Albany, the venerable Piccadilly apartment building called “Paradise” by its historian in 1925, has been the Hicks-family home in London for 40 years. My father, the designer David Hicks, had wanted to live here ever since visiting Tony Armstrong-Jones in his rooms over the porters’ lodge in the 50s. In 1960, he helped Peter Coats (“Chips” Channon’s friend, nicknamed “Petticoats”) with the decoration of his rooms here, and, in 1979, Peter engineered our own entry into Paradise.
Climb the steps of the handsome house built in the 1770s in a courtyard set back from the roar of Piccadilly, and one enters another world. Walk through the entryway, under the marble gaze of Lord Byron (who lived here briefly before his ill-fated marriage in 1815) and out into the garden, where the covered, open Rope Walk stretches to the top of Savile Row. Take Staircase I up to the first floor to find the Hickses’ “set of chambers,” as the apartments were referred to when they were first built in 1803; these days, they are simply called ‘sets.’”
The Gilded Age
My father was in a mood of somber magnificence when he arrived. He brought with him splendid gilded furniture from Brook House, my mother’s childhood home on Park Lane in London. He painted the walls a warm Etruscan red and carpeted the rooms with a big, geometric pattern. The sets, designed with bachelors in mind by the great Whig architect Henry Holland, have two big rooms for sitting and sleeping, along with a small entrance hall and a dressing room.
My father’s bedroom, its double doors opening onto the sitting room, was dominated by an immensely grand, central bed curtained in scarlet silk damask, described by him as “a bed to receive one’s doctor from, a bed to die in.” Each set has a small cellar below and a box room up in the attic to house a servant, lover—or son, in my case. I lived up there throughout the 80s while a student at the Architectural Association nearby before going to live in Chelsea with my lovely first wife, Allegra.
In 1995, my father redecorated in a more austere, stripped-down style of Vandyke-brown walls and white-plaster picture frames. He took out the tiny kitchen that had been built in the entrance hall, making my mother gasp, “You are a genius, David! You’ve made the hall look twice as big!” When she realized the kitchen had gone, he explained, “We don’t need one. We are surrounded by restaurants, and, anyway, kitchens are so common.” He died three years later, and she continued to stay at Albany on her visits to London for the next 15 years, until the stairs became too difficult. Then she gave it to me, a single man again.
He took out the tiny kitchen that had been built in the entrance hall, making my mother gasp, “You are a genius, David! You’ve made the hall look twice as big!”
The gilded furniture all went, leaving me an empty space to play with and furnish with my own hands. I wanted something nostalgic but puzzling, with contemporary furniture against musty tapestry walls. I achieved this by gluing on burlap sacking, onto which I painted a chiaroscuro trompe l’oeil scheme: statues of the Greek muses in an ivy-covered bower high on Galata Hill in Istanbul, with a view of the sparkling Golden Horn below and Topkapi in the distance.
I carved and gilded my own furniture, lined the tiny hallway with cork framed with gilded fillets, and, for good measure, gave it a gilded tent ceiling. It was tiny, because I had put the kitchen back—among other outrages to my father’s memory. I even opened up the windows in the kitchen and bathroom that he had blocked, allowing daylight and air in occasionally. The bathroom I made into my “Bathmuseum,” lining the walls with glass reverse-printed as a faux collector’s cabinet, using my own pictures of favorite treasures from museums around the world.
After 40 years, sadly, the time has now come for the Hickses to quit Piccadilly. Following an unfortunate misunderstanding with a young Texan (who apparently thought I’d interpreted her words “I never want to have children” as meaning “Two will do”), I find myself selling the place. After a year and a bit of living the separated life in my self-gilded cage, I’m preparing myself for expulsion from Paradise. It’s been nice, Albany, but Oxfordshire is calling me home.
Ashley Hicks is an interior designer who is (now) based in Oxfordshire