One might expect a house belonging to both a film and television set designer and a professional gardener to be well-presented, and Derek and Tony's Regency town house in Hastings does not disappoint.
No bright colours or extravagant features are needed to make it stand out. Its very understatement gives it a kind of quiet authority. The gunmetal grey door is original and has been subtly smartened with the addition of a late 18th century doorknocker in the shape of a laurel wreath. Derek has made plant troughs and boxes from marine ply and roofing lead, while Tony's horticultural knowledge has obviously informed the choice of plants, with only those that can stand the salty air selected for the task.
"The house had been used as bedsits when we bought it," explains Derek, "and at first we didn't think it had the sea views we wanted. But that was before we'd seen them from the upper floors. We had a flat in London and a weekend cottage, but Tony had been working as a chef in London and wanted a complete career change. He got a job working with Fergus Garrett at Christopher Lloyd's garden at Great Dixter so this move made sense. We had wanted a big garden too, which this place doesn't have, but once Tony had finished his training with the RHS he went on to become head gardener at Fairlight Hall, in charge of over 140 acres, so it's actually worked out well."
Derek leads the way to the basement kitchen and dining room. "These two rooms were damp and needed quite a bit of work. We put sash windows in and installed the Aga to warm things up. There was a rather miserable fitted kitchen in what is now the dining room, so we ripped that out, discovered the fireplace that had been boxed in and I made a new metal canopy for it from an old metal street sign I found at a scrapyard. I'm used to designing and making things," he explains. "I design the sets for Raymond Blanc's The Restaurant series and I also designed the kitchen for Raymond to cook in for his current Kitchen Secrets programme. It's at Le Manoir, but obviously, with it being a working restaurant and hotel, he couldn't have film crews getting in the way, so we built another one just for him. With our kitchen here, we wanted things to be freestanding and I made the walk-in pantry shelves from bits of scrap wood. I was going to have doors on it, but actually it makes sense to be able to see what you have at a glance." A local cabinetmaker, Ian Fuller constructed the rest and Derek and Tony used elm wood for the surfaces. "We bought a felled elm from a tree surgeon so it's rather nice to know exactly where the timber has come from – Stepney Green in fact – and as you can see," he says, pointing to a collection of spoons, spatulas and ladles, "I'm rather fond of wooden things." The collection is simply arranged in rows either side of the Belfast sink and a small group of glass vases have single specimens of lime green Vibernum opulus (snowball tree), and Ammi majus (bishop's flower) with its cow parsley-like umbellifers. "Mao at Shimizu Flowers in Hastings Old Town brought those," says Derek, "and the blue Eryngiums (sea holly) by the log store. She's very good at selecting just the right thing and her flowers are more unusual than most florists'."
On the wall in the dining room is an oil painting of Hastings' rooftops by David Reeves that Derek particularly likes. Having trained in fine art at Glasgow School of Art, Derek obviously has a good eye, and has used his knowledge to mix all the paint colours in the house. He also paints in oils and, of course, finds great inspiration from the ever-changing character of the sea. Above the dining table an old pub lantern advertising "Mann's Beers" was found in an antiques shop in St. Leonards. "I salvaged the timber that's over the fireplace from the beach. It's an old groyne that was being replaced." Still encrusted with tiny barnacles, the wood has been shaped and smoothed by the sea. Above it, a row of vintage secateurs, collected by Tony, forms a pleasing zig-zag. Outside, the courtyard garden has been paved with reclaimed bricks. Raised beds contain Tetrapanax papyrifer (rice-paper plant) and a banana plant that are just sending up new shoots. A sinuous white wisteria clings to the wall of the house and basks in the sunshine. "When it's in bloom it's great to sit in the bath looking out through the blossom towards the sea. The Crassula ovata (money tree) there, was given to me by Derek Jarman," he says. "I worked on his film The Garden and he became a good friend so we often visited him at his garden in Dungeness."
The first room at street level is used as a spare bedroom with a handsome old sleigh bed, and a huge French Empire zinc bath. The shutters at the window keep the light subdued and the rather ghostly atmosphere is added to by Robert Semple's Flemish style painting of a human skull above the fireplace that is rendered in dark browns and black.
Along the hallway, in the bathroom, painted panelling on the walls disguises cupboards that keep toiletries out of sight. "Ian did this for us again, and we took a bit of space from the hallway to create the shower and to make a deep alcove in the hallway to store coats and boots." A washbasin that looks as if it began life in a grand hotel was bought at auction for £10 and a glass bubble wall light by Emily Todhunter adds glamour. Derek reveals that what appears to be a handsome 18th century chair in the corner is actually a French commode that sits over the lavatory and disguises it almost completely. "Because it's so near the hallway, you don't really want to look at a loo when you first walk into the house. I found this at Nelson Antiques in Hastings and it fools most people."
Upstairs again, the sitting room has a deep bay window overlooking the street. The fireplace was made by Derek – copied from the original in the house next door that was built at the same time. A plump, horsehair sofa bought at a local auction house is covered with a Melin Tregwynt blanket and cushions, above which is one of Derek's paintings. The offcuts from the elm tree have been used to make a shelf on one wall, supported by legs made from silver birch logs. There are paintings of Scotland including one by Dennis Arkinstall. "After Glasgow, I did a postgraduate course in film and theatre design and worked for Scottish Opera for a time, then got involved in music videos for the Pet Shop Boys, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. It was great fun, but I love my work in television now. I've been designing the sets for The Apprentice. That boardroom is mine, but Alan Sugar got fed up seeing the disappointment in people's faces when they came to his real office, which wasn't quite so modern, so I've just designed a new, working office for him in the style of the programme!" The main bedroom has views of the sea and the bed is simply dressed with cushions made from vintage fabric on one side and ticking on the other, with a printed message marking the occasion of Derek and Tony's marriage. "Our friend Sally Walton makes these and they go rather well with the panoramic picture above the bed. I bought it for the frame originally, as the picture's a bit kitsch, but I actually rather like it now." A scallop edged table bought from Peter Grant Antiques in Courthouse Street stands in front of the window and Ian Fuller has built drawers into the alcove to one side of the fireplace (another salvage yard find).
Up another flight of stairs, the windows in the attic room give it the feel of a giant lantern. Here, Derek works from a sleek 1950s desk and keeps a large collection of art books, but the view is almost too distracting. On one wall there are more of Derek's mesmerising seascapes. "It's wonderful up here and I love it but the only downside to the seaside thing is that I had to get the windows double-glazed because whenever people called me about work they thought I was lazing on the beach, as all they could hear was the seagulls shrieking away."
Many thanks to Mao Bramall at Shimizu Flowers for supplying the beautiful and unusual floral arrangements. Tel 01424 425971 www.shimizuflowers.com