With the world’s most beautiful hand-painted wallpapers as a backdrop, it’s no wonder this house is a generous, vibrant, maximalist masterpiece
What A Victorian terraced house
Where Battersea, London
Photography Douglas Friedman
Words Gillian Welsh
Can you imagine living in a house where every inch is embellished with sensual ornamentation – not in a garish or overpowering way, but so effortlessly and gracefully it feels completely natural? In this home, near London’s Battersea Park, there’s not the merest hint of taupe or beige or plain understatement. Instead, it is a wholehearted celebration of deep jewel tones, lavish materials, gilded textural walls, rich pattern and texture. “There’s so much character in a room with colour and detail,” says owner Hannah Cecil Gurney. “It makes living in it all the more pleasurable.”
This is a woman unafraid of decoration – no surprise, really, when you learn that her father, Claud, founded de Gournay, one of the world’s leading wallpaper and fabric houses (the only company, in fact, that still hand-paints and hand-embroiders all its designs). The beauty of craft and the power of colour were impressed upon her from a young age, and her home, where she lives with her husband, three children and two large dogs, is a tribute to the wonderful artistry of her childhood.
For all that Gurney grew up in her father’s business and the captivating world of hand-painted wallcoverings, there was nevertheless a gap before she felt ready to join the company. “I wasn’t born creative,” she states. “My creativity grew. There was a showroom in our house when I was growing up and I was normalised to it, but then, eventually, when I was old enough, I stepped away.”
She studied physics, graduating with distinction, then entered the world of finance and chartered accountancy where, she admits, she was “miserable for years”. She eventually signed up to de Gournay in 2012, joining Claud, her sister Rachel and their cousin Dominic, becoming company director and guiding the firm’s evolution from cult name to industry leader, overseeing seven global showrooms and raising three kids along the way. As one of the world’s leading wallpaper and fabric houses, de Gournay is prized for its bespoke designs; these are in such high demand that, like the Birkin bags of Hermès, aficionados and designers can wait months to get their hands on them.
Gurney and her husband, Eddie Harden, were living in a small flat close by when this Victorian property came up for sale. “What a mess,” was her first thought when she viewed it, quickly followed by “But I love it.” Her friends were less convinced, worried it was too much to take on. Undaunted and undeterred, she pressed ahead. “I grew up on a building site,” she recalls. “Every morning for years I’d say ‘hi’ to the team of tradesmen – they felt like a constant fixture. So I love the feeling of change. I’m open to it. It’s fun.” Harden, however, is the opposite, prefer-ring things to be “planned and calm – he likes to schedule. I stress him out!”
She believed there was a lot of potential in this house if you could just look beyond its slightly weird past renovation. She could see it had an amazing shell, and how it could be transformed and brought back to life. Two very intense years in restoration mode followed – all the while working and developing de Gournay. By the time it took to complete the infrastructure (including kitchen, cornices, joinery and sash windows), she had a better understanding of how the decor could work. She started with the walls. “Always walls. Always. Walls are the whole room, like the blue sky in LA. I used to go there when I was young – it surrounds you, just like a room!”
Gurney designed the interior herself, rather than bringing in a professional, basing her decisions on instinct and a desire to create a warm, inviting, personal home. There’s no sense that it’s derived from any romantic notion of the past, either. “I’m not nostalgic at all,” she says. “My father loves colour and I get that from him, but the fact that I’m not an interior designer has allowed things to evolve. I’ve made mistakes but have learned from them and built experience along the way. Layouts change as life changes. Interior designers can visualise the end at the beginning; I have too many ideas swirling around in my head.”
The only outside help came from London practice Simon Smith & Michael Brooke Architects, who remodelled the kitchen into a more modern set-up, where Harden, a keen cook, can feel part of the party when dinner guests mingle in the adjoining dining room.
What has emerged is a home that embodies the transformative power of colour. The master bedroom, where large scoops of pretty are countered by little bits of punch, perhaps conveys this idea most. Covering all the walls is de Gournay’s Askew chinoiserie on apricot painted silk. Waking here each morning, says Gurney, leaves her feeling uplifted; then, in the evening, as the light fades, there is a sense of being bathed in warmth. “At night it’s like being in a cocoon… being in the womb.”
Balancing the sweetness is the African motif of Dedar’s Geometric Pic Nic covering an antique chair and Le Manach’s Les Ecailles on the handmade footstool. As for the scalloped-edge curtains, “They’re a mood influencer. They glow, melt. I love pink,” says Gurney. In the adjoining bathroom, the yellow ombré finish on the coral de Gourney Flamingos wallpaper (gilded with sterling silver) makes the room feel taller.
The living room has a darker palette, thanks to the chocolate-toned hand-painted chinoiserie wallpaper (Coco Coromandel in Burnt Umber), redolent of the lacquered screens in Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment. “I’ve always loved it, and I’ve seen lots of people gravitate to it, then be afraid to use it,” says Gurney. “Even my mum asked, ‘Why?’ But I decided to put it up to show how brown can be done. It’s grownup, woody, earthy and comforting.”
She has deliberately steered away from creating flow from room to room, instead giving each its own energy. “You can walk from one to the other and feel different,” she explains. The kitchen in daytime is invigorating. A row of zingy orange pendants illuminate the chic marble-topped island, ocean-blue barstools and the cabinetry that has been painted in a seductive, sultry custom-mixed magenta.
The den or snug is the only room in the house that wasn’t designed around the walls. Rather, it’s the woodwork that takes the lead, painted in Benjamin Moore’s Raspberry Truffle, which chimes with the red in the embroidered Flora wall upholstery (silk and metallic thread have been used on the wool sateen cloth, designed by Alessandra Branca for de Gournay).
Choosing and customising each wallpaper was a precise and methodical process; the furniture journey, however, was slightly more free-form. Gurney and Harden filled a car with Georgian heirlooms from Nanhoron, his family estate in Wales, and gathered together several pieces pinched from Claud’s house in Kent. An antique bed was sawn down to fit a toddler while a rescued prototype de Gournay neoclassical-style sofa found its place in the living room, bringing with it a touch of faded grandeur.
With the house complete and the business flourishing, Gurney has had time lately to cultivate another passion: flower arranging. “My husband says I need hobbies that aren’t work,” she laughs. New Covent Garden is on her doorstep and she has become a regular at the flower market, where she has developed a particular penchant for purple anemones – a colour she never thought she liked. “They bring me so much joy.”
Looking for more? Try this equally wild home in Mumbai