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Inigo Revisits: Charles and Romilly Saumarez Smith’s art-filled 18th-century townhouse

Rifling through our archive, we return to the artistic couple’s Mile End home, where authentic period details are brought to life through inspired creativity

Inigo Revisits: Charles and Romilly Saumarez Smith’s art-filled 18th-century townhouse

The phrase ‘lovingly restored’ doesn’t quite do justice to the magnificent home of Charles and Romilly Saumarez Smith. Bought in the late 1990s from conservationist charity the Spitalfields Trust, it’s a Grade II-listed Georgian building that, when the couple first chanced upon it, had not been lived in since the 1870s. “It was a completely unreconstructed 18th-century house that had not been modernised in any way,” says Charles, a writer, curator and art historian. Getting the house to its current state, he says, involved a lengthy renovation process, in which Romilly, an artist, bookbinder and jeweller, worked closely with the Spitalfields Trust to bring new life to the space while retaining as much of its original fabric as possible.

Contrary to standard contemporary practice, the couple did not involve an architect in this process. Instead, a team of builders, joiners, carpenters and other craftspeople worked on the house piece by piece, much as they would have when it was first built, in the early Georgian period. At the same time, Romilly found ingenious ways to reinterpret the house’s character and atmosphere through its richly textured interiors, in which carefully curated artworks from all eras are offset by antique furniture, a rich colour scheme and patches of wall that have been left deliberately unfinished, to reveal every layer of the building’s history. Below, Charles and Romilly tell us more about how they transformed this imposing example of 18th-century architecture into a contemporary home tailor-made to suit the evolving demands of their life and work.

Romilly: “This house gives me great visual pleasure all the time.

“When we first moved, I decided I would approach the house in exactly the same way that I do my own work, not really worrying what anybody would think of it. I made the house in the same way as I would a book or a piece of jewellery.”

Charles: “It’s nice living in a house that hasn’t been modernised. What Romilly did was to keep as much as possible of the original atmosphere. But she didn’t go about it in an archaeological way, she went about it in a creative way, using modern things, like the hanging lights made out of film canisters in the drawing room.”

“What I like about a house is the accumulation that goes on… In the end, I think it makes things more interesting” – Romilly Saumarez Smith

Romilly: “There’s story behind those. I was in Brick Lane – ages ago now – and a shop had strung them up as Christmas lights. I got them home and I couldn’t untangle them – it was too annoying. So, I just hung them up as they were and they worked really well. We got another pair; now they’re very much a part of the sitting room. I always think of them as the modern version of [the 17th-century master woodcarver] Grinling Gibbons.

“The house has also become a home for my grandfather’s work, which is important to me. He was a designer of both furniture and interiors – he created the tiger chair that Charles is sitting on in these photographs, as well as the dining room’s chairs and corner table. We have more of his chairs and a dressing table upstairs.

“The tiger chairs have a nice story too. When we got them they were in a really parlous state: they had been designed in the 1930s and I didn’t know how we were going to cover them again. I saw an article in an interiors magazine about faux animal skins made of fabric and it featured the exact same material that was originally used on the chairs. It turned out to be made in Venice by a company named Bevilacqua, who have been producing it since 1830. The fabric cost more than you possibly imagine, but it was wonderful that we were able to restore the chairs.”

“The house has developed an ecology – it was used in one way when we bought it and it has successfully adapted into being used in a very different way” – Charles Saumarez Smith

Charles: “I like that the house has archaeological layers – the original, the preserved and the revitalised.

“Romilly was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis quite soon after we bought this house. There was a time when we were worried it wouldn’t be possible to remain here because there are stairs everywhere. At that point we worked with the architect John Robins to adapt it by putting in what I consider the only 18th-century lift in London. It’s not 18th century of course, but it is encased with barge boarding to fit with the character of the house.

“By happy coincidence, because the house is early rather than late 18th century, the doors are quite wide: enough to take a wheelchair straight through. This is significant for us, obviously, because Romilly particularly has had to change the way she uses the house. And I like the fact that it’s been like this, has developed an ecology – it was used in one way when we bought it and it has successfully adapted into being used in a very different way.

“The pandemic forced me to use the house much more intensively. These days, I use the room originally designed as a library to work in, which has given me great pleasure. Previously it was just a mess… I mean, it’s still a mess, but now it’s a used mess rather than just a pure mess.”

Romilly: “What I like about a house is the accumulation that goes on. It’s also a curse, but in the end, I think it makes things more interesting than just minimalism. Minimalism works fine, but I always think: ‘What happens to all the memories?’”

Further reading

Home Comforts: Charles Saumarez Smith on the bottle he’s saving and the declutter he’s craving

Charles Saumarez Smith

Romilly Saumarez Smith

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