If anyone knows where I can get this paper, please let me know!
The reason for asking is that since I visited the house that I’ll talk about below I’ve become a bit obsessed with wallpapers, particularly hand-painted ones by de Gournay. (wallpapers from Gracie and Fromental are also delightful). I’ve been pinning my inspiration onto Pinterest.
Last year I bought a book, London’s Country Houses by Caroline Knight.
It reminded me to linger at the gates into Green Park next to the Ritz and think about Devonshire House, which once stood behind those gates (they are all that remain). Devonshire House was one of the many palatial-sized London homes of the nobility built during the 18th century. Sadly, the great wars and death duties saw the house abandoned, its plot sold and the building razed to the ground.
That said, the point of this frolic is a discussion of something I’ve noticed: the return of large single dwellings in grand houses in Central London.
During the 20th century, those very same houses were often converted into offices or split into multiple flats. In most cases, maintaining a grand house for just one family was just not financially viable.
Some became Embassies. In September 2012 I visited the Swedish Ambassador’s residence (a great Robert Adam house situated on a corner plot a few minutes from Regent Street and with a vast first floor of entertaining space, recently refurbished following a water leak) and the Argentine Ambassador’s residence, a slightly shabbier affair near Belgrave Square.
Fast forward 60 years to the late noughties, with every billionaire and multi-millionaire out there having been bitten by the recent financial crisis and seeking to put his money into something and somewhere that seems stable and credit-crunch proof. For many that means buying a piece of real estate in prime central London (Mayfair, Belgravia and Kensington in particular).
I noticed a few years ago that people began reworking ‘office buildings’ into a single dwelling, spending millions to return properties near St James’ into high-tech 21st century homes behind historic façades. While Eaton Square and Chester Square have become typical targets, they aren’t unique when it comes to an owner removing everything but the façade, stripping the interior back to the brick and adding gyms and a cinema room in the basement.
The newspapers love a story about a millionaire who wants to did out his basement and put a garage and a gym under his back garden. I’ve heard people as far west (!) as Turnham Green and Chiswick aiming to make a quick buck and bulk up their retirement fund by digging out the basement before downsizing. It’s the new loft conversion/fold back doors into the garden (now that everyone has done that).
Baby-Sheikh bling is the look developers seem to go for. The interiors are all much of a muchness to me: taupes, parquet or salvaged wood flooring covered with bespoke silk rugs, often from The Rug Company, generic cornicing and panelling, nondescript pictures, deep carpets. The interiors are turnkey and allow any nationality of buyer to arrive with their suitcase(s) and to start enjoying life in London without having to even call in an interior designer.
Often the houses are sold complete with contents and the art can also usually be bought for a separate price.
One could be anywhere.
Would you guess that the property above dates back to 1685 and the image below is its facade (pictures from Hathaways Period Properties)?
Here are some examples of the office buildings that have been offered up:
If fact Hathaways Period Properties’ website is quite a visual delight for anyone who likes to journey on a virtual visit inside historic properties.
I also noticed that the Georgian Group’s annual awards category ‘Restoration of a Georgian Building in an Urban Setting’ was won in 2012 by a house that has been ‘recreated’ from offices.
It looks over St James’ Park, a stone’s throw from Westminster and Buckingham Palace.
It is called 16 Queen Anne’s Gate.
Originally it was 6 Park Street, until 1874.
From the outside, a plain 4 storey (plus attic and basement) Georgian terrace dating from 1775.
It is owned by Troels Holch Povlsen, who owns a number of properties and doesn’t plan on moving into this house. He will probably use it for guests and family members to stay in. His PA is based in the front room on the ground floor. He is a billionaire fashion magnate.
What is special is that the owner has sought to recreate a period home. He has a particular interest in Queen Anne furniture and while he has added some modern conveniences, what he has achieved has kept me smiling ever since I saw it.
Here’s what’s inside (it’s a cavernous 10,500 sq ft):
A new orangery is being built at basement level, where there is also a staff kitchen.
In the attic there is a guest bedroom and playroom, perfectly curated but I wonder if it will ever be used?.
There is simple entrance hall with a limestone floor and an oval light dome above the semi-elliptical staircase.
There is underfloor heating – it has to be kept at 15/16 degrees because at any higher the salvaged floorboards (from a house in Wiltshire) crack. Some have already cracked.
Ground floor rear reception room, stuffed with architectural pieces that haven’t yet been used.
