A Home with a History: the sensitive renovation of interior design duo Clarence & Graves’ Victorian townhouse
Inigo finds space, solace and a joy in domestic ritual inside the pair's west-London family home
Creative couple Chris Graves and Jolene Ellis have a background in television: having written, produced and directed for over two decades, they understand the importance of location in a narrative. But latterly they’ve been training their brains on another type of grand vision. They launched an interior design company, Clarence & Graves, in May 2020, for which their sensitively renovated Victorian townhouse in Chiswick, west London, provided an excellent case study. Though they’ve since relocated to Somerset – you get the feeling they were itching for a new project – Inigo managed to meet them for a walkthrough of this light-filled family home shortly before it changed hands. Below, the couple explain how they brought it to its current state, creating spaces of calm and comfort by respecting the integrity of the original Victorian layout.
Chris: “I bought this house because of the architecture. I sort of knew I wanted a really classic London townhouse with steps up to the door, high ceilings. My dream home is probably a lateral apartment in London, so to have the main living area raised here was great – it has an almost apartment-like feel.
“When we first saw this, it hadn’t been touched since the 1970s. There was a lady who had been here for 45 years and had her whole family here. But the bones of it, the elegance of the rooms is what sold it. Uniquely, downstairs, it’s lower-ground, but it’s not a basement. The ceilings are really high. So I could see what we all look for: the potential of a place that hadn’t been touched for so long. All of the doors had the original handles and the locks, they had the original keys in them, you know the old brass keys. The cornicing everywhere was incredible.
“I wanted the original rooms to stay. As soon as you start messing with that, you confuse the integrity of the building.”
– Chris Graves
“It’s a really simple house with eight rooms: four floors of two rooms with a central staircase. What was quite freeing about that was that you don’t have to overthink it. A friend of mine, a developer, said “Hey man, you could split the guest room, put a stud wall in and then make an en suite out of that.” But actually I’m really anti-stud wall. I wanted the original rooms to stay. As soon as you start messing with that, you confuse the integrity of the building. That’s what this house is. How it was meant to be.
“Having multiple living spaces is really indulgent. It means every room can be a sanctuary. We’ve got a drawing room. We deliberately don’t have any electronics in there, so that’s a proper quiet room. Then there’s the dining room, the kitchen and then the sort-of cinema/library. So to have four rooms for a family of four, you can each be in your own room… you can find solace.
“The first decision we committed to was to open the kitchen up and design a courtyard.”
– Chris Graves
“The kitchen was originally very old school, with 1970s pine cabinets and formica worktops, ruby red tiles. It was a very dark room, with two small sash windows. The gardens came up to a meter off the back of the house, creating a damp, dark alleyway there. A ‘70s balcony around the back of the house stopped all the light coming in.
“After we flirted with extending and then decided not to, because we didn’t actually need more room, we thought we’d make better use of the existing space. So, the first decision we committed to was to open the kitchen up and design a courtyard. I knew I was going to have the back wall cut out and I knew I wanted the Crittall windows to be in colour. We used this slightly brighter green and it’s been a success. It’s the thing that gets commented on the most.
“We wanted to feel like we were on holiday. A retreat from the city.”
– Jolene Ellis
Chris: “The brief that we had in our own minds – these are Jolene’s words, not mine, was Provençale meets Wes Anderson. So we knew the palette, we were thinking of the soft colours of a Wes Anderson movie, the pinks and greens and black.”
Jolene: “We wanted it to feel like we were on holiday. A retreat from the city.”
Chris: “Yes, I didn’t want it to feel exactly like I was in London. Another big design choice was putting the double sink in the chimney. But I knew that I cook a lot and have people over to cook and I just hate having my back to a room. It’s interesting because my compromise, my biggest compromise was that I just did not want an island. I remember going: ‘I’m not having an island in the design. I love prepping at tables.’ But I just couldn’t have everything that I wanted in a hard working family kitchen. So we went with the island. But now I’m thrilled, I love it.
“If I’m by an open fire, that’s where I’m at my happiest.”
– Chris Graves
“The thing I love about old houses, is that ritual of domesticity. My favorite thing to do is to get up and feel that it’s cold, and light a fire. That’s one of my favorite parts of the day. To feel that warmth. It’s not trying to live like a Victorian, but to live in an old house how it has historically been lived in. We’re not pertaining to be purists, but if you can protect those little rituals of living, it’s just a nicer experience. I want a lot from my house. If I work from home, I just go out for a couple of hours a day. I spend all my time here.”
Jolene: “The drawing room is my favourite room. I adore it and I always say, because we don’t have any electronics in it, when you walk in it’s got a different feeling. It just feels so calm. Even with nothing in it really, just the colours and a fire.”
“It’s those little things you don’t stop to think about that really matter.”
– Chris Graves
Chris: “I rotate my favorite places. Like last night I took an armchair from the drawing room up to the bedroom, lit the fire and then sat in front of it, just doing some work on my iPad and reading my book. I thought ‘an open fire in my bedroom, this is incredible.’ If I’m by an open fire, that’s where I’m at my happiest.
“It’s those little things that you don’t stop to think about that really matter. Going up the stairs, the landings are really dark, so when we had the house rewired we could have added wall lights. But instead we got little candle sconces, with real candles. So in the evening here we have fires in the rooms and the hallways are all lit up by candles.”
Jolene: “The children sometimes laugh because sometimes it’s so candlelit they’re like, ‘I can’t see anything!’”
Chris: “It’s definitely about striking a balance. But if you can find those moments in your busy lives to protect them and then indulge in those rituals – that’s what we’re trying to create.”
Clarence & Graves on Instagram
The Victorian House Book, Robin Guild, 2007 (Out of print – find on Abebooks)
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