A taste of the past
The renovation of two floors of a Stoke Newington house is a testament to the owner's fascination for everything from the 18th century - including its cuisine
Wednesday 23 February 2005
Ian Kelly is a man in love with the 18th century. The actor and writer, who has appeared in
Howard's End and
Cold Lazarus and on stage in Tom Stoppard's
Arcadia, has spent the last three-and-a-half years in his ultimate restoration drama, in a Georgian house in north London. "We were very lucky to find it," says Kelly, of the Grade II-listed building in Albion Road, Stoke Newington, designed by the developer Thomas Cubitt, who went on to create Osborne House on the Isle of Wight under the direction of Prince Albert. "Cubitt built a classic Georgian dolls' house in 1826 on the site of an earlier house and we live in the top two storeys."
Ian Kelly is a man in love with the 18th century. The actor and writer, who has appeared in Howard's End and Cold Lazarus and on stage in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, has spent the last three-and-a-half years in his ultimate restoration drama, in a Georgian house in north London. "We were very lucky to find it," says Kelly, of the Grade II-listed building in Albion Road, Stoke Newington, designed by the developer Thomas Cubitt, who went on to create Osborne House on the Isle of Wight under the direction of Prince Albert. "Cubitt built a classic Georgian dolls' house in 1826 on the site of an earlier house and we live in the top two storeys."
Locating the rare Georgian property was complete happenstance, according to Kelly, 37. "We didn't know Stoke Newington at all, but went for a walk in the Gothic cemetery one weekend and went into an estate agent's office. He said a unique place that was half finished had come on the market and we should go and see it now. So we did and made an offer straight away."
Doing up the place coincided with the writing of Kelly's first book about the rise of a French orphan-turned-chef, Antonin Carême, to international celebrity. The equivalent of Marco Pierre White or Jamie Oliver today, Careme was party to secrets such as Napoleon's fast-food requirements and why the Empress Josephine suffered from halitosis.
The book is set in the 18th century, and Kelly was working in Russia making a film about 18th-century St Petersburg at the same time as taking on the renovation of an 18th-century London house. The release of the book led to a Broadway play written by and starring Kelly, and a spot on ITV's Richard and Judy, looking at the history of food and revealing what historical figures would have eaten.
The bulk of the restoration work took place over a nine-month period, dovetailing with the pregnancy of Kelly's wife, Claire, a psychology lecturer. "The builder left the day before she gave birth," says Kelly, "under the threat that if he didn't finish, we would use his van to take her to hospital."
With Kelly working alongside the builder to keep costs down - "I'm all for blaming someone else for the plumbing" - wood beams were exposed, extra panelling was added to the study, and a steel beam was erected to support a Napoleonic bath imported from Limoges.
"We will have to leave the bath behind, because it was hard enough to get it in, let alone take it out again. We have been trying to make the best of unique London architecture from the period."
The first storey has a good-sized entrance hall, kitchen, dining room, study and bathroom, with the master bedroom, snug - which could be used as a second bedroom - on the second floor. A rather romantic nursery box-room for "unexpected" young Oscar has been fashioned out of the servants' quarters tucked under the eaves. "It is half-timbered, looks a bit like an ark and is pretty unusual for London."
Kelly says they count themselves lucky that the previous owners' work was carried out sympathetically, saving them the angst of undoing someone else's bad renovations. The project cost about £20,000 and Kelly says the project was not done as an investment, but as somewhere to live. "The owners before us had already exposed some beams and we carried on exposing more. Claire and I both come from design backgrounds, so we didn't find the job too daunting."
Traditionally, the Georgians didn't reside alongside exposed beams in these houses, but as the work was partially completed Kelly went along with it. "Overall, I think it was a good decision. A lot of light comes into the flat from all sides and beams are slightly limed - which makes them appear softer. When you say you live somewhere that is half-timbered, people think you are in a Tudor pub, but it is not like that."
Once you become used to the good proportions in a Georgian property, it can be difficult to become used to living in any other space. It is terribly pleasing, admits Kelly, and ideally, the family would like to find another Georgian space. Now that Oscar is nearly two and needs a garden to run about in with the dog, Dylan, it is time to move.
"Children and dogs change the Venn diagram somewhat. We nearly bought something in the East End, near the Lea Valley, with loads of space, but we got horribly gazumped at the last minute," says Kelly. "I don't really want to go, to be honest, but hopefully we can find something exciting out there."
When asked which room he will miss the most, Kelly finds it hard to choose. "I'm torn between the bathroom, with its Napoleonic, deep, wrought-iron bath and Sienna marble and mirrors - guests always say it is like staying in a boutique hotel - and my study where I hunker down with wood panelling and Georgian crimson all around me. And there is the nursery, which is tiny, but so was Oscar when he first came back from hospital. As a dad, you feel quite useless at first, so to have created a beautiful half-timbered space with my builder and actor mate, Malcolm Ridley, well, I have an affection for that room too."
The estate agent Ray Smith says that the flat is particularly unusual. "So much has been preserved for so long, coinciding with owners who know exactly what they are doing. They have not gone too modern and the colours are perfect - not too strong and not too bland and boring."
Smith says it is hard to put a value on property like this, as there is not much about to compare it to. "It depends on how much someone will be prepared to pay. It is quite a big flat, just under 1,000 square feet, and there is the advantage of off-street parking."
Just as Carême's tempting recipes for cabillaud à la hollandaise and meringues de pommes en hérisson are spot on, so are the ingredients that went into this 18th-century architectural feast. With Kelly's next book on Beau Brummell, you can only hope his next project will be a house for the ultimate dandy.
Albion Road is for sale for £345,000 through Currell (020-7226 4200). 'Cooking for Kings, the Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef' by Ian Kelly is published by Short Books, £16.99
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