Turtle Bunbury

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The Rowells of Leeson Street, Dublin City

This story originally featured in The Book of Interiors Volume 2 (2005)

Imagine a three storey Georgian townhouse untouched since the days of the Irish Free State. And now, finally, it's yours to love and cherish! Where do you begin? In the case of this magnificent city centre building, the owner took a two-fold approach. Firstly, she had a go herself. Then she recruited Bronagh and Cormac Rowell of Harriet's House interiors to add a dash of their own inimitable fancy. The result is a masterpiece of 21st century cosmetic surgery.

To begin with, the house is dark. That is to say, one enters through a sturdy front door directly into a hallway painted a dramatic black. The blackened effect is something of a trick because it is well known that the Rowells have a fervent passion for all things light and lustrous. Indeed, one of the most outstanding characteristics of this house is the monumental number of lighting options available. The hall is in fact well-lit and runs towards a stairwell, the right side adorned by a French tapestry, the left by a sideboard bedecked in lamps. Elaborate egg & dart cornicing above reminds that this house was built in an age when the craftsmen of Dublin were amongst the best in the world.

To the right of the hallway, buxom red walls envelop a dining room that confidently insists life should be a constant dinner party. An oval mahogany table stands centre stage, supporting a flamboyant bouquet of bunched port red roses. The English firm Chaise Erwin devised the luxurious Tuscana square chair covers. Suggestive paintings of vintage Bordeaux and Chablis by Fabrice de Villeneuve hang opposite etchings of elaborate Roman arches and a magnificent brass-tipped French clock. Heat flickers warm, orange flames amid a black marble fireplace to the rear.

To the rear of the dining room lies a voluminous kitchen, the bulk of it occupying a modern extension. A remarkably successful sense of antiquity is created by Acanthus leaf sconces hanging above the Aga and deliberately distressed, pock-marked kitchen cupboards. At the back of the kitchen, an informal living area is sunk beneath the main hall. A scroll-arm sofa occupies a side-corner of the room, clad in studded Georgian velvet. The side tables at either end have the same burnished eglimise mirror effect and, like the rectangular silk lampshades and de Bois panelling, create a room that is at once refined and timeless.

Rising up the stairs to the first and second floor living and bedrooms, a small, sunny alcove of silver grey, an armchair secreted between tulips and an eccentric bust by L.N. Fowler entitled "Phrenology". A series of framed Shakespearean scenes by Meadows & Chapman hang on a nearby wall. Italianate chandeliers of bead and rosette are suspended above, embellished by tapering bulbs. A tall lamp stands guard upon the staircase. Harriet's House offers an amazing selection of lamps. Indeed, the Rowells are renowned for encouraging their clients to be creative with illumination, to work lights to suit a particular mood. The first floor living room, for instance, offers a tremendous variety - Spanish, French, English and Irish - some hand-painted, others illustrated with architectural drawings, some gilt-edged and perhaps a slight showy, others understated and wooden. By night, the room can rotate through a diverse mélange of chartreuse yellows, honey-gold orange and supple red vines. Switches and plugs are carefully and logically positioned, then concealed by semi-transparent panels.

The drawing room is an extensive spread that merges a distinctly French traditional deportment with cutting edge contemporary. An intricate Parisian frieze hangs above the original marble fireplace, framed by silver lamps. Gilded mirrors, elaborate pelmets and scattered antiquities - an umbrella stand, an orchid vase, an inlaid mahogany spinet desk - further enhance the elegance. Guests sprawl on Cleopatra sofas, draped in custom-made tapestries and cushions. An Ottoman pouf stands by a Louis XVI's style armchair. Magnificent curtains of lush Chase Erwin silk are theatrically reefed in the Italian style, lending a voluptuous sheen to the room.

Rising up to the second floor bedrooms, the avant-garde spirit comes to the fore in a most vivacious incarnation. In the "Baby's Room", a wonderful tapering red and white checkered quilt is held in place by an antique English corona. HH reupholstered and embroidered the headboard and set it above plush-top mattress and feather and down pillows. The colour contrasts affably with the soft ochre walls and fawn hued carpet. But it is in the Lorenzo Bellini table-lamps that the genius of HH again comes through. The coolie shades atop these lamps are hand-painted with simple, effective oriental strokes. As one's eye traverses the room, this cheerful theme is echoed, very discreetly, in the cachepots on the windowsill and on the dustbin. Again in the Master Bedroom, a delightful pinstripe, reminiscent of 1930s deckchair, peeks blindly through from behind the curtains, only to playfully remerge on a medical cabinet and again on the inside of a laundry basket.

Like most Dublin townhouses, one cannot really know what lies beyond the black front door, framed as it is between neat granite steps and modest fanlight. Perhaps the topiary boxes rising up the sills of the polished white sash windows indicate a house that has rediscovered love, but it is only when the front door is pushed aside that the power of this happy romance becomes apparent.

Photography: James Fennell