The Georgian terrace house in Whitechapel lovingly restored by Pedro da Costa Felgueiras has a colour palette like no other. “This is true luxury, having completely unique colours,” he says, pointing at the pretty yellow-ochre cupboards in the kitchen, while a fire crackles in the grate.
The traditional paint specialist, 46, has hand-painted every wall and panelled surface in the entire house with paint he makes using only natural pigments and linseed oil. The subtle hues, from creamy lead white to chocolate brown, dove grey and the palest of purples, shift and change in daylight or candlelight.
Da Costa Felgueiras grew up in Lisbon, Portugal. After studying interior design, he decided he wanted to see the world. He moved to London in 1990. He didn’t speak English or know anyone but, like most 21-year-olds, he soon made friends, and found a flat-share in the East End.
“It was cheap then — nobody wanted to live round here, except artists,” he says. “So I kept meeting like-minded people.”
He worked as a lacquerer and gilder, and developed his paint-mixing skills. For two years from 2009, he worked for artists Gilbert & George, mixing colours for their home. He has since advised on colour at Strawberry Hill — the 18th-century home of Horace Walpole — at Kew Palace, and at Hampton Court.
Back in 2006, working among the grand houses of historic Spitalfields, he realised it was time to find a home of his own. The Spitalfields Trust had just got hold of 10 derelict little houses in Whitechapel dating back to 1812, and was looking for first-time buyers to restore them.
Da Costa Felgueiras was put on the list, then panicked and pulled out. Then, he says: “There was one house left, and the Trust grabbed me by the collar and said ‘you’re buying it’.
“Inside, it was beyond terrible, with rubbish up to your knees. It was really damp. Nurses had once lived in it, but then it was squatted, then derelict. Someone had tried to burn it down, but it was too damp to catch fire. Instead of a garden, there was Tarmac. There were only two original doors and a few floorboards — the rest was gone.”
We were in it together
He admits the project was daunting, but he was with a group of neighbours doing the same thing, sharing builders, bricklayers and carpenters. He had always done up the places he had lived in, and from the moment he bought the house, in April 2007, he knew what to do.
“Don’t make an old house grander than it really was. And don’t be afraid of new things, either. I’m not a fuddy-duddy. I have underfloor heating, a steel Smeg cooker and mid-century modern lighting. In fact, Fifties furniture suits Georgian houses really well.”
Gutting and rebuilding the three-bedroom, four-storey house involved digging out the low basement to a normal height. This meant underpinning the entire building, as these houses had no foundations.
At the top, the tiny, low attic was replaced with a new floor and new stairs, to give a master bedroom and gorgeous en suite bathroom divided by a half-glazed wall. Throughout the house, Da Costa Felgueiras worked with a carpenter to replace missing panelling, lay reclaimed floorboards, and turn alcoves into cupboards.
A full-height extension was built at the back, covered with timber lapping and painted with Da Costa Felgueiras paint. The Tarmac was dug up and replaced by a walled garden with espaliered apple and pear trees, set off by a riot of scented tobacco plants and crimson dahlias.
At the end of the garden, he built a workroom with a little bathroom. With its handmade roof tiles and tall windows glazed with horticultural glass, it looks original. “I just used all the leftovers, which is a very 18th-century thing to do,” he explains.
Eventually the house was finished, and its proud owner set about the laborious task of painting every inch of wood. When at last he moved in, in time for Christmas 2009, he celebrated in a way the first owners would have understood — decorating with greenery, branches and ribbon-tied mistletoe; heaping dishes with quinces and other seasonal fruits; perfuming the fires with pine needles; lighting candles, and cooking a big, glistening copper pot of winter soup for family and friends to share.
This magical home didn’t come without tears, however. “Restoring a house is one of the most stressful things you will ever do,” Da Costa Felgueiras explains. “Don’t expect to do building work and not shed some tears. It’s emotional, but you need that emotion and passion to do it properly.
“But now I’ve got the bug, I would do it again.”
Pedro Da Costa Felgueiras’s tips for Christmas decorating in London
- Don’t bother about convention, just make it beautiful
- Fresh sprays of crab apples from New Covent Garden Market, or other slender branches and twigs — even from your garden — look gorgeous in a big vase or jug
- Candles in candlesticks add elegance and the most beautiful light
- Tie bunches of mistletoe or holly with thin ribbon, or put them loosely in a vase with water
- Heap dishes or plates with quinces, oranges, Cox’s apples, even lemons. They are more colourful, and smell better, than nuts
- Entertain with a hearty seasonal vegetable soup or stew, and make mulled wine or punch. The fruits and vegetables look gorgeous and make the house smell wonderful
What it cost
Derelict house in 2007: £300,000
Cost of works: £150,000 – £180,000
Value now: £1.5 million
Get the look
- Da Costa Felgueiras bespoke paints through Lacquer Studios
- Four-poster bed designed by Da Costa Felgueiras, from The New Craftsmen
- Handmade Portuguese ceramics from Saudade
- Reclaimed floorboards from Vinda Saax (07986 292867)
- Joinery by North Kent Joinery
- Lead for splash-backs by Smerald Roofing Supplies (020 8986 5818)
- Timber by James Latham
- Antique oak furniture from Robert Hirschhorn
- Grates and rim-locks from eBay
- Light switches by Nu-Line
- Espaliered fruit trees from Chris Pike (07760 308077)
- Crab apple sprays from New Covent Garden Market