As Head of Product at Rose Uniacke, Guy Tobin’s home in Battersea, London reflects his passion for collecting antiques and a superior knowledge of interior design …
Realising early on that neither the army nor the unstable life of a practising sculptor were quite right, Guy Tobin joined an auction house at the lowest rung. Coming into contact with and handling objects in multiple sales week-in-week-out led him to a love and understanding of antique furniture. From there it was a short hop to the magnificent galleries of dealer Christopher Hodsoll where he further developed his connoisseurship over a period of ten years. When Hodsoll closed, Tobin went into partnership with another dealer with fathomless knowledge, Patrick Jefferson. Then, given the opportunity to join Rose Uniacke, Tobin leapt to his current role as Head of Product. His eye and business sense have continued evolving while working alongside an interior designer with a deep sense of how a home should work and flow.
Attracted by the potential of what he could do with it, Tobin snapped up his turn-of-the-last-century (1900) terrace house in London’s Battersea. The appeal was the possibility to add a top storey, and he and his wife Celia could expand the property out at the back. Even better, the location was just right for the family. Tobin was brought up in south London and this has always been his stomping ground.
Initially the brick house needed lots of work before Tobin and his family could move in. Contemporary architects Hamish & Lyons were commissioned to reimagine the house as a more spacious incarnation. While the architectural practice is well known for its contemporary projects, Tobin’s influence softened the hard lines of their modernity to create a pleasing balance. The collaboration resulted in a home where every inch is utilised and, despite the fact that the house is not at all large, it feels spacious and light.
On the ground floor of this three-storey house the transformation involved removing some walls to create a more open-plan layout, but the current placement of furniture creates defined zones. With this arrangement Tobin has created a sense of elegance and formality. Bespoke sofas upholstered in rich yellow and green Lelièvre velvets were created in just the right scale to fit the space. The walls are painted in Farrow & Ball’s “Shaded White”, a colour chosen to lighten the room which had been initially been a “too-dark” green – a mistake that Tobin acknowledges. Lots of table lights create flattering, indirect lighting at night. The blue glass 1960s Italian mirror in the manner of Fontana Arte injects a touch of freshness. The antique turtle carapace, a by-product after the turtle was eaten by 19th-century mariners, has been polished to create a lustrous white surface.
The fireplace insert and the coffee table are in a rare vein of marble called Lumachella Antica, popular during the Renaissance. In the back living room, a Victorian desk – bought for a song at a local south London auction – turns out to be Gothic Revival probably by Charles Bevan, circa 1860s. Next to it the brass mechanical stool is raised by Tobin’s budding pianist daughter to play the keyboard and lowered by him to work at the desk.
Tobin’s kitchen incorporates stainless steel units and the design is in fact a functional statement of intent – “I love cooking and I love restaurant kitchens,” he says. The choice of material subconsciously expresses that in this restaurant-style kitchen you will enjoy professional-style food. The polished slate counter top got stained immediately. “I like the patina – it’s the way things go,” he chuckles; the use of monochrome abstract tiles from Fired Earth were inspired by a kitchen spotted in southern California.
In creating the kitchen space, “we went back and sideways to expand the room’s size as much as we could while retaining the small garden. The generous Arts and Crafts movement oak refectory table is surrounded by mid-19th-century chairs with seats that I reupholstered in red leather. The antique table gets everyday use, has food and glitter spilled all over it and is the perfect height for making bread. It’s a real workhorse piece of Cotswold craftsmanship.”
By the doors to the garden a favourite chair and stool are also Arts and Crafts. The black cabinet glimpsed on the right wall was purchased at The Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair and is Vienna Secession style. Among all the antiques and art, Tobin likes that his house, “is a home: scruffy, comfortable, filled with bits and pieces that allow the eye to bounce about. It’s endlessly changing, hopefully keeping my three young daughters on their toes and ever enquiring. Though they don’t yet ask too many questions; they are not yet old enough (9, 7 and 2) to be taken by something. But they’re surrounded by beautiful objects.”
For Celia the constant changing is probably her greatest source of fury. “She is very involved in the interior,” says Tobin. Having worked for a well-known dealer her eye is as attuned as mine, particularly in fine art. Celia’s tends to focus on the art ensuring it’s hung to its best effect. She has recently launched Pinxton & Co, a company that manufactures hooks.”
