PROPERTY / Classic of the city: 2 The Georgian house: The elegant 18th-century houses of Bath, Edinburgh and London reflected classical ideals. Some East End owners are so keen on authenticity they use candles - and chamber pots

Click to follow
Dan Cruickshank broke into the house many times to look at it before he bought it. He remembers shafts of light streaming through the shutters, illuminating a golden miasma of summer dust that hung over the panelling and the doors. The house was completely mothballed, an unchanged relic of early 18th-

century England.

The whole of Elder Street in Spitalfields, East London, was threatened with demolition by a developer. Dan and a group of other architectural historians had defied the bulldozers by squatting there on and off for months during the summer of 1977. Sir John Betjeman picked his way over the dereliction to throw a drinks party in celebration of their efforts. Then came victory. The developers suddenly gave up and advertised the houses for sale.

Dan queued with other buyers to get his chosen relic. He shared the cost of pounds 15,000 with a friend (today he would have to pay closer to pounds 200,000). It was the beginning of what, in the manner of a mad professor consumed by the creature of his own invention, he describes as his obsession. Georgian houses have become a career. He writes books about them, makes television programmes about them, and, as trustee of the Spitalfields Trust, he continues to save them.

'The fascination is in the vernacular classical details,' he says, 'the sense of hierarchy, how their ornaments were built. There are so many different ways of composing the elements of classical vocabulary. If you get one bit wrong at the beginning, you will never get it right. This house is a wonderful fusion of the correct classical language, heightened by the challenge of a small site, and economic constraints. This was a time when materials were more expensive than labour, so you find old materials being re-used wherever possible, combined with excellent craftsmanship.'

He conducts a running a dialogue with the long-dead builders. The staircase seizes his attention. 'Look at this beautiful Tuscan Doric newel post, and how the balusters are shortened, not according to any pattern book, but because the carpenters had developed an expertise which is absolutely absent today. Theirs was a young, vigorous, living art.' He points to the sunken beads in the panelling, used like punctuation marks in the grammar of the carpentry, and the irreplaceable crown (blown) glass in some of the earliest sash windows, built flush to the walls rather than recessed.

Outside on the cobbles he speaks of the builders, Mr Bunce and Mr Brown, as personal friends. 'They were typical of speculative builders in the post-Great Fire boom, putting houses up in pairs and selling them. I have calculated that the building cost of mine was about pounds 180.' He knows the first owner in 1727 had grand ideas about himself because, though Bunce and Brown had built the house only one room deep, it was immediately enlarged with a new section at the back, and ovolo ceiling mouldings were installed in the drawing room on the first floor, which was put upstairs to escape the noise and dirt of the street.

This house pre-dates the time when rooms were given fixed uses. The basement would have been used as a kitchen, but most of the other rooms probably had beds in them. As in the grand country houses of the period, the house worked as a series of apartments or bedsits, sometimes with a closet at the back for privacy, entertaining a best friend or sitting on the chamber pot. Furniture and food would have been brought into the rooms as needed. The idea of seating men and women alternately at the dining table (known as promiscuous seating) would have come later too.

The interior decoration of these old Huguenot weavers' houses, standing in what is now part of the London Bengali quarter by the old Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market, is intensely competitive. Authenticity is everything. Jocasta Innes, author of Paint Magic and contributor to the current revival of rag rolling, stippling, stencilling and self-mix paints, lives but a short stroll away.

A reprint of William Salmon's 1734 pattern book Palladio Londiniensis shows the common colours used. Dan has a tray of precious little twisted bags of pigments, ochres and indigos bought from the paint shop Cornelissen & Son in Great Russell Street, which he has used to create the stone, olive and ox-blood colours on the walls. Old rugs, salvage furniture, oil paintings and fires burning in authentic grates all conspire to create an impression of timeless, donnish elegance.

