The writer, equestrian and socialite talks to Tatler about the decision to auction off the pieces that made her Chelsea home impossibly chic.
In many ways, it was inevitable that Countess Alexandra Tolstoy would furnish her first family home (where she lived for 11 years with her three children) with antiques. After all, she had grown up surrounded by them, and had a long-term affinity with all things vintage. But it was serendipity perhaps that led to her working with interiors experts Daniel Slowik and Emma Burns of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, two kindred spirits who she literally ran into while living at Claridge’s before moving into her new abode.
‘When I was pregnant with my first child, I was staying at Claridge’s while we looked for somewhere to live,’ she explains. ‘Eventually, a week before I gave birth, we found somewhere, but it was completely unfurnished. I left Claridge’s one day and there was Colefax & Fowler on the corner. I grew up with antiques and old things, but this was just very different. Every single piece is so eclectic, beautiful, quirky and unique, and often with a bit of a sense of humour. This was something new to me.’
After meeting Daniel in the shop (‘he was an excellent salesman – very unpushy’) she was later introduced to Emma (who helped make her some curtains), and the three became fast friends, working together over the next 11 years on the interiors of Tolstoy’s home.
The Drawing Room in Alexandra Tolstoy’s former Chelsea Townhouse
Her background in travel, including riding on horseback along the Silk Road (which formed the basis of a book, The Last Secrets of the Silk Road) as well as a stint living in Moscow, meant that Tolstoy’s own tastes were less grand English country house and more eclectic folkloric style, as she explains. ‘I don’t feel I was influenced by other houses or decorators really, I was sort of in my own bubble. The decade before I’d been living in Moscow, so I hadn’t even really been in England. I spent a lot of time during those 10 years riding across these small villages in Russia, and I think that they appealed to a lot of the things I naturally love, they were very colourful and rustic, not sombre at all, and often quirky with a bit of a sense of humour.’
Tolstoy was keen to be respectful of her home’s past, which was another consideration when decorating. ‘The houses were once artists’ studios that belonged to Walter Sickert and Sir William Rothenstein, so I tried to be true to the space, rather than imposing a uniform style on it. I felt they should be bohemian, quite eclectic with lots of textiles and layers, to pay homage to what they really were,’ she explains.
Listening to Tolstoy speak about her home, you can tell it was a labour of love, something that both fulfilled her and gave her a creative release at what was undoubtedly a difficult time in her life. She has been separated from her ex-partner, Sergei Pugachev, for several years after he fell foul of the Kremlin (once being a friend of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin), and since then has endured financial hardships (receiving no help from the father of her children). She has spoken before about how she lost herself during those years as the girlfriend of a Russian billionaire – but despite her sense of style changing, her love of interiors never did.
The Drawing Room in Alexandra Tolstoy’s former Chelsea Townhouse
She’s particularly enthusiastic about her favourite places to shop and her most treasured discoveries over the years: ‘I love Robert Kilme, if I could go in there now and buy a Harlequin cupboard I’d be a very happy person…’ she laughs. ‘Now I’m discovering George Smart’s felt appliqué pictures, and there’s this wonderful dealer in Camberwell where you go to their home and see everything in context. That was all very folk centric. I also bought from Robert Young, who actually has a shop in Battersea, and specialises in old Welsh, old English, old Scandinavian furniture. And through Instagram, I’ve discovered so many other smaller people. That’s why I love decorating as you’re always learning new things along the way’, she pauses, ‘and when you shed stuff, it means you can get new stuff.’
Whoever does end up giving a new lease of life to Tolstoy’s artworks, antiques and furniture is definitely in for a treat: think George Smart felt illustrations, a Scottish Regency oak library bookcase, an Italian cherrywood table and an American rag rug.
‘Someone on Instagram got in touch recently saying that I needed to “get out of the 19th century and get into the 21st century”, and that “we’re sick of all that old furniture now, we want modern”, and I was flabbergasted, I couldn’t believe that people could actually think like that – I thought everybody loved antiques,’ she laughs. ‘Antiques don’t just have to be old and fusty. I like the idea that you are a custodian of these things – I’m not going to go to my grave with these things am I? I’m just happy that we looked after them and that they can go to a new home.’ Hear, hear.
Scroll down for Tolstoy’s personal highlights from the sale.
Alexandra Tolstoy: An Interior by Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler selling online at Christie’s from 4 – 25 November
A SCOTTISH REGENCY OAK LIBRARY BOOKCASE, EARLY 19TH CENTURY £4000-6000
I love this because it’s on a grand scale but informal and pretty too – I chose antiques that work in modern as well as traditional interiors, and this is a prime example. It is not dated and is a little unusual and quirky with the beaded detail. It was one of the first pieces that I bought and I bought it for practical reasons as well as aesthetic – it’s great storage!
A POLYCHROME-WOVEN ‘NOUVELLE’ CARPET BY SIBYL COLEFAX & JOHN FOWLER, MODERN £1500-2500
The most timeless pattern with colours that work with anything and it was the most fabulous setting for all the colourful furniture and textiles in our home. It is also incredibly practical – it doesn’t slip on the wooden floor and my children played on it everyday!
TWO PAIRS OF INDIAN PALACE PAINTINGS, 20th CENTURY – Each pair £1000-2000
I love decorative art – it adds to the layering of a home – and again these were the perfect colours for our home. We had unusual hanging space in Glebe Place – the huge windows meant there wasn’t much wall space but what we did have was a big open wall and needed something on a similar scale.
AN ITALIAN CHERRYWOOD LARGE TABLE, 19TH CENTURY, £2000-4000 (the models are alabaster)
Elegant and non-obtrusive this table was a fantastic background for photographs, pieces of Russian enamel that I had collected and the Italian models of buildings in Pisa – they all worked in harmony together.
A PAIR OF WHITE UPHOLSTERED SOFAS, BY KATHARINE POOLEY, MODERN – £4000-6000
I commissioned these white sofas to be a base for the many layered cushions that I love and spent many happy hours on them – the perfect spot to retire with friends after a dinner party.