Friday, February 12, 2010

London: The Days of Cool Britannia

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.
(Upstairs salon)

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.
(Bedroom, London)

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.
(Dining area)

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.
(Mews attic)

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.
(Yorkshire, 2006)

Maybe up next: Thrills in the Hollywood Hills (if I can locate the photos...)

Also, it's Friday, which means my new column is up at W Magazine. Click HERE to read it, but not before I wish a wonderful Valentine's weekend to everyone.


Laura said...

Do we not get the story of how you met your very Divine Italian?

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Laura: Ooh. I guess I skipped over that...didn't know if it would be interesting to anyone...! :)

Hels said...

That bedroom might have turned out badly, since it bisects the fairly small space available. Instead it looks terrific.

Style Court said...

Lisa, I'm crazy about the E. L. Blumenschein and really happy to know the story behind your horseshoe bench.


Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Hels: You are SO right!

Style Court: I knew you'd like the Blumenschein. xx

pve design said...

Love these glimmers of your cool days now and then.
You will always be cool in my book!

DM said...

I really have a feeling when your son gets older he will be so happy to know he has such an amazing mother. I'm green with envy!

Scott Fazzini said...

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph... Lisa, darling, your life is like a buzzing bug light, and I am an interested mosquito. Okay, perhaps a poor metaphor, but I am intoxicated by your life. Thank you for sharing.

post script: I'm wildly in love with the William and Glen "Highlander" picnic basket!

HAPPY VALENTINES DAY you beautiful, beautiful woman!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Everyone should have a Hogarth period. It makes the story of one's life so much more interesting.

OdetteO said...

I really love these reminiscence posts you've been doing - especially since you have photos to accompany them. It's so much fun to see the romantic places you've lived before & hear what you were occupied with back then.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Loved the post. The Hogarth painting is perfect. It is also really fitting that you got married in the Chelsea Registry Office. Nice that your hubbie knows you so well!!

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Scott Fazzini: I KNEW you'd like that picnic basket, you aesthete you. RIght back at you with the Valentine's day wishes. xx

Pamela Terry and Edward: I so agree...whether you call it "Hogarthian", "William Blakean", "Samuel Johnsonian" or "Hawksmoorean', it elevates mild penuriousness to a much more romantic level!

OdetteO: Thank you so much. Hopefully I can find those LA photos... xx

LPC said...

So charming, or charmed, either way. I didn't know that people like you really existed. Serious, I didn't.

columnist said...

How interesting your photo of the children in Yorkshire. I was just watching a re-run of "the Calendar Girls", which was based on a group of WI ladies from "Knapely" in Yorkshire, which was the fictional name for Kettlewell. The "15 miles from Skipton" road sign looked all too familar!

Vanya Wilkinson said...

how absolutely divine. I wish I had gone to London before the property boom and it was still possible to live in a fabulous area for a decent price; so glad you could :)

ArchitectDesign™ said...

Of course it's entirely charming: and I'm sure even more so with the happy memories you had there as part of a young couple :-) That view! And hidden away like that -so romantic!

vicki archer said...

What a cute place....England in the 60's must have been really fabulous. Loved your column at W btw...Happy weekend Lisa, xv.

Dash said...

Lisa, what a divine post, the house is beautiful, loved your Hogarth period. I know exactly where that picture of the children was taken, as I originate from that corner of the world. I agree with Laura, I think your going to have to tell us the story of you and Piero.

Madelief said...

What a beautiful house & lovely story!

Happy Valentine's weekend!

groetjes van Madelief

Unknown said...

Now we want to know it tell, please!!!
It's beyond lovely to hear your stories!

XX - Happy Valentine!


Vava (aka Virginia) said...

Dear God in Heaven - please, I must own a book by Lisa B.G. Give her the sign...she is to start her book today.

wild thyme flowers said...

Lisa, looks like we were both living in London at the same time. In fact I was working in Nottinghill at Wild at Heart (1997), florist on Westbourne Grove. Wow, I wish we had crossed paths.

Semi Expat said...

How utterly darling and gorgeous your home was... beautiful. And 'Town Fox' - love it!!

French Fancy... said...

Some people are just 'style personified' and you and Piero are it really. Now tell me what albums he worked on at EMI. Goodness, you are cool.

My first flat share was in the same neck of the woods but not in the glitzy bit you were in - I was in Blenheim Crescent, about halfway down Portobello. We were more shabby chic - with the emphasis on the shabby.

Now admit to one uncool thing you have ever done - lest I raise you too high on the pedestal

froogal said...

Transported once again...can I come back as you in my next life?...such serendipity!

Jessica said...

Oh my, this might be my dream house. I spent a summer as an intern at the British Museum and lived in a dorm room on Evelyn Gardens in South Ken. I would day dream about living in a mews house as I walked to the tube in the morning. Thank you for this peek into your world!

And we'd all love to hear about how you met the Divine Italian!

A Super Dilettante said...

Lisa, I adore your story and pictures of your house. What a feast for us!! You are one of the most creative souls! The way you decorate the house (it's so English). If you believe in reincarnation, I think you were a genteel English lady ("Angel in the house") in your past life! Oh that wedding picture, the divine Italian and you looked so stylish and the outfit! ONLY the divine Italian could pull off this yellow shirt and quirky tie!! A match made in heaven!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Brilliant. A mews stable cottage with a garden with a cherry tree in bloom. Glorious.
cheers, DIANE

Angie Muresan said...

Yes, please. Just how did you meet your Divine Italian?

Angie Muresan said...

Haha, I just had to laugh at French Fancy's comment. And I am curious too... any uncool doings on your part?

littlebyrd said...

Keep these wonderful stories (and pictures!) coming.

Anonymous said...

A terrific piece. What a house. Encore please.

P. M. Doolan said...

I love the cute little kitchen.

aprilinparis said...

what a fantastic home, and so beautifully evoked in your writing. this series definitely inspires me to keep a good photographic record of every abode i nest in, no matter how modest (currently: a pocket-sized chambre de bonne with a grimy shared WC down the hall...shudder). love your blog, and congrats on the art show!

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Anxiety Network said...

I stumbled upon your blog by googling my old address: 7 Wilby Mews. We lived there from 1990-1992 and our first son was born there. We are back in the States now, but our latest dog, an English Cocker Spaniel who was imported from a great family in Gloustershire, is named Wilby in honor of our London home. We would have been just around the corner to the right of your front door. What a great pub on the corner, too. Great memories.

Kathy Carbone said...

You're so lucky, Lisa! The place is heaven.. I like how the hardwood floors and windows were installed. It's like a classic fairytale. It's been a dream for me to own a house in London. I grew up here in Tampa, and I think it's nice here, too. With all the beaches and the sun. So I wanna try somewhere new. Lovely photos, btw.

Ree said...

Three years in that lovely little mews house...I am uber jealous...They'd have to pry my fingers off the door frame to get me to leave...Thanks for such a charming article and pics...

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