A huge enamel bath from Wales was craned into the bathroom at a moment's notice by a builder. 'It was the moment of a lifetime,' says Dan. 'The crane was at the back working on a site, and I asked him to do it. Posterity will wonder how I got it in here.' Four-poster beds are another essential requirement of the New Georgian, though the real excitement of the bedroom is the peephole through the window shutters - perfectly positioned to observe activity in the upper floors of the houses across the cobbles, never mind the activities of the whores in the street below. Dan seems almost to relish the historical correctness of the 20th- century prostitutes drawn to the area too.

Historical correctness is a hardy plant which doesn't feel the cold. In Dan's house there has been some domestic strife over the arrival of central heating. 'My wife, Vicky . . .' he explains. 'Actually I don't think it was cold before we had it but . . . it shouldn't be in a Georgian house.' To speak of it obviously causes him pain. The radiator in the sitting room has been so elaborately disguised by a built-in bookcase that one wonders if any heat manages to escape from it at all.

However, it is enough to allow a neighbour, Dennis Severs, to pull rank in the matter of authentic discomforts. His house is run as a cross between a museum and a piece of live theatre: he runs tours, with tickets at pounds 25 each.

'Mine is the only house I know that is lived in correctly,' he says. 'It is lit entirely by candles and lamps and heated by fires. I use the chamber pots, cook over the fires, and leave my mess around. When people come in I tell them the family has left and the servants haven't come to clean up yet. It is as Hogarth would have painted it. Theatre of the imagination.'

Georgian houses have come into vogue across the country since that pivotal year of Spitalfields sit-ins. Those in London's Chelsea, Kennington and Islington, like the stone terraces of Bath and Edinburgh, all previously considered dark and gloomy, have developed an added value simply because of their date. In Bath during the Seventies you could buy a complete Georgian town house in The Circus for pounds 7,000; now it could be pounds 600,000.

In Yorkshire, according to Edward Waterson of Carter Jonas estate agents, it was a little different. 'In conservative old Yorkshire we have always enjoyed these good stone houses because they are compact and stylish. And houses were being built in the Georgian style here well into the 19th century because change was so slow.' The York Georgian Society is very vigorous and holds flamboyant masked balls, complete with guests arriving in sedan chairs. Tunbridge Wells in Kent has recently followed suit.

It was this period that gave us the first terrace houses, and also the first successful town houses which allowed people to live in confined spaces, very close together, but with some elegance and privacy. Their great attraction was that the sum of their parts, arranged in a square or crescent or terrace, made a facade that looked as grand as a mansion or a palace. They were the work of the first speculative builders, who put up houses for profit rather than for shelter.

The rules to which they conformed effectively put an end to the rich variety of regional styles that had prevailed in England before. The ideas had been imported from Italy by Inigo Jones, who had been attracted by the work of the classical architect Andrea Palladio and who admired the symmetry and simplicity of form in the Roman villa. It represented a huge leap from the timber-frame manor house or cottage, which was made to look like a country bumpkin by comparison.

During the 18th century, the characteristics of the new style of house were altered and refined. Glazing bars gradually became thinner, and, as the liking for stone increased, early red bricks gave way to yellow. By the end of the century stucco was being used on exteriors as a kind of mock stone. The panelling so prevalent in Spitalfields gave way to lighter, brighter

interiors and to the ebullient plasterwork of Robert Adam which decorated the doorways, ceilings and fireplaces with swags of ribbons and blossoms. According to the wallpaper guide produced by the Georgian Group (see Directory), one of its many useful guides, the earliest patterns were black and white. Elaborate hand-painted Chinese designs came in later with the coffee and spice imports. Most wallpapers made in this country were hand- printed with wood blocks, while the passion for flocks was met by printing on adhesive and sprinkling the paper with clippings of sheep wool. Anyone wanting to match or reproduce one needs at least 21 square inches of salvage to work with. Colour is the best clue to date.

'Blue papers,' says the guide, 'are likely to date from the first half of the 18th century when there was an embargo imposed on the use of any colour but blue for use in fabrics or papers - a measure designed to protect the native indigo dying trade and to prevent the import of French silks and damasks.

