InigoInigo Logo

A Private View: finding the former glory of a Georgian townhouse in Islington

Faced with a colour scheme of tangerine and lime, Duncan Wilson, CEO of Historic England, had to work hard to see the magic of his 1720s house in north London. But the pains he took were worth it. Now, 35 years later and with Terretts Place on the market, he reflects on the importance of loving, looking after and living in old buildings

Grace McCloud
Ollie Tomlinson
A Private View: finding the former glory of a Georgian townhouse in Islington

We meet Duncan Wilson, CEO of Historic England, on his lunch break, which means a trip into the City for Inigo. Around us, glass monoliths stretch to the sky, glinting in the sun. Nearby, the Thames surges towards the sea, while the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, built in the 15th century by Dick Whittington and rebuilt by Christopher Wren, casts a shadow over ancient streets alive with suit-sporting office workers. This abuttal of old and new, around and amid which busy, buzzy London life continues to thrum, seems somewhat symbolic of the organisation responsible for championing the country’s historic places – one that both looks back at our past and helps reimagine it for the future.

In contrast to our distinctly inner-city surroundings, we’re here to chat to Duncan about his home, a warren of moody rooms in Islington’s Terretts Place, built in the 1720s. Duncan’s been here since 1987, at which time it was, in his words, “pretty extraordinary” – and not in a good way. But there was a wealth of wonderful 18th-century fabric hiding underneath the questionable décor, and the bones were good. There were bones of a different sort too, Duncan laughs. “I found a human leg bone under the dining-room floor!” he tells us. “I know there was a plague pit some way away, so I suspect it got here when the ground was disturbed. I handed it in to the police, who were rather bemused, I think…”

A trained archaeologist, Duncan was well suited to the project, which required patience, an ability to see past the muddle of the modern and, often, a steady hand. “I did much of the work myself over the course of three years,” he says. “It was challenging but worth it – and I made it liveable by the time I got married and had children,” he laughs.

Duncan, as you might expect, holds a profound respect for historic buildings and is a passionate looker-after of them. “I believe they provide us with a connection to the past that we, as humans, need. They show us how the world has developed and, in consequence, how we can develop too. I strongly feel I’ve done my bit to rescue this one,” he says sincerely, “and now it’s time to pass it on to someone else.”

“I have always been obsessed with old stuff – it’s why I became an archaeologist – and I still collect antiques and artefacts quite fervently: furniture, ceramics, prints… I have a few modern bits too – a Patrick Caulfield lithograph and some good art pottery that belonged to my dad – but really I love the more ancient things, something that’s true of buildings too. And my present job is really all about explaining why that heritage is important.

“It matters, I think, because historical architectural fabric provides us with a very tangible sense of our past – something which is perhaps at its most vivid in the places we live. If people understand that, it makes them feel part of history – a connection I’ve always found very reassuring. Buildings endure changing fortunes, they withstand terrible moments in our past and they remind us that things do get better.

“I bought the house from three brothers by the name of Summerson. One was a historian, one an MP and one an army officer-turned-explorer – and their uncle was the architectural historian Sir John Summerson, who dated this house to the 1720s. The brothers had lived here for about 30 years and their mother had organised its decoration remotely from Durham. The result was a scheme in just three colours: tangerine, lime and gloss white. It was quite something.

“I set about carefully restoring it all, unearthing the original details hiding beneath the horror. I did some paint sampling and worked out that a lot of the house had once been done in a drab stone colour, with faux skirting boards painted in chocolate brown. I restored them and they’re still there today. I reinstated one of the Georgian burglar alarms too…  It’s fantastic: just a little bell on a spring attached to the original rise-and-fall shutters, which would have chimed should anyone have tried to prise them open. I learned that from the architectural historian Charles Brooking, whom I asked to help me work out what the brass clips on the shutters had been for.

“It was fabulous – there were so many secrets to uncover. I found a cistern under the floor in the corridor, which would have been fed with rainwater by a lead pipe and which provided the downstairs closets – still there – with water for various ablutions. I also found a halfpenny from 1724 under the ground floor at the front of the house, as well as a whole load of early Victorian plaster busts and their moulds. Someone had clearly manufactured them here; I even found lumps of blue pigment in the garden, which would have been used to colour and patinate them.

“I employed a brilliant architect to work with me on the project, the late Patricia Brock, who specialised in churches and conservation work. Together we worked out what needed to be done structurally. Most of it was just simple restoration, but in the end we decided to extend on to the flat roof, which was leaking and needed replacing anyway, creating a big loft-like space with lead roofing, casement windows and clay-tile cladding. It was a reasonably researched idea of what might have once been there.

“I did the bits I could myself. I’m tentative when it comes to wiring and plumbing, but I’m not bad at carpentry, so I even reconstructed some of the panelling. Another historian, Dan Cruickshank, came to help me work out which bits needed to go where and, when we pulled up the floorboards to reinstate it, we found the paint marks that showed where the original panels had been. We’d got it spot on, which was rather satisfying.

“For all this research, we still don’t know quite how this house would have been used. It’s a bit of a mystery, though I do know it was owned by a Dr Gaskin in c1820, who was rector of Stoke Newington and occasional correspondent of Admiral Nelson. Some of the rooms are quite ordinary, but the first-floor drawing room, on the other hand, is incredibly grand. It has a bay window overlooking the garden, a fantastic dentilled cornice and an amazing fire surround of around 1760 carved with hoho birds. It features in Andrew Byrne’s book of Georgian London houses and seems to have always been known about. It’s astoundingly glamorous for an otherwise quite normal building.

“Islington has been through so many phases. Despite its quite august origins in the 18th century, it had periods of great deprivation in the Victorian era, with the Georgian houses being split up into slum flats. At some point, there was talk of it being demolished; luckily, John Summerson among others led a resistance campaign in the 1970s, otherwise I wouldn’t be living here, I don’t think. I feel sad about leaving, but I’ve had 35 years here and it’s been glorious. It’s someone else’s turn now – and it will give me a chance to do it again.”

Terretts Place, London N1

View sales listing
InigoInigo Logo

Like what you see?

From decorating tips and interior tricks to stories from today’s tastemakers, our newsletter is brimming with beautiful, useful things. Subscribe now.