'One look at the hallway and I knew it had to be mine'

In 1726 Marmaduke Smith gave his new home in Spitalfields wow factor with a marble and mahogany hall. Three centuries on, one couple have rescued it
Chris and Eleanor in the morning room
Chris and Eleanor in the morning room. Hanging tapestries on walls, as they were intended to be shown, helps to create softer acoustics
Property buying is usually about either head, or heart - both of which roads can lead to a home. But for Eleanor Jones and Chris Legg, who had been living in a late-Regency house in Stockwell for 10 years, it was about boredom.

Eleanor, who runs a business in fashion textiles, explains: "Stockwell was quite dull. One morning we woke up and just said, 'This is boring, let's move.'

"I was subscribing to Sotheby's property catalogues, and they put in flysheets with things like a £10 million house in the Algarve. Then one day in 2000, I'd just binned one when Chris fished it out and said, 'No, Eleanor, look at this. I think you'll like it, but it's E1.' - E1!" Her tone says it all. However, one cold February day, they went to look.

The agent swung open the heavy front door into a wide, romantic hall with its original marble floor and regal mahogany staircase and, Eleanor says, "from the doorway, I went, 'Mine'."

The hallway
The stunning, light-suffused hall’s early mahogany staircase and fine marble floor provides an impressive entrance
The agent wanted offers in excess of £1 million. A similar house in Mayfair then could have been £4 million or more. The couple knew it would be sealed bids. Here, their business heads (Chris is an accountant) served them well.

"Property is always worth what you want to pay for it, and like everything else in life you should offer as much as you can afford," Eleanor says. "I suggested we offer £1.37million, but Chris said make it £20,000 more. That extra £20,000 got us the house, because the next bid was only £7,000 less."

It was a good buy. Today the house is worth £4.5 million.

Heavy yellow French brocade curtains in the dining room
Eleanor, an experienced needlewoman, made the stunning heavy yellow French brocade curtains in the dining room
Twelve years ago, the couple didn't know much about owning a house like this. But they were lucky that it was there to buy at all. In the late Seventies, Spitalfields was still one of the poorest places in London, its closeness to the financial heart of the city not valued. The area's 18th-century homes were often squats or subdivided houses and were filthy, dilapidated and undergoing mass demolition.

Few people cared. But this 4,000sq ft house was special, having been built in 1726 by an ambitious carpenter, Marmaduke Smith, who had done rather well for himself. The Spitalfields Trust bought it for a song, patched it up and sold it to a couple who lived there for 20 years. It came back to the market in 2000.

Chris wasn't as keen on the house as Eleanor. "It was empty, people had died in it, and it was very, very cold," he says. "There was no heating." The first night, they slept in all their clothes.

But Marmaduke had laid the trap well that snared them. That marble floor, and what was one of the first mahogany staircases in England, were designed by him as pure "wow factor" to boast and advertise his success. Because of his prowess, the house is very well built, and almost all the beautiful raised-field panelling is original. Unlike many restoration projects, Eleanor and Chris had relatively little to do.

Four poster bed covered in richly coloured covers and canopy in a mixture of silks in the main bedroom
Eleanor made the sumptuous, richly coloured bed covers and canopy in a mixture of silks
However, one side was divided off into a self-contained flat, with a "disgusting" MDF floor and plasterboard everywhere. They took off the plasterboard and found modern bricks beneath that. Chris demolished the bricks, to find the original 1726 door, still on its original hinges, leading from one part of the house to the other. "And we opened the door," Eleanor says, the wonder of that moment on her face. Elsewhere, an electrician lifting floorboards showed her a beam that was simply a tree trunk, its ancient bark still on.

Original raised-field panelling on the walls and garden tools
The couple were lucky to find most of the original raised-field panelling intact, and still in excellent condition
"We are custodians for the future," Eleanor says. "We were lucky, because the area had become very poor, and poverty preserves." At the start, they invited locals round for their opinion - including TV historian Dan Cruickshank - and liaised with Tower Hamlets' conservation officer, who wouldn't let them change a Victorian door in the kitchen. Anyone buying a listed property must be prepared for such refusals. Failure to comply can be a criminal offence.

Chris says, with a glint, that he is best at knocking things down but that most decisions were made by Eleanor who, having been sewing since she was four, handmade the beautiful dining room curtains, using 24 metres of French brocade, all the four-poster bed hangings, and professional-quality needlepoint furnishings, done to designs by her mother.

With a career in textiles, she also knew where to buy some lovely old Belgian and French Verdure tapestries. But neither Chris nor Eleanor is a slave to old for old's sake, which results in the house having a very fresh feeling. "We didn't want to live in a museum," they say, "It's a home. You have to achieve a balancing point."

The drawing room
Tiny pins found all over the drawing room walls once held silk wall coverings in place
Eleanor had several carpets woven by The Rug Company. And what appear to be old "school" radiators are new. "One small corrosion hole can cause a lot of damage," she says, crisply. They don't use Farrow & Ball paints, but tint their own, using artists' oils mixed into traditional paint from Potmolen in Warminster.

"The colours change with the light," she explains. But Chris warns that it takes a long time to dry.

Most of the furniture has come, over time, from auctions and shops, since, when they tried their delicate Regency furniture in this strong setting, "the house was screaming and saying, 'No, this is wrong for me.'" Subtle touches include running vertical pipework through what appear to be cupboards.

The house is thoughtful and comfortable despite its antiquity. It is hard to imagine wanting to leave it. But as Chris says: "Who knows? Easton Neston might come up one day."

The bay is a later addition to the house in Spitalfields
The bay is a later addition to the house that adds grace

HOW TO GET THE LOOK


Joiner: best by recommendation, or visit North Kent Joinery at www.nkj.co.uk

Specialist wood graining etc: Eleanor used Ian Harper. Visit www.ianharper.com

Potmolen Traditional Paints in Warminster has a range of colours. Oil-bound distemper is £51 excluding VAT for five litres. Call 0844 474 3858.

Advice: designer Marianna Kennedy. Visit www.mariannakennedy.com

Radiators: lots of companies make trad rads so look online, or try Wickes (www.wickes.co.uk) or B&Q (www.diy.com).

Furniture: there are auctions for all pockets but do your homework on price before you make a bid. Try eBay (www.ebay.co.uk); Criterion (www.criterionauctioneers.co.uk); Christies (www.christies.com); and Sotheby's (www.sothebys.com). Also take a look at the website of the posh architectural reclamation firm Westland London (www.westlandlondon.com).

Garden: for a quite formal garden, use topiary, box hedging and traditional planters. Eleanor and Chris visited www.romantic-garden-nursery.co.uk

Photographs: Simon Maxwell

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