Old master makeover: an art history fan’s dream home

Old master makeover: an art history fan’s dream home

Glimpsed through half-open doors, the panelled rooms of Frank Hollmeyer’s Georgian terraced house remind you of a Dutch old master painting. Light slants across wooden floors; paintings and porcelain are arranged as if in a painting by Vermeer. For Hollmeyer, an art historian by training, those 17th-century artists excelled “at intimate scenes of everyday domesticity, where everything feels composed”.

It’s an approach he’s applied here. The five-storey house, set on a shady garden square in south London, is Hollmeyer’s “canvas”. It’s where he takes a quiet pleasure in re-ordering books or piling a blue and white Delft bowl with fruit, like an artist tweaking a composition.

As the name of his Instagram account, slightly_worn, suggests, it’s also a home that feels relaxed and unpretentious. There are deep sofas and burning grates upstairs for socialising and a large, eat-in kitchen in the basement for cosy suppers. Nothing is too “pristine or polished” in the house, which he discovered by chance in 2012. “I’d been looking for a bigger place with space to hang my paintings. My last home was in north London and I didn’t know this part of London at all. But I’d had supper with friends nearby and decided to explore,” he says.

As he passed the house in Kennington, noting the fanlight and arched windows, a young man opened the front door, attached a “For Sale” sign to the railings and disappeared inside. When Hollmeyer rang up to inquire, he discovered that it was a private sale. “The family had lived there for almost 30 years. One son wanted to be an estate agent, so his father had told him to have a go at selling this house.” A gentlemanly deal was struck. Three weeks later, he moved in.

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Growing up in the Netherlands in the 1980s, Hollmeyer remembers how the old masters were omnipresent. Girls with pearl earrings peered out from wine coasters and “nearly every living room had a Rembrandt poster”. When he was a teenager the family moved to Amsterdam, where he became fascinated by its neo-classical architecture. “William and Mary brought that style to England. So you could argue that Georgian architecture owes a debt to them.”

This stucco and brick-fronted house has that mix of “classicism and austerity” that he has always found so appealing. But over the centuries, original 1790s details had been masked by overzealous refurbishments. During his research, Hollmeyer, who is half Dutch and half German, discovered the square was built for workers at the nearby Bethlem Royal Hospital asylum (now the Imperial War Museum).

“By the 19th century this was a slum, marked in black on the map. In the 1930s, the council bought most of the square by compulsory order. This house was one of a pair laterally converted into flats.” Georgian features – shutter boxes, skirtings, architraves – were ripped out. When Hollmeyer arrived, there were pine fireplaces, textured wallpaper and carpet-smothered stairs.

“I’ve restored the house in stages as everything is so expensive,” he says. “At one point I ran out of money, so I stopped.” When he discovered a slice of original cornice, the builders were able to create a mould and recast it. The dado rail was reinstated and floorboards sanded and washed a light grey. For authenticity, Hollmeyer turned to historic buildings expert Tim Whittaker of the Spitalfields Trust. “He visited and drew up designs for the shutter boxes and architraves.” On the first floor, the library at the back has new panelling and a deep cornice. It too “feels very Dutch”.

There were other discoveries. While the builders set to work to redecorate the top-floor bedroom, they uncovered the weighty beam that runs from front to back. For decades, it had been completely obscured by a false ceiling. “I found out that it’s a ship’s timber from Chatham dockyard. Good wood was very expensive in those days. So when ships were decommissioned the timber was sold to housebuilders.” He points out the grooves along its length. “It’s likely that they were cut to support decking.”

Apart from the neoclassical trompe l’oeil wallpaper in the bedroom, he has kept the decoration simple, scattering rugs and painting walls. In the first-floor drawing room, the long-suffering decorator tried three different shades before Frank hit on the ideal green: “Not too leafy, not too cooking apple.” Its depth acts as a foil for the 17th-century Dutch paintings – portraits, still lifes, landscapes – which Hollmeyer has bought at auctions over the years. Working from home during lockdown, he’s had plenty of time to absorb their details.

“Acquaintances have become friends,” says Hollmeyer, who also learned how to restore their gessoed frames using Dutch gilding. He’s grown even fonder of his brown furniture, the stately wingback armchairs or the wavy, camel back sofa with its “patina of time”. He’s recovered them in plain, thick linens. There are no curtains anywhere. “Like the window tax in England, the Dutch imposed a tax on curtains in the 17th century, so they were a rarity. I’ve stayed faithful to that look.”

In the basement, he designed the country house-style kitchen, adding a butcher’s block found online. Instead of conventional flagstones, there are French tomette tiles. Their subdued, pinkish tone is, he says, “very Dutch”. When a more normal social life resumes, he’s looking forward to laying the table for guests. There will be tulips in vases, bright Meissen plates and his signature prop: the lemon.

“All you need is one for a splash of colour. It’s an instant Dutch still life – on a budget.”

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