to obvious. Once upon a time Molton Brown was a covetable high end range of bath products and then it turned up in miniatures in hotel bathrooms. Jo Malone – the scents and bath oils you could give to anyone on the planet, safe in the knowledge that they would appreciate it – is now available in an airport near you. Cath Kidston was charming posh cottagecore catnip long before Instagram – until it was sold for gazillions and became as ubiquitous as WHSmith. Or there’s The Ivy, a destination restaurant whose purpose when you walked through the door was to make you feel like one of the chosen few; now a chain and while luxurious, minus the magic that comes from feeling you’re really on the inside.

Farrow and Ball will go on being reliable paint producers and adding to their colour list (they switched in 2010 from oil based to the more environmentally friendly water based paint) – but for a while now people in the know have been looking elsewhere. Interior decorators who once automatically used Farrow and Ball, now choose Little Greene – a brand, it should be noted, with which the National Trust has a range.

Still, one thing’s for sure. If you were to raid the average middle class property – town or country - you would find in a drawer a Farrow & Ball paint chart, much thumbed, with pencil crosses and biro rings. Some of us like to pore over them the way others listen to the shipping forecast. Mizzle. String. The always restful Skimming Stone. They’ll always have a place in our hearts – even if we do stray.

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