There are times when geographical distance has little to do with how far you travel. According to Google Maps, it takes 29 minutes to cover the 6.7 miles from my shack in Shepherd’s Bush to Isabel Ettedgui’s house in Petersham. Rather like the rings on a tree trunk that indicate the passage of time, changes in architecture mark the eras of urban sprawl: crowded Victorian terraces give way to gracious suburban villas and the sort of art deco apartment buildings that one can imagine in television adaptations of Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie novels. Up a hill, down a leafy road and suddenly it is all quaint pubs, tea rooms and handsome 18th-century houses.
Mention the word Petersham in a bourgeois London word-association test and you are 97.3 per cent likely to hear the response “Nurseries”: the garden centre and destination restaurant that looks perpetually styled for a World of Interiors shoot. But even though Petersham has been there since the 11th century, there was a time not so long ago when the word would elicit a stare of blank incomprehension; certainly that was Isy Ettedgui’s response when she first came across the name.
Ettedgui is the owner of that cultest of shops Connolly, and the widow of the late restaurateur and fashion house eponym Joseph Ettedgui: a genial, crumpled-looking, Morocco-born Frenchman who came to London as a hairdresser in the 1960s. By the early 2000s, when his wife discovered Petersham, Joseph was poised to sell a worldwide retail empire that had introduced Kenzo, Alaïa and Yohji Yamamoto to the UK as well as championed young British talent like Margaret Howell, McQueen and Galliano. “Joe loved central London but I dreamt of living in the country, and then I saw this house advertised.”
Given that the Joseph name was synonymous with a sleek urban aesthetic – Norman Foster designed his first shop and he worked with Czech architect Eva Jiricná on projects including Le Caprice – the 15th-century property could hardly have been further out of character. Its prominent adze-hewn, time-blackened beams; steeply pitched roof; mullioned windows with leaded panes and heraldic stained glass; its fireplaces; its alcoves; and its glorious asymmetry were the antithesis of Joseph’s black-and-white, chrome-and-glass stores and restaurants.
“It was advertised in a magazine, but I had no idea where Petersham was, not a clue. And Joe was an urban soul, so that was never going to happen. Even so, I came out to see it.” She was smitten, but she wasn’t the only one; although it had just come onto the market, three other people were interested in it. “Joe was flying in from Italy, where he had been buying, and he arrived at 7.30 that night. He saw the pile of magazines and he homed in on this brochure.
“‘What is that?’ he asked.
“I said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ But he asked again. And by then he had seen that the house had a swimming pool, and Joe swam every day.
“‘It’s a house I went to see.’
“‘Do you like it?’
“I said, ‘It’s amazing.’
“He was going back to Italy the following morning, so if I wanted to show it to him it had to be that evening. I rang and asked if we could come at nine o’clock. It was a horrible, cold, wet January night and Joe asked where it was. I told him it was just at the end of the King’s Road. By the time we got to Sheen, he was like, ‘It’s very long this King’s Road, isn’t it?’ Anyway, we turned up the drive, the front door was wide open, the fires were blazing, the pool was lit up. Before we even got through the front door, Joe said we had to buy it. By the end of the week it was ours.”
It was the perfect country house for a couple who never really liked leaving London. “Joe loved it because he could come here after a football game at Chelsea, and on a Sunday he would go to Petersham Nurseries, which opened about the same time as we moved in. When he was shopping, he was happy. And he loved smoking a cigar and having a coffee with the owner, Francesco [Boglione].”
If its charms were abundantly apparent on a miserable, rain-lashed winter night, on a sunny Sunday almost 20 years later, it presents itself even more appealingly. In the garden bees hum around the fragrant lavender. A large ornamental carp propels itself slowly around a rocky pond with lazy strokes of its tail. A swimming pool the colour of Ceylon sapphire winks temptingly from within the glass walls. “With the help of Petersham Nurseries, we made the garden a little less formal; we grew the lavender and the box hedges up.”
Although the doors and windows onto the garden are all open, the bright light and warmth intrude only so far. The interior is cool and penumbral. The figurative and literal centre of the house is a large galleried hall, rising to the roof: fireplaces, window seats and the low fenestration give an intimacy that stays the right side of claustrophobic thanks to the soaring ceiling. “It was white plaster, so we knocked that back a bit to soften the contrasts with the oak beams and painted some rooms in greys, a yellow and a blue,” says Ettedgui. “We changed a few things, but you can’t really change a property like this.”
Much as she loved the house, neither she nor Joe wanted to live what she calls “ye olde Tudor” dream, so horse brasses and dark oak furniture were eschewed. Instead, they juxtaposed the medieval madness with the restrained elegance that one sees in the Connolly shop on Clifford Street, thus turning this half-millennium-old house into a laboratory of contemporary taste.
