Interiors: A very big bedsit

Keith Skeel found the only way to cope with his vast house was to live in three rooms. Shoshana Goldberg reports

AS A CHILD, Keith Skeel used to remove kitchen cabinets and cut the ends off beds when his mother was out shopping. She was so terrified of the landlord that it made her cry, but Skeel was unrepentant. "Things always looked so much better," he explains. Now a highly successful antique dealer in his fifties, Skeel has no need to resort to crude carpentry. He is surrounded by beautiful objects all the time, and his splendid home, Loudham Hall, the 12-bedroom house in Suffolk that was built as a hunting lodge for the Duke of Southampton in 1580, is a million miles from the dreary suburban setting of his childhood in Waltham Cross.

But then it was his childhood that taught Keith Skeel how he didn't want to live. "It was like Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies: rows of bow-fronted suburban semis with twitching net curtains, where nothing matters more than what the neighbours think. I still can't bear the ugliness of it all," he winces. "It consumes and nauseates me. I like colour and nice things. They don't have to be expensive - fresh flowers, a carefully ironed pillowslip or nicely folded tea towel. If someone doesn't bother with the detail, it shows a lack of love and thought to me. There's a sadness to ugliness."

After leaving school, Skeel's aesthetic inclinations led to a job as a colour technician for a large cosmetics company. But his career was short-lived. "There was always going to be some elusive person being paid 10 times more than I was, taking credit for my successes and bollocking me for my mistakes. I'd been buying things I liked from junk shops and I started selling them out of the back of a car at Bermondsey market." Three years later, Keith had his first shop. He now owns shops in London, New York and Cape Town.

"During the week in London, I work from 8.30 in the morning until 9.30 at night, but I get enormous pleasure from my work. It's my life. And selling is like giving really, isn't it? Even though money is changing hands, I'm still providing someone with a beautiful thing that makes them happy." Skeel has always had an "eye". The window displays of his shop, Merchants' Hall, on the Essex Road never fail to catch the eye of passers- by: a 19th-century wooden artist's dummy reclining on a grand four-poster bed, or a wooden bicycle balanced on top of a flower-strewn rubbish heap.

Loudham Hall is characteristic of this taste for the curious. Stepping inside feels like stumbling through the mirror in Alice Through the Looking Glass. The house is a labyrinth of long, wide hallways and endless interconnecting rooms, in which somehow nothing is quite as it seems. One room contains an enormous dining table fully laid with a complicated dinner service and generations of cut-crystal glasses. In another, a hundred malevolent- looking judges peer through gloomy canvasses. It's more like a film set for a costume drama than a home.

In fact, Skeel and his partner, Adrian, a softly-spoken black New Yorker, only use a tiny section of the house. "We use the place like a bedsit really - it's the only way I can cope with it." Skeel explains that although he bought the house eight years ago, he didn't move in for five years. "I didn't know how to live here. I was scared of it at first and just used the space to store furniture. Eventually I decided to move into three rooms."

It must be one of the grandest bedsits in England.The kitchen is the size of a London loft. Huge terracotta blackamoors bearing bowls of fruit stand incongruously amid the familiar furniture of a country kitchen, and a half carcass of a cow hangs disconcertingly from a hook on the wall ("papier-mache," says Skeel. Apparently butchers used to put them in their windows to give the impression they had plenty of meat in stock).

The room they use most is upstairs. At the foot of a massive Victorian mahogany bed is an olive leather chaise longue with a richly-coloured chenille curtain thrown over it. Beside the fire is a French corner cupboard which hides the television and stereo. Above the desk hangs an 18th-century Portuguese painting of birds, vases, camellias and cherries. It looks a bit like a tea towel. "I love the ridiculousness of it," he laughs.

The bedroom is filled with more terracotta blackamoors, grinning in the face of political correctness. "I like their happy, cheerful faces," he shrugs unapologetically. "Of course slavery is offensive, but so was sending children down mines. You can't pretend these things didn't happen."

As he goes on to talk lovingly about a wool Turkish carpet, it becomes clear how he made his fortune. His excitement about the faded blues, greens, and aquamarines and the way the rich poppy bleaches out to pink is infectious. Anyone would buy it after listening to him. In contrast to the opulence of the bedroom, the bathroom is simple, practical and light. There's an Edwardian ceramic bath that a young child could swim lengths in, cool white marble parquet flooring and huge windows overlooking the gardens.

Despite the double sink stand, Keith insists on being alone in the bathroom, though he does share it with a life-size porcelain figure of an Arab girl shrouded in white. "Isn't it lovely to have a statue to throw your dressing gown on? I spend most of the morning in here - meditating, daydreaming, thinking things through. A bathroom's not for getting your body clean really, is it? It's for sorting your head out."

