The £4m house where a nightingale sang
This spectacular home belonged to Jane Birkin’s mother — but would she recognise it now? Anna Tyzack reports
Judy Campbell made the song A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square famous but she always admitted she could neither sing nor dance. In 1940, as an unknown 24-year-old actress, she was presented with the lyrics for A Nightingale because her own script had gone missing while performing at the Comedy Theatre in London. Her half-whispered, half-talked rendition brought the house down.
“She was so clever —she talked her way through it,” says her daughter Linda Jephson.
Noël Coward, who was in the audience, was so enchanted that he made Campbell his muse, and created roles for her in Present Laughter and The Happy Breed.
But while her fame rested on Berkeley Square, her heart was in Chelsea, where she lived with her husband David Birkin, a Royal Navy lieutenant commander.
The townhouse on Old Church Street, which they bought in 1974, was a few steps from the Chelsea Arts Club. It was “a place of endless comings and goings”, says Jephson, with actors lodging upstairs and “cluttered family reunions”. There would be visits from Campbell’s eldest daughter, the actress Jane Birkin, and granddaughter, the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. “It was a magical world,” says Jephson. “Everyone was welcomed with open arms.”
But when Campbell died in 2004, aged 88, the house “needed pulling apart” says estate agent Victoria Tinne. “It was all very theatrical and just hadn’t been touched.”
It was snapped up for £1.8million by Oliver Horsey, a property developer, who has turned it into a £4.6million family home. “It’s the same frame, but with a different painting in it,” says Tinne.
The house was considered “a little narrow” by the Birkins, and its layout was rather curious, having once been a pub, with a sloping hallway for rolling barrels. But they loved it for the garden room, with its ceiling of grapevines, which was separated from the house by a covered courtyard and shed “full of creosote cans and rusty screwdrivers”.
“Everything my mother loved was in the garden room, which was the venue for many an impromptu party. She did parties very well,” says Jephson. Jane Birkin’s OBE celebration was one such occasion, along with Christmas dinners. One year, Campbell made quite an entrance when the Christmas pudding set her hair alight.
“We were never sure if there was planning permission for the garden room, though,” says Jephson.
There wasn’t, according to Oliver Horsey. After pulling down the structure, it took months to gain permission to rebuild the garden room in a wider, more permanent guise, attached directly to the house.
“Oh, good Lord, the charm is broken,” was Jane Birkin’s response when she saw pictures of the new room. “With swift, efficient strokes eccentricity has been wiped out.” But there can be no denying the vast space, with sliding doors to a sun terrace, is impressive. As is the Crestron media room in the basement, which was once Jephson’s flat, with French windows and large window-sill.
“I grew plants and tried to make it look like the South of France — if my friends visited, they would rattle a tin can that hung from a string up on the street,” she says. These days, with a new kitchen, wetroom and plasma screen, it is designed for a “grumpy teenager” or nanny.
In the former drawing room is an open-plan kitchen/dining room, with doors leading to a small terrace. The sloping floor in the hall has been levelled out, and a staircase leads up three storeys to a study and five light and spacious double bedrooms. The bathrooms feature television screens, drenching showers, and £8,000 stone baths. The top floor is new, with glass skylights and wood-panelled walls; it has been built on top of the existing roof, which was once destroyed by fire. “There were 20ft flames leaping through the ceiling,” Jephson recalls. “My husband, Mike, arrived to find my mother entertaining the firemen with champagne. She was quite sanguine about the whole thing — the insurance company moved her into a smart hotel in Cadogan Square.”
It is hard to believe that the house is the oldest property in one of Chelsea’s oldest streets: ceilings have been reinforced, floors re-laid; lights are concealed behind the new cornicing; and each room has a state-of-the-art audio-visual system. About the only feature Campbell would recognise is the Georgian window in the master bedroom.
“It is odd to find it has become a blank canvas, obliterating all history so utterly,” says Jephson. Even the 44ft garden, once “draped in clematis and jasmine”, where Campbell fed raisins to the robins nesting in an African tea cosy, has been replanted in a minimalist style.
Campbell would not have liked it, says Jephson, but she would have been impressed by the light and space and quality of the materials.
“Perhaps it is easier this way,” adds Jane Birkin. “It shows how more than anything else the blossom was Ma. The bliss of nothing changing.”
21 Old Church St is for sale at £4.6million through Rickett Tinne: 020 7349 3070
Outside in: the new garden room with its glass wall and roof. Actress Judy Campbell (top right) loved throwing parties in her Georgian home in Old Church Street (above right) — including Jane Birkin’s OBE celebration