An 18th-century townhouse filled with antique country furniture
Robert Hirschhorn and John Hall, dealers of antique country furniture, have lovingly returned the elegance to their 18th-century home, which now provides the perfect backdrop to their soulful – and ever-evolving – collections. Photographs Andreas von Einsiedel
‘Can we keep it?’ asks John Hall of the rather handsome late 17th-century Welsh oak table that sits in his and partner Robert Hirschhorn’s sitting room. The table is one of their favourite pieces in their home but, alas, as Robert and John are dealers in antique country furniture, it is not for keeps.
The couple deal from home, which – despite the occasional heartache of having to sell a beloved piece – is not without its perks. The commute consists of travelling up three flights of stairs (‘I don’t need to get any other exercise,’ jokes John) and they have the pleasure of living with pieces that they’re both so passionate about.
After running an antiques shop in London for 10 years, Robert decided to go it alone in 1989, with John joining him in the business. Robert is from New Jersey and John from Christchurch, New Zealand. Robert moved to England in 1975 to study art history, while John decided to move here in 1980, drawn to the country’s history.
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Initially, they regularly exhibited at antiques fairs but they never wanted to own their own shop, preferring instead to display their pieces by appointment in their home. Commuting jokes aside, you can see why. It would be hard to walk into the space and not crave a slice of its quiet elegance for yourself.
The four-floor, 18th-century townhouse was originally owned, says John, by a Huguenot family. ‘Middling people would have lived here. It was never grand but always comfortable,’ he says. ‘I’ve traced the entire lifecycle of a family who lived here in the early to mid 19th century. It gives the feeling of connectedness. We’re all temporary in these places. All we can do is add our own layer to the history and then someone new can take over.’
John and Robert’s ‘layer’ involved removing the ‘whiff of 1980s bling’ that had crept in, sorting out the dodgy cabling and pipes that wound their way throughout the interior, and introducing a soothing paint scheme of varying shades of off-white. ‘When we decorated, it wasn’t about recreating an authentic 18th-century interior by using the vivid colours of that era,’ says Robert. ‘Instead, we wanted to create a contemporary scheme that would respect the house. The background has to complement the objects within it and we find that this palette does just that.’
The objects in question – country pieces dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, cheery folk art, spongeware and simple pottery – were always going to take centre stage in their home. While formal antiques can be tricky to pull off outside of the context of a grand pad, the items favoured by John and Robert are of a different ilk. There are no elaborate carvings or fussy ornamentation here. ‘Country furniture is the easiest furniture to live with,’ says John. ‘Being craftsman-designed, you can see the maker’s hand at work and it’s robust, having already lasted 250 years.’ There are surprises, too.
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The couple don’t shy away from contemporary pieces and love teaming works by new designer-makers with items 200 years their senior. ‘It leavens the antiques,’ says Robert. ‘Instead of a traditional, static look, mixing in new pieces creates a tension between the modern and the old. It makes the overall look much more interesting.’
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It doesn’t sound like there are many disputes over what to buy in this household but, when that does happen, they have an agreement. ‘If one of us says “that’s not quite right for us”, the other will accept that straight away. If you have to convince the other, you shouldn’t be having it,’ says John.
When asked if they have any further plans for the house, there is talk of extending into the garden but there’s the sense that, for Robert and John, living here isn’t about creating more space or improving on value. The connection goes much deeper. ‘Someone once said to me, “We’re just custodians of our homes,” and I feel that with this house,’ says Robert. ‘What we’ve tried to do is to bring it back to its original state, respect its integrity and conserve it for the future. It’s 240 years old this year. I hope it’ll still be here in another 240 years.’
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