As we make our way downstairs, Skeel pauses to express his delight at the portrait of a particularly ugly family: "Look, he's even painted her spots" - and the picture of a po-faced, double-chinned Presbyterian woman that he bought in Hull 20 years ago for pounds 7.50. "You should never be afraid to like something. Who's to say what's good or bad taste if it gives you pleasure? The middle-road option is always the worst. If someone says that'll go with everything, you're guaranteed it'll go with nothing."

Although Skeel owns other houses - more than he's prepared to admit to - Loudham Hall is the one he thinks of as home. "It isn't a particularly beautiful house, but I knew when I first walked in that I felt secure here. I don't think I've ever felt secure in a modern building," he says. "So many places change all the time, but I know that I can leave and go to New York for five weeks and there'll be hardly any change when I come back."

Loudham Hall was chosen for its location. Set in 100 acres of land, out of sight of the road, it is conveniently close to London and large enough to house Skeel's restoration workshops and startling menagerie of animals. He keeps dogs, llamas, pigs, Highland cattle, ostriches, goats, horses, donkeys, peacocks, turkeys and rare breeds of chickens: exotic furniture for the Suffolk countryside.

Skeel feels no need to furnish himself with an imaginary personal history or play the part of lord of the manor. Instead, he treats Loudham Hall as a vast personal theatre, moving or selling props with a remarkable lack of sentimentality. "Nothing is sacred," he says of the contents of his house. For all Skeel's appreciation of objects, he is only too aware of the illusoriness of such material trappings. Perhaps that is why his favourite pieces are the ones that make him laugh. And why he has chosen ostriches and llamas for company instead of the prying, judgemental neighbours of his youth. 1

ends...

I arrive at a deserted station in Suffolk to find myself truly in the sticks. There's not a shop in sight, let alone a mini-cab office, but, a little way up the road, I can see a man with a mobile struggling with his dodgy car door-lock. By happy coincidence, this man is also in search of Keith Skeel.

Tom, a woodcarver, has been leaving Skeel phone messages for weeks in the hope of some work. When I tell him I'm here to interview Skeel, Tom seizes his opportunity and offers me a lift.

As we drive off towards Loudham Hall, Skeel's 12-bedroomed home built in 1580 [for the Duke of Southampton], Tom fills me in on the local gossip. Skeel, he tells me, is a London barrow boy who's done rather well for himself.

Skeel is, in fact, an antique dealer. And a dab-hand at it, too. He owns numerous shops in London, New York and Cape Town and more homes than he's prepared to admit.

I've often peered through the window on my way past Merchants Hall, Skeel's shop on Essex Road in Islington. It's not that I'm inclined to blow the equivalent of a mortgage on a gilded chair, but because his displays are eye-catching and quirky. Last time I looked, a 19th-century wooden artist's dummy was having a comical kip on a pine panelled four-poster.

Skeel's latest venture, Eccentricities on nearby Upper Street is, he says, a protest against the elitism and snobbery of the antique world. His curiosity shop for antique lovers on a budget is proving a great success, especially with American tourists who seem to relish the delusion that a Chinese Ming bowl can be had for pounds 28.

Loudham Hall is set in 100 acres of land and isn't visible from the lion- guarded gates, but soon Adrian, Skeel's partner - a tall, softly spoken black New Yorker - appears in a high-up, four-wheel drive to lead the way.

Skeel shows me into the kitchen while he nips off to let Tom sell his skills as a woodcarver. The kitchen is the size of a London loft-style apartment and while the AGA and china-lined pine dressers are familiar, the half cow hanging from a hook on the wall is a little disconcerting.

'It's papier mache,' says Skeel gently, as he catches me staring at the carcass. Apparently, in the Forties, butchers put them in their windows to give the impression they had plenty of meat in stock.

'Have you seen Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies?' Skeel asks, as we settle down at the kitchen table with tea and toast. 'That's what it was like where I grew up. Rows of bow-fronted suburban semis with twitching net curtains. You know the sort of thing, nothing matters more than what the neighbours think. Well, it taught me how I didn't want to live,' he laughs.

We talk about Skeel's quest to escape ugliness. 'I still can't bear it. It consumes and nauseates me. I like colour and nice things. They don't have to be expensive - fresh flowers, a carefully ironed pillowslip or nicely folded tea towel. If someone doesn't bother with the detail, it shows a lack of love and thought to me. There's a sadness to ugliness, don't you think?' he asks, offering more tea.

'As a kid, I used to pull out kitchen cabinets and cut the ends off beds when Mum was out shopping. She was terrified of the landlord so it made her cry but things always looked so much better.'

