I used to pass this eye-catching house in North Kensington as I walked from my bedsit to the red telephone box to ring my boyfriend. Years later I visited the house with a private group and remember the interiors were just as striking, with brilliant William de Morgan tiles and mosaics.
Debenham House (the Peacock House), 8 Addison Road, Kensington
It was built for Sir Ernest Debenham (of the department store) by architect Halsey Ricardo in 1905. He was one of the circle of forward-looking artists and designers building in Holland Park (like R. Norman Shaw, Philip Webb, or William Burges) and had designed Nos. 15 and 17 in Melbury Road ten years before. These were clad with red glazed terracotta bricks, an innovation to withstand the corrosive effects suffered by brick, plaster and paint from the foul, smoky London atmosphere. The Builder, in July 1894 noted they were "faced externally with salt-glazed bricks…proof against the disintegrating forces of the London air."
Decorative tiled interiors had been promoted by the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) since 1865 and by designers like William Morris, friend of de Morgan, but these tiled exteriors were a new idea. Sir Ernest had lived at No 17, and he must have found it comfortable as well as practical, for he chose Ricardo's plans for his new large house nearby. It is faced with Doulton cream glazed terracotta -"Carrarra Ware"- and blue and green Burmantofts glazed bricks*, with roof tiles from Spain.
The interior must have been inspired by Leighton House (built in the mid 1860s), for there are the same peacock blue tiles in the passages and hall from Willam de Morgan's factory. De Morgan supplied these for Leighton House in 1879-81, for he was employed to conserve and display Frederic Leighton's spectacular collection of middle eastern tiles. When de Morgan's factory closed in 1905, Ricardo bought up the stock to complete Sir Ernest's Addison Road house.
Entrance hall, 8 Addison Road (Bridgeman images)
More de Morgan tiles decorate the passageways, as well as blue and green tiles edging the garden paths. This panel shows the influence of the collection of Isnik tiles at Lord Leighton's house
A wall panel inspired by Isnik tile patterns and colours © Getty images
Perhaps the mosaic central dome is the most splendid part of the interior, designed by Ricardo with later additions from other artists, in Byzantine style. You can also see a peacock carved in the balustrade.
View of the Dome at the Peacock House (photo M. Jenner)
The interchanges of the the artistic Holland Park circle brought Gaetano Meo, a studio assistant and artists' model, to direct the application of the mosaic work, each glass tessera from Powell's of Whitefriars individually applied, which increased its light reflecting qualities. He had previously worked on William Blake Richmond's mosaic decoration in the quire of St. Pauls' Cathedral.
This was a house with no expense spared, a palace of art, but a place to live, with state of the art tiled bathrooms and kitchen. During a chequered history as a teacher training college and home of the Richmond Fellowship, it is now in private ownership again, but is recognisable in shots from films and television (Poirot, Wings of a Dove ) from the past, and its green and blue tiled exterior still reflects the trees and the sky in this part of Kensington.
*Burmantofts tiles were used for the exterior of Michelin House on Fulham road, in 1911. Debenham House usually takes part in the London Open House programme each September.
Further information on the Holland Park houses can be found at www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-London and information on their artistic styles at thecultureconcept.com