'Alternatively, mustard yellow and black is a colour combination characteristic of the 1750s and 1760s.'

A measure of the importance and value of interior decoration is shown by the fact that throughout the 18th century wallpaper was taxed, with each sheet being stamped like a passport to show that the tax had been paid.

To defy this law was to take a tremendous

risk. In 1806 the falsification of wallpaper stamps was added to the list of offences

punishable by death.

Dennis Severs's house is at 18 Folgate Street, London E1 6BX (071-247 4013); his guided 'tours' last for three hours.

How the Georgians got plastered

Master Craftsman David Hayles, plasterer

THE Georgians brought an elegance and precision to decorative plasterwork that did not exist before. That is the opinion of David Hayles, who 15 years ago co-founded ornamental plasterers Hayles & Howe, experts in restoration using traditional methods. Consider a good, typical terrace town house from later in the period, he says. What look like simple features, the cornice and frieze, may well be made up of 3,000 separate plaster elements and would probably have taken two skilled men a fortnight to complete.

Walls and ceilings were first plastered with a rough coat of lime mixed with sand and animal hair. 'They used to raid the local tannery,' Hayles explains. 'Hair gives tensile strength and doesn't seem to rot.' No two mixes would ever be exactly the same; they were made by eye and feel, but foreign bodies such as grass and gravel often crept in too. Plasterers, in any case, never divulged their secret recipes.

Once the surfaces were level and square, a thin line of wooden battens was nailed along the tops of walls and round ceiling edges. The same plaster - 'grey or brown muck the consistency of cream cheese' - was thrown up into the corner by a craftsman standing on scaffolding boards. He ran a metal template on a frame (a 'horse') through the mix, using the battens as guide rails, to create the straight lines of the cornice. This was repeated a couple more times and finished with a finer coat. Ceiling roses, mostly simple and delicate then, were made the same way - but with the horse fixed to the end of a piece of wood nailed to the centre of the ceiling, and spun round like a Catherine wheel.

Embellishments to the plain cornice, known as 'enrichments', were cast from fine plaster using beeswax moulds. Thousands of little leaf motifs - typically acanthus or anthemion, tiny spheres, husks and so on - were individually applied by hand, giving depth and shadow. Below these lines of decoration were added foot-long sections of frieze, thin as biscuits, slotted together like a jigsaw and often patterned with urns and swags of flowers in sharp relief.

Cornices were made this way right through the Georgian period and after. When Hayles & Howe restored elaborate gilded plasterwork ruined by dry rot in the Colonnade Room of Wilton House near Salisbury, the family seat of the Earls of Pembroke, they exactly recreated the techniques of their predecessors. Standing on scaffolding, they pulled a horse through wet plaster to run new cornicing. The lime mix was researched to be as close to the original as possible.

Chips of enrichment that had fractured and fallen to the ground were brought back to the Hayles & Howe workshop in Bristol and replicas cast in plaster of Paris - delicate water-leaf and egg-and-dart motifs, little brackets (modillions), scores of small cubes (dentils). Each was placed on the cornice by hand with a smearing of slip.

It was not unknown for the Georgians to get their original measurements wrong. 'Then they cheated,' David Hayles warns, 'by squashing enrichments together or spacing them out. One's eye is always drawn to the corners of rooms, so look in any house about a third of the way along the cornice.'

Hayles & Howe, 25 Picton Street, Montpelier, Bristol BS6 5PZ (tel 0272 246673)

Notes to buyers

A common feature of the Georgian terrace house is the double-pitched roof with a valley gutter. This traps leaves and can be damaged by temperature extremes. It is a vulnerable part of the building, prone to letting in water. When buying, check ceilings of upper rooms carefully for tell-tale spots of damp. Owners must be prepared to get up on the roof regularly to clear the valley of debris and inspect it for cracks.

