Gorgeous Georgian

As much a museum as a family home, this Richmond house is likely to appeal to arts and history lovers. But the right buyer has so far proved elusive, as Mary Wilson reports
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The Independent Online
Although Richmond can be found in any guide to London, residents from the area consider it a world apart. "It's not part of London at all," says Jill Croft-Murray, who is reluctantly selling her much-loved Grade I listed, double-fronted Georgian house in Maids of Honour Row on Richmond Green. "It's a town in its own right. I haven't been up to London for two or three years."

And if it were not for the planes flying overhead, Richmond Green would be one of the most peaceful and elegant open spaces in the metropolis. It is lined by exceptional 17th- and 18th-century houses on two sides, the terracotta-and-brick Richmond Theatre lies close by, on Little Green, the river is just a few minutes' walk away, and the shopping centre is just around the corner. "It is a lovely place to live, it is like a little oasis," says Mrs Croft-Murray.

"I like the trees and the open space of the Green, and although I don't know a thing about cricket, it is nice to watch it being played there twice a week in the summer. Before my dog died recently, I used to take her along the river and in the deer park, which is within walking distance. I shall miss Richmond a lot."

She is sadly selling up because she is finding the large and splendid house too much for her to look after, and is moving to Pembrokeshire to be closer to her family. Her husband, Edward, an eminent art historian and keeper of the British Museum's prints and drawings from 1954 to 1972, bought the house in the 1930s. "As soon as he saw it, he knew it was for him. It had the most lovely atmosphere and he bought it for pounds 3,500," she says. "My husband had collected pictures all his life and also had an uncle who collected furniture and who left it all to him, so it really was the perfect house for him. It is like a museum, but very much a home as well."

The house will obviously only suit someone who loves the Georgian period - because it is Grade I listed, very little can be altered. It has 4,245 sq ft, six bedrooms, a 30ft panelled music room which runs the full width of the first floor, dining room, sitting room and library on the ground floor, and kitchen and utilty room plus other rooms in the basement. There is also a huge attic.

The house has a remarkable history. It was built by the Prince of Wales, later George II, for the ladies-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Anspach, and one of its owners was Handel's impresario, John James Heidegger, who was the manager of the King's Theatre in the Haymarket. He commissioned the Italian painter Antonio Joli to paint 11 wall panels with views of the Rhine, Basle Cathedral, Vesuvius, a Mediterranean port and three oriental scenes. Around these pictures are trompe l'oeil frames and it is thought that Thomas Gainsborough, who was a pupil of Joli, may have painted them.

"When my husband bought the house, he said that you could hardly see the pictures, it was like looking at them through brown Windsor soup," says Mrs. Croft-Murray, who moved into the house when they married in 1960. The previous owner had been a popular novelist, Charles Garvice, and he had tried to Tudorise the house, putting in features such as leaded windows and a mock-Tudor ceiling.

"He has also painted the entire house a dark chocolate brown - all the rooms are panelled in pine - and then put carriage varnish over it, which is the hardest varnish around. He had also put this over all the paintings," she says.

The first thing that Mr Croft-Murray did was to remove all the "Tudor" additions to the house and then he concentrated on the paintings. "He got a restorer from the Victoria and Albert Museum to come in at weekends to clean the paintings, but he didn't get everything off and the varnish he used darkened down over the years. We always wanted to have them restored properly, but we couldn't afford it."

However, after her husband's death in 1980, Mrs Croft-Murray was able to employ a picture-restorer, Sally Lescher, who lived nearby. "Over six years, she did as much as I could afford, but not all the pictures. Then one day, when some members of the Georgian Society were looking round the house, they suggested I applied for a grant to restore the remainder - which I did. Now they look absolutely fantastic and the modern varnish will never darken down, so they are safe for ever," she says.

Although the house is in good condition, it is in no way modern. The kitchen is the same as when Mrs. Croft-Murray moved in. "I like it like that. It has a nice dresser and cupboards, it is very practical," she says. "And I think anyone buying the house would turn the dressing room of the main bedroom into a bathroom. The house is very under-bathroomed."

Mr Croft-Murray also replaced the fireplaces, as none were original, with ones more fitting for the period of the house and bought two pictures by Joli for the over-mantels in the music room, as the originals here had been removed. "I am either taking these with me or will offer them to whoever buys the house. I would like them to stay, but they are one of the most valuable things in the house," says Mrs Croft-Murray.

"I really do want to find the right person to buy the house, someone who is really interested in it. Most of the people who have looked at it so far, have not been right to my mind," she says.

With a pretty, railed front garden off the Green and a good-sized, south- facing rear garden, with a temple at the end, the house is on the market for pounds 3.5m through Sotheby's International Realty, 020-7598 1600.