A Perfect English Townhouse
In her book Perfect English Townhouse, Ros Byam Shaw celebrates the timeless appeal of this most sophisticated of urban architectural styles. In the following extract, she treats us to a tour of the characterful Regency terraced home that photographer Jan Baldwin and her husband, academic Henry Wynn, have lovingly restored.
Like its owners, this is a generous house. It doesn’t have many rooms, but it has high ceilings, a wide staircase, and a handsome front door, painted gloss black and broad and tall enough to convince you that it is a property of substance. It stands near the corner of a garden square built in the 1820s, on land that had previously been a brick and tile works. Although they vary in size, the houses present a united front, with triangular pediments spanning them in pairs, and twinned front doors in between. All have a basement below pavement level and two storeys above. The estate remained in the same family until the 1980s, and although the last landlady was benign, she spent no money updating her properties. When she died and the London Borough of Islington took over as landlords, many of the houses had no bathrooms, let alone central heating. On the other hand, they had not suffered unsympathetic modernisation.
A hole in the roof
Jan and Henry bought theirs in 1988. It had been empty for five years. “We came to see it on a day when it was pouring with rain,” says Jan. “There was something blocking the front door, and Henry and our architect James Engel were all for giving up, but I liked it and wanted to see inside. Somehow we got hold of a ladder and I climbed in through an upstairs window. There were holes in the roof and an ash tree growing up the back that was pulling off the extension, leaving a gap where a sheet of water was pouring down the wall. I managed to persuade Henry we should buy it and sold my flat in Earl’s Court for exactly what we had to pay for it. I had also just bought a photographic studio in Brick Lane, so we moved in there and slept on the floor. It was pretty chaotic – with Henry’s sons from his first marriage and various visiting academics staying with us on and off. I remember doing a shoot for Thomas Goode, and Anatole Kaletsky picking up a coffee cup and remarking that it was rather expensive for £1.25. The label actually said £125!”
There was extensive structural work to be done: a new roof, the reconstruction of the back extension, digging down a further 18 inches in the basement to allow for a good ceiling height, and lowering the level of the back garden so that you can step out through French doors into a paved courtyard surrounded by raised beds. The two main rooms of the basement were knocked into one to make a kitchen diner, and they installed a second bathroom with a shower in the scullery opposite the foot of the basement stairs, and transformed the front area entrance lobby and coal-hole into a utility room. The extension at entrance-hall level became the guest bedroom and above it they put in a second bathroom, using an antique roll-top bathtub found in the old scullery.
Despite its dereliction, there was a lot that could be saved: panelled doors, floorboards, plain marble chimney pieces, and a slim, almost delicate banister rail and banisters. Sealed behind old paint and wallpaper to the right of the sitting-room front window they found a recessed sliding shutter, an unusual design almost like an early pocket sliding door, that is now restored to full working order. “We had to remortgage five times to get it all done,” says Jan, “and it took nearly two years. My father, who was a cabinet maker, and understood about building and construction, had warned us not to touch this house with a barge-pole, and in a way he was proved right. Except that we have ended up with a house that we love and couldn’t possibly afford to buy now.”
The decoration and furnishings have evolved over the years. Jan has an infallible eye for line and proportion, evident in all her photographic work, and has left the architecture of the house to speak for itself; floorboards are bare, except for rugs in the living room and bedrooms, and only two windows have curtains, the rest having shutters. Most of the house is painted white. The exceptions are the fireplace wall of the back sitting room, which is charcoal grey, and the right-hand wall of the entrance hall, which is the same colour, stopping abruptly on the fourth step of the staircase where it is squared off against the white of the rest of the wall. This looks like a smart and original decorative device until Jan tells you that it was a quick paint job by her assistant Peter Dixon for a shoot some years ago.
Friendship and family
Jan laughs that the house is “a mess” and “not finished”. It has never been consciously interior decorated since its first coat of white paint, and its contents are more to do with friendship, family, and travel than creating any particular impression. It’s a workhorse of a house, as well as a retreat, and both Jan and Henry have offices, Jan’s in the lower-ground-floor extension beneath the guest bedroom, Henry’s in the back bedroom on the first floor, where he appears to have hollowed out a space for himself from a solid mass of books and papers. There are prints by Jan’s sister Didi, plates by South African potter Hylton Nel, pictures by friends and colleagues, pots from trips to Africa and China, and the sewing box her father made for her.
“All my ideas are picked up from shoots,” Jan says. The kitchen is a case in point. The Rosa Aurora marble work surface was inspired by a kitchen seen on a work trip to Italy, the vintage enamel Chester cooker by a shoot in Germaine’s Greer’s house, and the red and white diagonal stripe of the curtains in front of the shelving was a fabric spotted when working with Neisha Crosland. “I am lucky to see so many amazing places for work,” she says. “In a way, it can make it more difficult to choose what to live with.”
Perfect English Townhouse by Ros Byam Shaw and Jan Baldwin is published by Ryland Peters & Small
Perfect English Townhouse is available to readers for the special price of £25 including postage & packaging (rrp £30). Call Macmillan Direct on 01256 302699 and quote the reference NT4