Nevertheless, tastes had to be compromised. “We couldn’t put up a lot of art because the walls are so uneven, and there is so much going on visually with beams and brickwork.” Nowhere is this more true than in the main hall, where there is just a photograph by Nobuyoshi Araki and a painting of an Indian prince – the last thing the couple bought together before Joseph’s death in 2010.
Meanwhile, the artwork that was the opening bracket in their relationship hangs in the adjacent dining room. “I’ve had really good art collectors in here going, ‘Oh my God, is that a de Kooning?’ It’s not. It was the first painting Joe and I ever bought together, and it was painted by a friend of Joe’s son, called Matilda Tumim, for her degree show.” But most artworks were banished to the two-bedroom guesthouse or the poolhouse. “At first, Joe put all of our photographs, including Lartigues and Parkinsons, on the walls by the pool, but they had to come down because they were getting destroyed by the humidity,” she says with a fond smile that is at once indulgent and slightly scandalised. “They have since been replaced with a series of small, loosely worked canvases by Matthew Lauder, inspired by an album of early-20th-century photographs.”
Instead, the interior was brought into the 21st century with the sparest of furnishings, for which they sought the help of an old friend. “Christian Liaigre designed all the furnishing. We did it in an afternoon looking at the plan of the house; he didn’t even visit. He had an old house in Normandy, so he understood this style of building.”
Given the busy, Arthur Rackham-like nature of the house, Ettedgui determined that furniture should be as simple, geometric and bold as possible: large rectilinear sofas; a sprawling, straight-sided ottoman in off-white leather; sculptural bronze standard lamps with a touch of Diego Giacometti about them; and, tucked into one fireside alcove, a witty stool in dark-orange resin lacquer that bears a disconcerting resemblance to a bidet.
“We worked with 12 Liaigre pieces and I think putting the modern and the simple, in a very complicated Legoland of timbers, made the place. This is the genius of Liaigre.”
Other pieces have been chosen for an air of gallery-like calm: a pair of stools by Charlotte Perriand, an oxidised bronze sculpture by Claude Vernet, and a pail-sized William Yeoward glass vase. A quintet of celadon-coloured ceramics bought on their last visit to Morocco, from Galerie Tindouf, and a large, historically important Mexican jar from Alexander di Carcaci line up along one of the low windowsills, framed by simple dark brown linen curtains. Such is the purity of line imparted by the furnishings that this interior – the last word in rural chic circa Henry VII (the date 1487 is carved into the weathered porch lintel) – acquires a timeless contemporaneity.
Liaigre also managed to tease out the latent modernity in the stout beams and herringbone brickwork. “It’s so interesting because it’s very old, but because it’s one big room it feels modern – and it’s just really cool to live in.” The cool continues in a more conventionally modern manner in the cellars, which have been transformed into a subterranean games room, with Omar Sharif’s old card table (complete with side-mounted ashtrays) and a table football game customised by French artist “Ben”.
The Ettedguis were not the first to treat the house as a playground. “A pop star called Barry Ryan, who was married to Princess Miriam of Johor, lived here. The Ryan brothers had a string of hits in the 1960s and the first time our friend Barbara Daly, the make-up artist, came to see us she said: ‘I know this house. I spent my late teenage years here, because my cousin was Barry Ryan, the singer. Let me show you where the drugs cupboard is.’ She went upstairs and pushed this piece of panelling.”
It may be more usual for houses of this vintage to have priest holes in which Catholic clergymen were hidden after the Reformation but, with an owner’s pride, and a practised tap on the wall, Ettedgui reveals a now-empty hiding place of sufficiently generous dimensions to suggest that some very high times indeed were had here.
The house continues to hold an allure for showbusiness types. As she has an apartment above her shop in Mayfair, Ettedgui has occasionally rented out the house to film and music industry figures. She is disappointingly discreet about her tenants, but she does admit being surprised a few years ago to see the house in a magazine with pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. “It said they had bought this ‘estate’ outside London,” she chuckles.
But this piece of fake news was not the biggest surprise the house has given her.
A couple of weeks before she bought the property, she visited a tarot card reader. “She said to me, ‘I can see you are going to move to the country.’ I said, ‘No, that is never going to happen.’ She insisted, ‘No, no, you will be there by Easter. You’re in Kent, I can see it. There is a garden and water. You and Joseph will be very happy there.’
“When we exchanged, the solicitor rang and said, ‘You’re never going to believe this. The house was moved from Kent in the 1920s by an architect called Blunden Shadbolt, who used to buy derelict Tudor buildings and rebuild them.’ So, she was right. I think when something is meant to be, then it’s meant to be. It’s so strange, isn’t it?”
Strange… but in a very, very good way.
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