A gothic, antiques-filled Victorian apartment in Lowesoft
From gilded plasterwork to museum displays and fairground mirrors, Benjamin Smith and Hayley Miller’s antiques-filled home is a playful celebration of the gothic and the curious. Feature Dominique Corlett. Photographs Brent Darby.
Benjamin Smith is peering at the paper labels on the drawers of an imposing mahogany chest in the airy, high-ceilinged kitchen of his Victorian apartment in Lowestoft. ‘Lanolin, amylum, gelatin, naphthalene, humulus lupulus,’ he says aloud as he reads his way along the rows, ‘and this one is opium.’
Even taking into account the everyday names for these things –amylum is starch, humulus lupulus, hops, and naphthalene is the main ingredient in traditional mothballs – and the fact that the drawers are used to store shoes, there’s no denying it’s an unusual inventory to find in a kitchen. But then ‘the unusual’ is exactly what this home is about.
‘The cabinet is late Georgian or early Victorian and would have been housed in a pharmacy,’ Benjamin explains. ‘Everything’s original – the paper labels, the pressed glass handles. It was one of the first big things I bought, years ago. A Japanese client wanted to buy it recently, but I decided not to sell it. It kind of fits in here.’
Benjamin is right. The majestic pharmacy cabinet looks perfectly at home beneath the lofty coved ceilings and, like many other pieces in the flat, it also chimes happily with his passion for old things with a whiff of the curious or something unsettling about them. It’s an aesthetic he has become known for through his antiques business, The School for Scandal.
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Benjamin and his partner Hayley moved back to Lowestoft from London in 2017, returning to the area where they both grew up. Hoping to find a place that was not only ‘a bit unusual’ but that had space for Benjamin’s ever-expanding stock, the one-bed apartment ticked both boxes with ease. Occupying the ground floor of an impressive five-storey 1840s house situated on the edge of town, the flat was just minutes from the sea.
The couple were immediately struck by its grandeur. From the minute they walked in and clocked the height of the ceilings Benjamin says he was ready to buy: ‘I just couldn’t believe the scale of everything. We were walking around staring up, just in awe of the plasterwork. I’d never seen coving like it – it must be 50cm in depth, it’s three dimensional.’
They got the keys in October 2017 and set about removing woodchip from walls, paint from woodwork and laminate from floors, but decided to keep the existing bathroom and kitchen. ‘We concentrated on stripping everything back to how it would have been,’ says Benjamin. ‘Apart from the bathroom, we took all the walls back to the original plasterwork.’
Benjamin – who studied fine art at Chelsea College of Arts – then washed the walls with diluted paint, and waxed and polished them to achieve a Venetian plaster effect. He also gilded some of the coving, adding to the atmosphere of faded grandeur.
Nearly everything that Benjamin and Hayley live with has come into their home through Benjamin’s passion for collecting. The habit started with old leather books when he was a teenager, and turned into a business in 2013 when Hayley suggested that he sold a few things to make space before buying more. Six years on, The School for Scandal is a full-time job, with the couple living with 80 per cent of their stock. Benjamin’s taste for the weirder end of Victoriana firmly sets the tone of the interior.
The living room is a case in point. The back wall, which is covered with taxidermy and curious oil paintings, is dominated by a huge, ghostly portrait of a woman whose face has been disfigured by water damage. It is by the studio artist James Gunn (1893-1964), who also painted the Queen, and it was the distortion of this unknown lady that appealed to Benjamin.
A stuffed monkey dressed as a cobbler in a stripy woollen hat, poised to hammer tiny nails into a miniature shoe, sits at the bottom of the wall. One of Benjamin’s favourite objects, it was created by Walter Potter, the eccentric Victorian taxidermist whose work is admired by Damien Hirst.
‘I’m just attracted to things that are odd,’ Benjamin explains. ‘They appeal to my sense of humour. One of my other favourite items is the sign advertising ‘cheap funerals’. That was in the original Oliver Twist film starring Alec Guinness. It’s a morbid subject, but it’s also quite comical. Who would want a cheap funeral?’
Elsewhere, pinned displays of beetles and butterflies sit alongside collections of pine cones and specimens in pickle jars, pointing to a fascination with early scientific endeavour, one of several of Benjamin’s obsessions.
He also enjoys playing with scale (there is a giant shoe in the bedroom, which was a cobbler’s model), and optical lenses and mirrors that he has collected sporadically over the last 10 years. ‘I like the distortion of the reflection, that’s what fascinates me about fairground mirrors. I bought a good collection of about 12, of which I still have a pair. I think we only have one mirror in our house that’s actually flat. That really annoys Hayley!’
Speaking of Hayley, how does she feel about living with all of these objects? ‘We’ve been together for 15 years and she’s seen it evolve, so she’s pretty used to it. But, we’ve agreed, the next time we move I’ll tone it down and we’ll live in a normal house!’
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