The exteriors of Georgian stuccoed houses need a watchful eye. Go out in the pouring rain and check water is not running down the walls. If damp gets into the brickwork, stucco can be pushed off and repairs are very expensive.

Stucco should be repainted every three or four years. Bright white is anachronistic, as is the common practice of painting a house a different colour to its neighbours. A terrace is an architectural whole, which was painted a single colour to enhance that.

Stripped wood is a modern innovation. Pine doors, windows, shutters and panelling would have been painted originally. The only exception might have been a door tucked well away from main rooms - even that would have been polished with layers of beeswax - and higher- status mahogany used for features such as

banister rails. Not only is bare wood inauthentic, it is liable to crack and distort when exposed to central heating.

Fanlights were always fitted above a front door and never within the door itself. A door with fitted fanlight is a modern travesty, and should never be substituted for an original one. All front doors reflect the style and proportion of their house and, however damaged or decayed, they can almost always be repaired.

For Sale

PLAINLY built from grey stone at the beginning of the 19th century, five-bedroom Grade II Plas Cadnant, Anglesey, North Wales looks out over the Menai Strait to the Welsh mountains beyond. Its 187 acres has the River Cadnant running through woodland and a derelict stone farmhouse. pounds 400,000 through Strutt & Parker.

35 St James's Square, Bath is a terrace house on five floors, built in the 1790s of mellow stone; the fine first-floor drawing room has three tall sash windows overlooking the square. Listed Grade I, it has played host to Thomas Carlyle, Henry Longfellow and Charles Dickens, who was inspired to write The Old Curiosity Shop after seeing a child playing in the communal courtyard that still exists to the rear. Cluttons is asking pounds 260,000.

Purchasers with pounds 1m to spare can secure the Grade II listed seven-bedroom Leigh Court, near Taunton, Somerset from Knight Frank & Rutley. Originally an early 19th-century rectory, it has a wisteria-covered facade with an octagonal stone porch supported on Ionic columns. The house is built round a double-height hall where a gracefully curving, cantilevered staircase leads up to a colonnaded gallery. There are marble fireplaces, heavy mahogany doors and views of the Blackdown Hills. At the other end of the scale is little Ferndale Cottage in the east Devon village of Honiton. Stone-built and with a slate roof, it is on the market for just under pounds 58,000 through Gribble Booth & Taylor. A few miles to the south-east at Axmouth is Millmead, a pretty six-bedroom Regency house. Set in 11 acres, it looks across the Axe Estuary from a conservatory spanning the western front. Strutt & Parker is inviting offers of around pounds 335,000.

Further round the coast in East Sussex, 19 Eaton Place, Brighton, converted into three flats, is being sold as a house for pounds 295,000 by John D Wood. Standing on a corner, the five- storey bow-fronted property has a curved balcony and sea views. Also from later in the period is the tiny end-of-terrace cottage 10 Elm Row in London's Hampstead. Listed Grade II, built of brick with a slate roof and with one bedroom, its price is pounds 139,000 leasehold via Hamptons. South of the Thames at Clapham Common, John D Wood is selling a classic flat-fronted five-storey terraced house for pounds 400,000. Listed Grade II* (just below Grade I), 20 North Side is one of 10 surviving houses there built of brick for the wealthy between 1714 and 1720. The house needs some updating.

Bramley Cottage, Kirtlington, Oxfordshire is constructed of honey-coloured local stone. The long two-storey, four-bedroom house with a high stone wall round its garden is on the market for just under pounds 220,000 through Carter Jonas. In the Midlands, Orchard House, Great Glen, Leicestershire, red brick on three storeys with a square facade, is listed Grade II and stands in a quiet position on the outskirts of the village. There are views across open pastureland from the back garden. Strutt & Parker is asking pounds 225,000.