The children’s bedrooms are on the first floor. The toddler sleeps in a mini art gallery featuring a collection of works. “The big moth is by the wonderful Sarah Graham, a family friend and botanical artist who does everything on an enormous scale. The Regency Gillows mahogany chest of drawers works very well with our wall-mounted English Regency cabinet with its original wobbly glass which I’ve had for a long time. The oxen are from Sri Lanka – probably the second thing Celia and I bought together. They are Nandi bulls.”
The girls’ room is next door. “I have a firm rule with children, which is that I treat them as future adults from day one and so did not want a fluffy room for them. On the wall, the largescale polar bear screen print is by Swedish artist Einar Hansen, dated 1932, which was bought on the birth of my eldest daughter. Instead of plush teddy bears, we have gone for gutsy animal elements. The painted fish shade on the bedside table lamp is by Romily Hay and is one of the special things she has done for us throughout the house.”
In the context of artworks and antiques there is a nod to childhood in the duvet made from a re-edition of a 1930s fabric from Hollyhock Home. The entire house has been put together with a collector’s confidence. “I never learned any decorating rules, so I fear I have no doubt broken them,” says Tobin. “My space came together as a cohesive accident. I’ve never been taught to do things properly and perhaps I just learned a lot by osmosis from the people around me. I was lucky that I lived for five years with my grandparents in a late Regency Gothic house in Shropshire while my parents were in South America. Their house was decorated by the eminent interior decorator David Mlinaric, known for his great flair for antiques and knowledge of historic interiors.”
“A personal rule which I don’t think is taught at design school is the ‘sightline’”; adds Tobin. “I love a caught glimpse or accidental view, through a door, down an enfilade, reflected in a mirror, the flash of greenery or sky.”
The serene bedroom, from which Tobin catches these glimpses, includes personal touches like the white lacquered table. It’s an unusual piece, cream rather than the typical black, and also has sentimental attachment. It came from his grandparents’ house, was left to his mother who absolutely loved it and then found a place in Tobin’s home.
Not unlike his objects and furniture, Tobin has had an interesting trajectory. “I started out being encouraged in the direction of the art schools as a fairly unruly 14-year-old,” he says. “I think the choice was probably made for me with the help of an oxyacetylene blow torch and a brilliant sculpture teacher who introduced me to the work of Reg Butler, Twombly, Giacometti and Noguchi. Once I discovered the art trade via summer internships, I left the idea of physical making behind, in the hope of handling works by the masters. During the holidays I worked for a silver dealer at Portobello Road market.
“An introduction to the great art critic, David Sylvester, during my last year at school, and his rich yet sparse collection – one that crossed many disciplines – finally led me to the realisation that I wanted to be formed in the dealer–decorator mould. That of Geoffrey Bennison, Madeleine Castaing, Christopher Hodsoll or Rose Uniacke (the final two I have been lucky enough to work for). When it comes to finding inspiration for my interiors and researching my purchases I have a pretty extensive library and use it daily.”
Tobin’s collection of books grows weekly and covers all periods, nations, styles and subjects. He says, “Perhaps the greatest source of creativity and stimulation for me is the result of falling down the research rabbit hole. I might be on a very specific hunt for the maker of a Wiener Werkstätte silver chess set and an hour later, surrounded by an encampment of books, I’ll find myself looking at a medieval lancet window detail.”
His style is “driven by boundless curiosity and the stories behind the objects and their maker. It is acquisitive, fluid, ever-evolving and enquiring. The things I’ve bought recently range in period and design, including an 18th-century Sicilian side table, a 19th-century bust of Psyche and modern pot by Shiro Tsujimura. My preferences are less driven by a direction and more by the quality of the item. If I can attribute that thing to a maker or to an important school that makes things more exciting. I sometimes don’t want to sell because each object I discover, buy and research becomes a part of me.” Craftsmanship and history are the primary drivers behind Tobin’s curiosity. Coming from an antique dealing background he is obsessive about the origin of everything, hence his library.
Looking to the future and where collecting is going, for Tobin, “it’s more of a case of cycles of taste, either small tight circles over a few years or vast wheels over decades. Each (r)evolution just gathers a bit more tech, a few more ‘names’ and some arenas for dealers to introduce a new area for collecting.” And how would the rest of us get started? “Anyone with enough gumption to ask that question would need little help or advice. Those interested in such things as taste and personality, need to be curious, put their head down, listen, learn and deliberate with themselves and others, exhibit a degree of restraint and patience before just leaping in and having a go.”
Adapted from: Bold British Design by Emilio Pimentel-Reid & Sarah Hogan (Quadrille, €35) Photography Sarah Hogan.
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