To step into the house we are visiting today is like time-travelling and I am fortunate to have a most amiable guide in the form of Bob, an engaging Australian who left his native land for England for good when he was just 21. “Nothing in Australia is really old," he says, “so when I came here I could really indulge my passion for the Georgian period." He slowly built his collection of 18th century furniture and decorative pieces, and finally found the house to do them justice. Formerly a Georgian hat factory in a small Kentish town, Bob spent four years carefully restoring it.
“I joined the Georgian Group and Kirsten McNight, especially, gave me invaluable advice but everyone involved in the restoration work here was local. All the original, arched windows in the building had been replaced with square Edwardian ones and the arches concreted over. I had to get permission to reinstate them and to extend the wall at the side to accommodate a loo upstairs. It was quite a struggle." Bob says diplomatically, “and I'm grateful to Ann Widdecombe too, who was very supportive." Bob found a local architect for the job, whom in true 18th century style, he calls Mr Gill. He also employed local craftsmen, Robin Chiles and Richard Summerfield. For six weeks he lived in the house with no kitchen and no hot water, but loved it. “The weather was brilliant, and I had my little garden, which I adore," recalls Bob. “I wanted to be a gardener as a child, so although this is a small plot, I really appreciate it. I have a wonderful old apricot tree from which I can hang lanterns and I love plants, so my garden sort of spills over." Bob's vision of Georgian life owes more to William Hogarth than Sir Joshua Reynolds.
While Reynolds was 18th century England's leading portraitist, flattering the great, the grand, and the nouveau riche, Hogarth was more satirical and subversive, interested in life both above and below stairs. Although he painted portraits of the wealthy, he also made studies of their servants, using drawings of his own staff as reference for his great series paintings such as Gin Lane, and Marriage A-la-Mode. Bob loves the earthy character of the period and shows me an 18th century 'piss-pot' with attached candle-holder. “It was important to be able to see what you were doing," he chuckles, “the majority of house fires in Georgian England were caused by people looking for their pots under their beds. Of course the mattresses were made of straw and these desperate people would be searching under them with a lighted candle…"
While Bob is grateful for 21st century medicine, he wonders whether modern life really is better. “These may be interesting times, but does anyone really want to live in them?" he asks. “I use my house like a film set and I change it according to my mood. I was really inspired by Dennis Severs' house in Spitalfields. He was an eccentric American who restored an old Georgian townhouse there. He had the great idea to live in the house just as it was when it was first occupied. He called it 'still-life drama' and you can still visit it by appointment. The game is that every room looks as if the original inhabitants, a family of Huguenot silk weavers have just left it. You can hear them sometimes, in other parts of the house, but they're always just out of sight. Dennis Severs is sadly dead now, but from what I've been told, he really did live in Georgian style, ripping out the drainage system and electricity, and living only by candlelight."
While Bob is rather less strict in his interpretation of the period (he thankfully has kept the mains drainage), he does prefer to illuminate the house with candles. “This is a house that positively embraces winter," he says. “I love to have crackling fires, glowing candles and to hear the sound of ticking clocks. I'm not a warm weather person, and I've been known to travel as far as Russia to escape the summer." At Christmas time the house is dressed in its very best finery with swags of holly and ivy decorating the pictures and mirrors and hanging in ribbon-tied bunches from the candle sconces. The reception room welcomes visitors with a roaring fire and a linen-covered table offering Christmas cake, fruits and a fine decanter of sherry. The air is scented with spices, bergamot, cloves, and oranges. “I burn these candles made by Angela Flanders specially for Dennis Severs' house. Fruit and spices were highly-prized commodities in Georgian times and I love the atmosphere that they evoke." Mirrors over the mantelpiece and above the table magnify the sense of space. A handsome mahogany chest-on-chest faces the fireplace and across the top of it Bob has arranged a large group of blue and white china jars. “I've spent 20 years collecting blue and white pieces," he says, “they're not expensive, and I've found lots at antiques fairs like the one at Ardingly, but they look good en masse I think."
Down a few steps is the kitchen. Bob has retained the old brick fireplace, where Mr Tooth, who owned the hatters' factory would have boiled up the dyes. Whether the poor man succumbed to the occupational hazard of his trade is unknown. Hatters used mercury to treat the felt linings of hats and the resultant poisoning produced symptoms of rambling speech, tremors and even hallucinations – hence the expression: 'Mad as a Hatter'. These days it houses a more modern stove, but Bob loves to cook 18th century dishes and takes great delight in reading out passages from a cookbook first published in 1708 by Hannah Glasse. He has tried several of her recipes and at Christmas he recreates a typical Georgian feast with what was then the traditional festive bird, roast goose, along with three types of pudding. The rest of the kitchen has been kept simple, with glass-fronted cabinets to display Bob's collection of porcelain. There are beautifully shaped Georgian and Regency teapots, cups and a little sparrow's bill cream jug. Their elegance recalls a time when tea was so precious it was kept in a locked box and to be invited to 'take tea' was a great honour.
Upstairs is the grey-blue first floor parlour where Bob has made orange pomanders stuck with cloves. Either side of the fireplace stand 'fireside companions', cut-out figures of a typically rackety Hogarthian couple. They are there to keep Bob company, though this room is so pleasing to the senses that real people could surely only clutter it. This is perhaps the most authentic room in the house, with its bare boards and balloon-back Hepplewhite and Chippendale style chairs. Bob is a cellist by profession and it's easy to imagine him in here, playing Handel or Bréval by candlelight.
Up another flight of stairs, the bedroom has views across the rooftops of the town. Bob's bed is in the Sheraton style, popular in America immediately after the Revolution. Bob found a photograph from a museum in Philadelphia and took it to the Four-poster Bed Shop at Hurst Green, where Barry recreated it for him. It is covered in a hand-made quilt and opposite it is an Italian gilt-framed mirror. “I found the frame and added the bevelled glass," says Bob. It's amazing what a difference that little detail makes and underneath it I put the candle sconce, which originally came from an old piano. Now they look as if they have always belonged together."
As we leave the bedroom and begin our descent to the ground floor, the elegantly twisting staircase seems rather disconcertingly vertiginous and I have to grip the rail. I am irrationally afraid of heights, but the pleasure to the eye of the stairs' sinuous beauty overcomes my momentary sense of fear. At the first floor landing, a glass lantern hangs from an original metal arch whose shape is echoed in the window behind it. It seems to sum up this house with its pleasing symmetry and spare simplicity; it's not hard to see the attraction of such a time capsule.
For advice on restoring Georgian buildings: www.georgiangroup.org.uk Dennis Severs' House 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields. www.dennissevershouse.co.uk