The elegant uniformity of the Georgian terrace is now so widely admired that it is hard to imagine prime minister Benjamin Disraeli complaining in the 1840s about those “flat, dull spiritless streets all resembling each other, like a large family of plain children”.
The 18th century was a time of great urban growth and the house that most typified the period in cities was the Georgian townhouse, frequently constructed in rows to create terraces, enabling town planners to fit large numbers of homes into small areas throughout central London. These terraces were mostly built by speculative landowners, who rented them to the upper and newly prosperous middle classes.
According to Ellen Leslie, a buildings historian, the new uniformity was a result of the Rebuilding of the City of London Act of 1667, a year after the Great Fire, which destroyed over 13,000 houses. The act specified that houses must be constructed from brick or stone. Timber-framed buildings were forbidden, and houses had to be flat-fronted to minimise the chance of flames leaping from dwelling to dwelling. Even the wooden window frames had to be recessed into the facades for safety. The grandest houses were built of solid stone but that was expensive, so a cheaper imitation, stucco, was used to cover brickwork and give the impression of stone.
Meanwhile, aristocratic young men were taking grand tours around Europe, and many returned with enthusiasm for the classical designs they had seen in Greece and Italy. Their ideas filtered through into plasterwork, and decorative details on Georgian ceilings would often include nymphs and urns.
Among the quintessential Georgian features are windows made of small panes of glass, as the technology that allowed for the manufacture of large sash windows had not yet been invented. Most homes are four storeys high, and there are often steps up to the front door, which is topped with a semicircular fan light.
“The steps can add a little bit of presence – harking back to that idea that an Englishman’s home is his castle,” says Leslie. Outside the back gardens were small, partly because space was so limited and partly because any outdoor areas were often filled by a mews for the horses and the groom to live in. This is why so many surviving Georgian terraces are found around squares, which would have originally been for the residents’ exclusive communal use.
Inside, the downstairs front room was usually reserved for receiving business associates, with a dining room and the kitchen to the rear. The main reception room, usually the grandest in the house, was on the first floor, at the front, with a smaller, private sitting room towards the back. The family usually slept on the second floor, and the servants and children up in the eaves. The higher up the Georgian house you go, the lower the ceilings and smaller the windows.
“These houses are perfect for people who want to stamp their own mark on a building, because the original features don’t overwhelm,” says Leslie.
Barbara Weiss, an architect based in Islington, north London, adds that many buyers don’t realise the pitfalls of buying Georgian.
“Most of them are now listed and that can be tricky,” she says. “Planners don’t want them extended, and there can be a lot of restrictions inside as well.”
Paul Brewster and his partner Shaun Clarkson run Pitfield London, an interiors emporium with a café attached. They have paired their contemporary style with their Georgian end-of-terrace, just off Farringdon Road in Islington, which they completely refurbished. The former dairy had been turned into offices in the 1960s and Brewster and Clarkson had to restore it while working within the strictures of its Grade II listing.
“We tracked down original Georgian doors and had them altered to fit, we found floorboards and opened up fireplaces. When we found a little stretch of panelling, we had it copied and used it up the stairs. We have tried to remain completely within the spirit of the Georgian home,” says Brewster.
The couple worked closely with the Georgian Society, whose requirements were often at odds with those of the local council when it came to details such as firedoors and corridors but a compromise was reached in the end.
They painted the walls in the basement, where the kitchen is located, dark grey and took it two-and-a-half shades lighter with each floor. This is the perfect foil to the bright contemporary furniture they have installed.
“Georgian colours were really bright, it’s just that they have faded so we don’t think of them that way,” says Brewster, who also found vintage Georgian chairs and covered them with a geometric black-and-white fabric by Verner Panton.
They have referenced the original dairy in the kitchen, which has freestanding Georgian shop fittings as cupboards, and a mix of marble and stainless steel.
“A couple of really good sources for us are 2 Columbia Road for contemporary furniture and Spitalfields Elemental – and the Home Store in Hastings,” says Brewster.
The dining room floorboards have been painted in black-and-white diamonds, which contrast with a set of turquoise dining chairs and a Gilbert and George print above the fireplace. Moving up through the house, as the walls become paler, the accessories continue to be colourful and modern.
Despite the often severe planning restrictions, Georgian terraced houses are still widely sought after, with properties selling for up to £8m in central London.
Katharine Pooley, an interior designer who has worked on several Georgian houses, says that combining bright colours with the clean and understated Georgian architectural detailing makes a great statement.
“Other places to shop would be Andrew Martin and Christian Liaigre, who both make fabulous modern pieces, as well as Moore and Giles for their kidskin leathers, and Jim Thompson’s silk linens,” she says.