Great piano nobile reception room looking out over St James’ Park, with a faded painted ceiling and a small area off to the side (which will house sculpture). At the front a study/dining room with Chinese wallpaper, a large bookcase along one wall, a small desk and a large dining table.
See here for more detail on the decoration of this room.
The parts that I enjoyed most were the domestic areas on the upper floors.
I particularly enjoyed looking at the small kitchenette off the sitting room and the bathroom off a bedroom (both of which look into an internal lightwell).
The practicalities of actually living in a house like this is what fascinates me.
Both the kitchen and bathroom are bijou but very nice – cream tiles, double sink, shower and roll top bath in the bathroom; black kitchen cabinets, Belfast sink, 6 ring hob, American fridge, built-in plant pots for herbs between the sink and the window in the kitchen.
The sitting room walls are a worn faded blood red with warm white below the dado. The paintwork is putty on the living floor with the sitting room, mushroom on the floors above.
There are period pieces everywhere: bookcases, cabinets, small toys, apprentice pieces of miniature furniture in the cabinets. A dozen personal photographs but otherwise not a slouchy couch or a personal belonging.
The oils are all age appropriate but who are they of? Some of the gilt frames have small chips revealing the white plaster. No attempt has been made to make things seem perfect in this regard. I would have liked to have seen a single Rembrant or a Lely, something to pop on the wall because surely the original owner of this house would have had something they had brought with them that they couldn’t bear to part with, even if it was ‘out of period’.
The cornicing in the attics is very modest, sometimes absent. In the central hall the cornicing seems original, stripped back of layers of paint. It looks ready to be repainted as light floods down from the skylight. If you look at the picture of the Chinese room above, the “naked” cornicing can be seen.
Next door have scaffolding up at roof level and so the pigeons have been roosting. The beautiful skylight is half covered in pigeon poo.
There are numerous bedrooms with bold but somehow also delicate wallpapers. Greens and blues with naturalistic patterns. Not much wall panelling. Dados instead. Central lights have been capped off so that 4 poster beds can be used – once central ceiling lights are now off-centre. There are no carpets but many rugs, all faded. Nothing looks new apart from the kitchen and the bathroom. There is a study with green walls at the top and the lower half below the dado is cream. All the light switches are early 20th century burnished brass with little sticks. Plugs are in the deep skirting, not on the walls. There are tea caddies, a Chinese lacquered cabinet, a pot full of shaving brushes.
The one thing that jarred for me was the taxidermy. There was quite a lot of it – birds under domes, a stuffed chicken and even a screen of stuffed exotic birds in front of a window in the sun (so that National Trust would be jumping up and down thinking about fading). I didn’t think the Georgians went in for stuffed birds (especially in town houses). Of course country houses would have the spoils of the shooting trip, but did they have stuffed exotic birds?
Wikipedia tells me “The earliest methods of preservation of birds for natural history cabinets were published in 1748 by Reaumur in France”. Only 1748. Darwin and Cook used taxidermy to preserve specimens but how widespread were stuffed birds in London town houses in the 18th century?
I always think that a bird under glass domes looks very Victorian and while I did want a stuffed bird under a dome myself (I live in a place named after a bird!), I decided against it because it’s Victorian (and I don’t do Victoriana). I wonder. Can anyone shed any light for me?
Perhaps the birds have something to do with the fact that the rear of the property looks out over Birdcage Walk, where the royal aviaries used to be and therefore the taxidermy is making a social point?
I’d like to think that the owner of 16 Queen Anne’s Gate did all the buying and curating himself, this being a passion of his. I’d like to think he didn’t have an interior designer nor a buyer who went to the auctions for him.
I didn’t see a stainless steel kitchen, a massage room, anywhere to store bicycles(!), a laundry room, a TV or a computer. I wonder what was behind the doors that were closed.
I can see why this house won the Georgian Group award. I might go as far as saying it’s (one of) the nicest I’ve ever been in, in an impersonal ‘curated’ type of a way. If I wanted an interior-designed house that I (or anyone) could just move into, this would be perfect (provided I could pick it up and put it in a different part of town, add some off-street parking and double the length of the garden). Seems that even at this price, finding the perfect pad in London can be difficult.
I only had an hour in this house. I could easily have spent 2. Had there been a guided tour I could imagine 3 hours easily spent exploring this house, understanding what it looked like in the 18th century, then as an office, and what has been done to put it back together. There was none of that.
I’d like to go back in 5 years’ time.
When visited: February 2013