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

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - PERIOD PIECES -

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

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