Skeel asks if I'd like to wander round while he takes a phone call. The house is a labyrinth of long, wide hallways and endless interconnecting rooms. There's an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass quality to the place. Somehow nothing is quite as it seems. One room contains an enormous dining table fully laid out with complicated dinner service and generations of cut crystal glasses, another hosts more than a hundred portraits of malevolent- looking judges. It's more like a film set for an unstinting costume drama than a home.

Keith tracks me down somewhere in the west wing. 'Adrian and I use the place like a bedsit really, it's the only way I can cope with it. When I bought the house eight years ago, I was scared of it at first. I didn't know how to live here, so eventually I moved into three rooms and used the rest to store furniture.

'I wanted somewhere with uninterrupted countryside, no roads or immediate neighbours and enough land for my restoration workshops and animals. I chose Suffolk because it's only two hours from London but feels like the end of the line.'

'This is where we actually live,' says Skeel, walking me into the grandest bedsit I've ever seen. 'It's our own little world.' At the foot of a massive Victorian mahogany bed is an olive leather chaise with a richly- coloured chenille curtain thrown over it. Beside the fire is a French corner cupboard which hides the TV, video and stereo.

Keith asks what I think of a painting of birds, vases, chamelias and cherries hanging above the desk. Portuguese art in the 18th century isn't my forte and I wish he hadn't asked but, reluctantly, I tell him I think it looks like an Auntie's tea towel. 'It does, doesn't it?' My relief is probably tangible. 'I love the ridiculousness of it,' he laughs.

On a run after my tea towel success, I admit to feeling uneasy about his large collection of grinning terracotta blackamoors. 'I like their happy, cheerful faces,' he shrugs. 'They've always been friends to me. Of course slavery is offensive, but so was sending children down mines and forcing young girls into prostitution to feed their families. You can't pretend these things didn't happen.'

As Keith talks lovingly about a wool Turkey carpet from Donegal, it becomes clear how he made his fortune. His excitement in the faded blues, greens, and aquamarines and the way the rich poppy bleaches out to pink is infectious. I'm now in love with a knackered old carpet and want to take it home.

Keith knows about colour. After leaving school, he worked as a colour technician for a large cosmetics company. 'It wasn't for me. There was always going to be some elusive person being paid ten times more than I was, taking credit for my successes and bollocking me for my mistakes. I'd been buying things I liked from junk shops and I started selling them out of the back of a car at Bermondsey market.' Three years later, Keith had his first shop.

'During the week in London, I work from 8.30 in the morning to 9.30 at night but I get enormous pleasure from my work. It's my life. And selling is like giving really, isn't it? Even though money is changing hands, I'm still providing someone with a beautiful thing that makes them happy.'

In contrast to the opulent but cosy clutter of the bedroom, the bathroom is simple, practical, light and white. There's an Edwardian ceramic bath that a young child could swim lengths in, cool white marble parquet flooring and three huge windows overlooking the gardens. A modern power shower at the end of the room is cunningly disguised as a large glass cupboard.

Despite the double sink stand, Keith insists on being alone in the bathroom and only shares this space with a life-size porcelain figure of an Arab girl shrouded in white. 'It's lovely to have a statue to throw your dressing gown on. I spend most of the morning in here - meditating, daydreaming, thinking things through. A bathroom's not for getting your body clean really, is it? It's for sorting your head out.'

As we make our way downstairs, Skeel takes schoolboy pleasure in the portrait of an ugly family - 'Look, he's even painted her spots' - and the picture of a po-faced, double-chinned Presbyterian woman that he bought in Hull 20 years ago for pounds 7.50.

'You should never be afraid to like something. Who's to say what's good or bad taste if it gives you pleasure. The middle-road option is always the worst. If someone says 'that'll go with everything,' you're guaranteed it'll go with nothing.

'This isn't a particularly beautiful house but I knew when I first walked in that I felt secure here. I don't think I've ever felt secure in a modern building,' he says, leading me outside to look at the gardens and grounds.

'So many places change all the time but here I can go to New York for five weeks and there'll be hardly any change when I come back, except the vegetables and weeds will have grown a bit.

Keith, it transpires, has Dr Dolittle tendencies. He keeps dogs, llamas, pigs (Gloucester Old Spot and Pot Bellied), Highland cattle, ostriches, goats, horses, donkeys, peacocks, turkeys and chickens. 'They're friends. I like looking at them and hearing the sounds they make. And anyway,' he adds, catching himself sound like a townie, 'you need animals in a place like this, otherwise there's no life in the land.'

Keith Skeel has done rather well for himself. And he's a dab-hand at knowing what makes him happy, too. He's created a haven from the organised chaos of his other life. The drab suburbia of his youth has been replaced by grand kitsch, and the ugliness that depresses him has been swapped for a colourful version that makes him chuckle. And, instead of judgemental, prying neighbours, Skeel chooses ostriches and llamas to keep him company.

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