For twenty years the powerful, the rich and the famous have enjoyed Krug and shepherd's pie in Lord and Lady Archer's dramatic flat overlooking the Houses of Parliament. The Archers have now bought the penthouse upstairs, and turned it into one vast, galleried space. Floor to ceiling measures some twenty feet, and the wrap-around glass façade gives an endlessly fascinating view of the Thames far below. The flat is on an astonishing scale. Imperial eagles flap gigantic, gilded wings beneath console tables. A Busby Berkeley staircase swoops to the eyrie where Jeffrey Archer displays, in his study, the trophies awarded to his best-selling novels.
This Third Reich scale can make Munchkins of men, but the architect, Anthony Collett Associates, and Pygmalion Interiors elgantly made it habitable by sleight of hand. First Anthony Collett rationalized the space to impose a sense of order in the classical manner, while remaining mindful of the modern building. Then they exaggerated all architectural details, from the cornices to the oversized hardwood skirting boards. Pygmalion Interiors then over-scaled the furniture with great downy sofas, matched by huge tables on beanstalk legs: 'Oh yes, we had everything made specially for this flat. Normal-sized furniture wouldn't have looked right. In the workshops the pieces looked ridiculously big, but not here,' says Jane Davies of Pygmalion, who studied design at the Chelsea Arts School. She produced not only sketches but also prototypes for approval of what she calls “lusciously scaled contemporary furniture with rich, slick finishes'.
Anthony Collett recalls: "When we were invited to do the job it was a penthouse apartment done in Sixties style. Anyone could have dated it from the shaggy pile car pet and glass-fibre panels. There was an abstract motif right up the double height of the walls - a mono-directional Jackson Pollock, the sort of thing you might find in cheap Italian restaurants. It was a rabbit warren of rooms - it had no rationale, no symmetry, no axial, spatial arrangements." So the architect threw the lot into skips, then redesigned and rationalized the space on both floors. The Archers wanted a suite on the lower floor with a private sitting room, dressing-room, bathroom, and gymnasium leading off the vast living-area. Marbled beneath a silver-leafed, barrel vaulted ceiling, the monumental bathroom has under-floor heating. The detailing is nickel, with lights concealed in cornices beneath the barrel vault.
"Dr Archer wanted her own study on this level, near the entrance,' Anthony Collett explains, 'and Lord Archer wanted a study on the gallery.' This overlooks the double-volume space and is reached by an elegant staircase which replaces the perilous cantilevered original. The wing occupied by the Archers' two sons, and the staff flat, are on an upper section at the back facing a south-westerly railway line, which has been blocked out by reorienting the apartment towards the river.
Collett describes the result as 'stripped-back classicism'. Though 'eclectic' as a description is sometimes used to hide a lack of direction in less authoritative hands, Anthony Collett happily uses the word to describe his own work; in this case he borrowed influences from Art Deco in the ribbon-like staircase, the blond sycamore floor and the ironwork, transforming the with Modernist flourishes into something he calls 'very now. A giant chandelier swings above the twelve-seater dining-table like Caliban's lantern and harks back to the medievalism of Arts and Crafts, while concealing low-voltage lights below the candle bases. In true architectural fashion, anything decorative is restrained.
“There is peace in its intricacy,' Collett says. One of the most successful things we did was to introduce a lot of quietness and repose to the apartment through the structural ordering of space, and the way the spaces flow. We tried not to decorate it; we kept it very svelte. It's an extremely sexy apartment on that level. I can imagine being barefoot and alone, or with one's wife, and really taking on that space, with good music; it's lovely at night, with lights off in the glow of London and the river.'
Jane Davies describes the architectural results she had to work with as 'very glamorous - not the Hollywood sort of glamour but more sophisticated, and on a theatrical scale’. The legacy of furniture from her clients wasn't a major one - a grandfather casement clock, a carved four-poster bed - but there was an art collection serious enough to have been featured in the magazine Modern Painters (Lord Archer recommended that tyro collectors buy a picture a year, instead of spending the money on beer, theatre and holidays). In the dining area there is a dazzling, golden painting by Albert Goodwin (1845-1932) of the Houses of Parliament. There is a Picasso, a drawing by Matisse, a Sickert, a Joan Miró, a Georges Braque, an L. S. Lowry and an Alfred Sisley. Lord Archer owns several Vuillards; their look-alike Lady Archer women in honeyed colours are central to the apartment's inter iors. (A Vuillard woman, leaning on her elbow, can be seen from his bed when he wakes in the morning.)
In the gallery leading from the lift to the living-space is a cartoon gallery. Here is Mrs Thatcher with her profile exaggerated by Gerald Scarfe, and work by Steadman, Cummings and E. H. Shephard.
The background to this remarkable collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures has been suitably mellowed by Pygmalion, which mixed special paint effects that, says Jane Davies, 'could have come from Pompeii, with Veneziana stucco, a polished plaster made from marble dust mixed with pigments’. There was a lot of discussion about the best possible backdrop to the paintings; these paint effects have a quiet lustre and are silky to the touch.
Lady Archer was very much part of the design team, taking Jane Davies to the American Embassy residence in London to show them an interior Lord Archer admires. 'It inspired us to look for a gilded urn for the centre table,' says Jane Davies, 'but after a fruitless search, my daughter Rachel found an old chandelier which she gilded and upturned to hold flowers. The Archers wanted the look to be warm, sophisticated and original, and Lady Archer wanted reds. So we introduced a strong crimson, and teamed it with terracotta and corals, pinks, beiges, honey and raspberry.
Most of the colours are introduced in the three rugs that Pygmalion designed to anchor three conversational seating areas in the vast space; she describes them as 'break ing up the tramlines'. The rugs were made in Hong Kong by Bosanquet Ives. 'When we drew the tiger markings for the dining-room rug, we recognized the look we wanted for the flat,' recalls Jane Davies, "very sophisticated - without that bland, international style of modern rugs, or the out-of-place. and-time feeling that antique rugs would have introduced.' At either end of the long living-area the rugs are primarily pinks and reds, whereas the central rug is in yellow with cinnamon, ginger and a warm beige. Their inspiration for the overall setting was Syrie Maugham, the decorator who was famous in the Twenties for the pallor of her “pickled' interiors (one society wit bitched that no doubt Syrie's coffin would be limed). 'We've the same idea as Syrie,' says Davies, “Modernist, with glass and mirror and neutrals, vamped up with soft colours.'
Lord Archer was prepared to take the chance of using a little-known decorating team, says Jane Davies. 'Mary came to our studio near Cookham and looked over a nearby mansion we'd decorated - Shiplake House, which is Georgian - so she saw that we could manage. But her husband wanted value for money. "When I introduced Rachel to Jeffrey, he said, "I want a barrow boy to deal for me at salerooms and auc tions, and your mother's not one, but I think you are, Rachel.” We were hired'.