In 1996, we moved to the sceptr'ed isle. Piero flew over first and started looking for places immediately. One night he called to tell me he had found a rose-colored carriage house in a mews in Notting Hill.
Piero: You're going to love it. It's totally you. The woman who lived there before -- Camilla something, the owner said she works for British Vogue -- painted everything this amazing mottled pink and cream. It's like a hippy sponge cake. Even the --
Me: (interrupting) Stop! You need to concentrate. Is it Camilla Nickerson? Because she is my total style icon.
Piero: Yeah, that's her.
Me: (trembling) Oh my God. Do whatever you have to. Just get it.
He did. Unfortunately, in an overzealous quest to please their new tenants, the owners had painted every surface white by the time I arrived. (Oh, the loss, the loss.)
(Our former house in Wilby Mews, London, 1996-1999)
But despite its shiny new coat of paint, the house still heaved with character. A lacy licorice-colored staircase soared through the middle of each floor from the ground level up to the third floor attic.
The centuries-old floorboards were stained a golden honeycomb color and, like a battered leather satchel, gleamed with a patina of character that only a long march of years can provide.
Design-wise, I was in the throes of what I now refer to as my "Hogarthian" phase: out with the new, in with the ancient. I haunted Portobello Road for cheap second-hand treasures and then set about giving them a new life, hand-sewing cushions, embroidering pillow covers and even reupholstering them (hello, staple gun). Tea, bourbon biscuits and Radio 4 kept me going. At night, when friends came over and the candles were lit, the house did radiate an enticing shabby grandeur.
(William Hogarth, The Distressed Poet, 1736)
The bedroom was on the ground floor of the house, and in an inspired renovation decision, the owners had left the stable stall up which bisected the room in two. The bed fit perfectly on one side and on the other, I created a little reading area. One late night I heard a noise and looked up to see a feral-looking silhouette in the window above my head. "Most likely a town fox," my neighbor said. "Absolute rascals, they are." Town fox. The words reverberated in my head for days.
The kitchen was a tiny galley area on the second floor and completely unassuming in design, but I loved it. Everything was delightfully within arm's reach, the floorboards uttered a comment whenever you took a step and despite the rain, the fog or the sleet, the light was inexplicably always golden. And from that little window on the world...
...I was afforded a rose-colored glimpse onto the lush, private gardens of the massive town houses that faced Ladbroke Grove. It was a fantastic wonderland of 19th century conservatories and Victorian follies and deliriously unbridled foliage. If I squinted, there was almost no clue that the 20th century (or even the 19th) had arrived.
(View onto back garden)
It was during this time that I found my beloved WWII-era horseshoe bench (just visible behind the dining table). I had gone to Bermondsey Market at 5am and spotted it there in the pre-dawn darkness. For £60, it was mine. The painting is by E. L. Blumenschein (1874-1960), one of the famous Taos Painters, although I think it was painted during his Hudson Valley years, before he headed West.
Up on the top of the house was a half-floor that we turned into a tiny (and I mean tiny) lounge. Outside was our very own private garden. Piero cobbled together some wooden planters and we grew an aromatic variety of herbs and encouraged the ivy to fulfill its long-held ambition of becoming a wall-to-wall carpet. Sometimes at dusk, we'd eat our dinner up there, surrounded by smudgy clouds and blue-grey slate rooftops and a ragtag assortment of Victorian chimneys.
This is us as we were then. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot my friend Jane in the background.
(Wedding day, Chelsea Registry Office)
Update: A few of you have asked if I still keep in touch with Jane and Mary from my last post. I do. Mary has moved back to England but Jane still lives in Brooklyn and both are busy raising families and pursuing artistic ventures. Two years ago, we all rented a house in Yorkshire and it was wonderful beyond words to see our children galloping across heathery moors, rolling down hills and scoffing sweets together like there was no tomorrow.