What was once reputed to be a Georgian privy in the garden is one curiosity of mid-18th century Hagthorpe Hall, Selby, North Yorkshire. It is still partly surrounded by an old moat. Plainly built of red brick and listed Grade 11, it has six bedrooms. Carter Jonas's guide price is pounds 195,000. It is also selling 6 Water End, York, a little two-bedroom cottage, part of a brick terrace, for pounds 92,000. In the heart of Edinburgh's historic Georgian New Town is 13 Gloucester Place, a splendid three-storey terrace house severely built of stone in 1822 but with the most elegant interior. The Category A listed building has a light and airy first-floor drawing-room with floor-length windows and fine cornices, opening on to a bow-ended dining-room with arched niches. The gracious stairwell is top-lit by an oval cupola. pounds 295,000 from Bell & Scott.

Help is needed in Norfolk to save 95 Pottergate, Norwich, a Grade II 18th-century stuccoed house close to the town centre, last used as council offices but now empty and deteriorating. Contact George Eve, Estates Department, Norwich City Council, City Hall, Norwich, Norfolk NR2 1NH (tel 0603 622233).

Directory

Windows: Many Georgian windows were originally glazed with hand- blown crown glass. Never completely flat, its small imperfections such as waves and air bubbles give life and character to a house facade. Crown glass has been unavailable for 60 years but is now being produced by The London Crown Glass Company, Pyghtle House, Misbourne Avenue, Gerrards Cross, Bucks SL9 0PD (tel 0494 871966). Fanlights (decorative windows set above the front door) were common in townhouses from around 1770 onwards). Most have lead or iron glazing bars which were easily formed into curves, but rusting over the years means they are virtually un-restorable. John Sambrook, Park House, Northiam, East Sussex TN31 6PA (tel 0797 252615) makes exact copies.

Wallpapers: Wallpapers in the Georgian house often imitated more expensive materials such as velvet, cut brocade or silk. Hamilton Weston Wallpapers, 18 St Mary's Grove, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1UY (tel 081-940 4850) specialises in the reproduction

of original 18th and 19th-century designs, both machine and hand-printed.

Wrought iron: As the Georgian period progressed, ironwork achieved a grace and delicacy of design. To have original work copied in cheap rust-prone mild steel instead of wrought iron forged in the fire with a hammer is like opting for chipboard over oak, according to blacksmith Chris Topp. He restores and replicates wrought ironwork such as gates, balusters and railings using traditional methods. Topp's clients include both the National Trust and English

Heritage. His forge is at Carlton Husthwaite, Thirsk, North Yorks Y07 2BJ (tel 0845 401415).

Joinery: The small joinery shop of Buckingham and McCarthy, 68 Battersea High Street, London SW11 3HX (tel 071-223 9396) has undertaken work for the Spitalfields Trust. It specialises in making exact copies of Georgian (and other) windows, doors, panelling, wide floorboards, stairs and handrailing, including the curved wreath turn that tops the newel post, something which is difficult to find.

Doors: Among the 2,000 old doors sized and racked at Walcot Reclamation, 108 Walcot Street, Bath BA1 5BG (tel 0225 444404) are usually six- panel Georgian doors, stripped ready for sanding and painting. Upstairs are marble fire surrounds from later in the period and dozens of hob grates, many from the redevelopment of Bath in the 1960s. Walcot run a computerised 'Wants Index' for anything not in stock.

Paints: Pigments, oil colours and all the traditional materials used in creating authentic paint effects for Georgian houses can be found at Cornelissen & Son, 105 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3RY (tel 071-636 1045).

Advice on missing details: Home-owners wanting advice on missing detail - architrave, dado rails, cornices and friezes, fireplaces, and so on - should contact English Heritage Architectural Study Collection, Keysign House, 429 Oxford Street, London W1R 2HD. Write giving them as much information as possible, and preferably enclosing relevant colour photographs. The Georgian Group, 37 Spital Square, London E1 6DY (tel 071-377 1722) publishes more than a dozen illustrated guides covering all aspects of the Georgian house from roofs, windows and floors to paint colour, curtains and blinds.

Comments