Curtain up on a house with a dramatic past

A Georgian house off London's King's Road used to belong to the actress Ellen Terry, who installed a theatre in it; the current owner has converted it into a kitchen. Penny Jackson reports
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The Independent Online

Bang opposite the stark frontage of Chelsea fire station are four Georgian homes, set back from the King's Road and half hidden behind walls. Among the hundreds of people who pass by on foot every day, there will be those who have thrown more than one curious glance at the houses and tried to catch a glimpse through the long sash windows.

Unlike some of their more showy neighbours, which seem almost to invite the admiration of snoopers, these houses seem determined to protect their privacy. It took two false starts to find the entrance to No 215, concealed as it is by an outer door and a paved, walled garden. On the front of the house, a plaque recalls that Dame Ellen Terry, the famous actress, lived there from 1904 to 1920.

Along a light-filled corridor, in what had been the garden, Suzanne Malim, a clothes designer and the current owner, led the way to Ellen Terry's greatest gift to the house - a theatre. The space where Sir Henry Irving's leading lady once gave performances is now a kitchen, green-painted and simple, not at all at odds with the original trussed, double-height ceiling. Sofas and a dining table sit just inside the doors, which open onto a small, enclosed courtyard.

"The kitchen used to be on the lower-ground-floor, but at our first dinner party in the house, I dropped everything while carrying it upstairs and I decided there and then that we had to move it. At first, we had doubts about whether it would work, but it has turned out wonderfully well and we spend a great deal of time here."

And who wouldn't? It has the feel and appearance of a summerhouse or an artist's studio, which in fact it was until recently, and its view onto the back of the house, across the plant-filled courtyard, seems a world away from London.

Back along the corridor into the house, we pass over the worn stone step and through the original door that is not far off its 300th year. Still robust, it "never ceases to charm", says Suzanne. "We have kept all the panelling and resisted suggestions that we knock through the two reception rooms. So often the proportions of a house are ruined when that is done and I love having a study of my own and looking out over the courtyard."

The warm, rich colours of the ground-floor rooms, filled with books and family photographs, have more the atmosphere of a small country house than a four-storey townhouse. On the first floor, the fireplace in the large and elegant drawing room displays the unmistakeable blue of Delft tiles. A piano next to the south-facing window is where Andrew Malim, a composer and lyricist, works. An artistic thread runs through the history of the house, from Dr Thomas Arne in 1771, composer of "Rule Britannia", to Peter Ustinov, actor and raconteur, who lived here in the Fifties. Another resident was Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, who knocked on the door a few days ago when she was passing.

She had no idea that the house was for sale, she told me on the phone from Belgrade, where she now lives. "My children grew up there and I spent some of my happiest years in that house. I wanted to have another look and take a photograph in the courtyard. When I lived there we used to have parties in the theatre. We would sit on the floor and listen to music. The feel of the house is much the same, but it looks beautiful now because it has been restored as an 18th-century home. When I bought it, the owner had modernised it and ripped out some original features."

Conservation and sympathetic modernisation have combined to create a house with contemporary comforts that have not intruded on the architectural integrity. The lower-ground-floor flat has its own entrance and is ideal for a nanny or even teenagers: "They can roll out of the house and into the clubs," suggests Suzanne.

It is easy to forget the charm of Chelsea in the constant attention given to new residential areas of London. But there are few places with such a mix of properties, from the large, grand family house to a small cottage tucked away in a side street.

Jonathan Hewlett, director of FPDSavills, says this is what gives Chelsea its distinctive feel. Like Hampstead, it has always appealed to artists. Georgian houses, even in the historic heart of Chelsea, are surprisingly rare, he adds. "Luckily, English Heritage have saved a number of them that might not have survived otherwise."

At No 215, Suzanne has now discovered how close her house came to becoming a casualty of the brutal modernising trends of the Sixties. "It was only during the chance visit from Princess Elizabeth that we discovered that the lower ground floor had been made completely open-plan at one time."

As well as finding out that they both regard it as a "magical house for parties", she also learned that in 1979 Princess Elizabeth sold the house for £200,000, having bought it in 1966 for £7,000, albeit leasehold. It is now on the market for £2.5m.

The Malims are moving to a larger house in the country: "Although," says Suzanne, "in this house you never feel you have really left the country, even with the King's Road on the doorstep."

215 King's Road is for sale at £2.5m through FPDSavills, 0207 730 0822.