Inside the Derby town house where Christmas is always celebrated in style
PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 December 2016
Derbyshire Life visits Ian Griffiths’ beautiful Edwardian terrace house in Derby
CHRISTMAS at Ian Griffiths’ modest Edwardian terrace house in Derby begins with the delivery and placement of a 10-foot tree into a nook by the chimney breast that might have been made for it. Indeed, he would never buy a house that couldn’t contain such a tree, reflects Mr Griffiths, who has been decorating this house with a different festive look every year since 1990.
Words like ‘decorating’ and ‘trimming’ seem too everyday for the invention and the splendour of what he achieves in these small, high-ceilinged rooms. Photographers seek out his glowing Christmas displays: he remembers once standing at a supermarket checkout and recognising his mantelpiece on the front cover of the store’s house magazine, a surprise moment that made him smile. His vision for the house matches his vision for the garden, an Arcadia in miniature featured this summer in Derbyshire Life.
No-one in his family would dream of throwing anything away that related to Christmas without first offering it to him: ‘We’ve found Dad’s decorations – would you like them?’ The 500 baubles that grace the tree pictured here as part of a vintage look include many bought in the Victorian era and thereafter, along with purchases at car boot sales, specialist shops and flea markets. Some are expensive, others picked up just for pennies. Ian’s aim with each look is to be ‘as traditional as possible without being gimmicky or kitsch.’
The tree comes annually from the Derbyshire firm of Urban Planters, selected to be slim and full, a tall and elegant shape without too much girth. Ian remembers a Christmas in the very early days when he couldn’t find such a large tree anywhere and with time running out, called Homebase in Nottingham on the recommendation of a friend. He rang at 7pm to find they were closing at 8pm, and hared down the A52 in his Renault 5, ‘bombing back with the boot open and the tree sticking out… how I wasn’t arrested or it fall out and cause a traffic accident, I will never know.’
Derby town house at Christmas
The star that appears on the top in the photograph is actually suspended from the ceiling: a piece of glittery hardboard dating from the 1930s and possibly coming from a theatre. It is three days’ work at least to place and hang the richly coloured baubles and 2,000 little pin lights, and then he can turn his attention to the mantelpiece, an underlay of natural foliage in the form of spruce, ivy, mistletoe and eucalyptus, interspersed with frosted berries and fruits in colours matching the jewel colours of the tree.
And then there are the candles, in sconces as well as on the mantelpiece and elsewhere, in a house fragrant with winter scent. ‘One of my favourite things when the house is completely finished and dressed is to turn all the lights off and simply have the candles and the tree and the fire. It’s lovely to sit in that atmosphere and listen to some Christmas music or maybe put on a really old Hollywood Christmas film,’ he says in contentment. Christmas has always been celebrated in style in his family: he and his sister were given free rein as children to decorate the house and ‘as we got older, it got better.’
Toys are part of the vintage look on this occasion, notably the scarlet-jacketed toy soldiers bought for him as a child. There was the Christmas Ian did a huge pageant tree of British history, commissioning small figures of kings, queens and national figures going down through the ages, along with characters from Alice in Wonderland and other sources. The theme continued on the mantelpiece, where figures in a pantomime situation were positioned in the proscenium arch of an old Pollock toy theatre, with tiny lights for footlights and some miniature gold and silver musical instruments that had caught Ian’s eye in a shop in New York.
Wherever he is, be it London or New York, he is always on the lookout. Everything relating to Christmas is stored, sectioned and labelled in boxes in the attic: an archive to be delved into annually for each new or combined look and the results recorded in photo albums for memories and for future inspiration. Ian smiles when he looks back at some of his more ambitious creations, notably the Christmas of green and gold, inspired by the hanging of some new silk curtains.
‘I thought a tree just in gold would look fantastic,’ he remembers. ‘I have a great cast-iron urn in the garden, which I painted in different shades of gold. It took four men to carry it indoors and we put the tree in it by the window – it looked pretty spectacular but we weren’t able to open the curtains for the whole of Christmas. I think that’s probably the maddest thing I’ve done.’
He has used techniques inspired by the Christmas creativity of the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, wiring little oranges on to bay trees so that they look for all the world as if they are growing there. Inspiration has also come in the past from Kipp Dodds, florist to Princess Diana, who created a mantelpiece for him one year, a stunning display centred on dried fruit, cinnamon and candles. Fruit and rich, jewel colours are often the theme of the dining room, where table and mantelpiece are overseen by family portraits on the wall.
The clear-eyed, 20-year-old man in the scarlet jacket of the militia has a particularly interesting history: he fought in the Napoleonic Wars and during the reform riots of 1832 was cornered in St Peter’s churchyard, Derby. Family history is important to the Griffiths family and Ian reflects, ‘I think Christmas is a time when you’re not just in the present but when the past comes back strongly. It’s almost as if the people who are missing are back with you. Christmases past are what has made me love it so much because my parents always ensured we had a happy one with family and friends. I think I’m always trying to recreate that.’
He has recreated it for his nephews, now in their late teens, on many occasions: a giant gingerbread house was the centrepiece in one memorable year. His knowledge and techniques extend with every creation: gardener that he is, he has learned to cut and bind with Sellotape the woody ends of the armfuls of amaryllis he buys from a florist on Sadler Gate, to keep them from rotting, and to weave artificial flowers in with the fresh if they do start to fade. He’ll never use miniature apricots again on the Christmas wreath – they were hugely enjoyed by the birds – but the tiny pineapples were fine. And he always needs a large consignment of oranges for the decorations, ‘because people keep eating them.’
A lawyer for 30 years, he sold his Derby practice, Moody and Woolley, in 2015 and now acts as a consultant. The law is a dour profession, he observes, and the house and garden into which he puts so much energy are an antidote to that. ‘The law can be very rigid and about rules and formality, austere of personality. Lawyers tend to do their own thing to counteract that and mine was getting away from it in this way.
‘I think I would have liked to have been an interior designer but I don’t know whether I could have withstood the pressure from other people,’ he concludes. ‘To do it for myself would have been nice. I’d love to have a bigger house and more free rein. But if I look at houses, my first thought is, “Where is the Christmas tree going to go?”’