Karen puts old Townshend mansion up for sale

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Sun Aug 24 07:11:23 CDT 2008

>From The Times:

Pete Townshend's old London home is for sale
The Who guitarist’s ex-wife shows our writer around the surprisingly restrained home they shared

Well, if some people think Bob Dylan is as great a poet as Keats, I suppose it’s only fitting that Pete Townshend lived in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s London house. The Victorian poet laureate resided there from 1851 to 1853; the Who guitarist and his former wife, Karen, bought it in 1985 for £730,000.

An early Georgian townhouse, built in about 1721 in Twickenham, with three floors of spacious rooms, all with original pine panelling, Tennyson House was ideal for Townshend. A prolific writer, who has knocked out numerous columns, scripts, essays and articles, as well as more than 100 songs for the Who, he was attracted to the property mainly because of the small studio house at the end of the 150ft-long walled garden. So Townshend would write in the studio, while Karen and their children scattered through the 5,000 sq ft of space in the main house. “It was a perfect family home,” says Karen.

“Pete could work all day long in the studio while we got on with family life. And, of course, it was a great party house. In winter, we would light the whole place up with candles. It was fantastic.”

Walking through the light, airy rooms with their parquet floors and elegant panelled walls, it’s easy to see how Tennyson might have felt at home here. But for the wild rock star, as famous for smashing up guitars on stage as for hits such as Substitute and My Generation, surely something a bit more bling might have been more appropriate? “When we lived here, Pete was an editor at Faber & Faber,” says Karen, demolishing the cliché that all rock stars must have guitar-shaped swimming pools and fur-lined bedrooms. “We were just as likely to have Ted Hughes or William Golding round for supper as stage any wild events. And, do you know, I prefer the company of poets. They are more interesting than rock stars.” Indeed, as a result of his friendship with Hughes, Townshend wrote a musical interpretation of the writer’s children’s story The Iron Man.

Karen, who split from Townshend in 1994, is a woman of the less-is-more camp when it comes to interiors. After buying the house, she opened it up, unblocking windows and knocking down unpromising cloakrooms to make elegant corridors. As a result, the entire property is washed with daylight from the huge Georgian windows, each of which still has its original shutters. 

The spectacular main staircase (there are two) is a riot of carved wood and
refined curves, but the exuberance in the building is all 18th century. Any
modern additions made by Karen have been in the most understated style
possible. The two bathrooms are fitted out with Philippe Starck at his most
minimal, while the main kitchen (there is a smaller side kitchen) is simply
a giant marble-topped promontory in the middle of a living room, secreting a
dishwasher, oven, hob, sink and storage. Even the taps are hidden from view.

There are a few carefully chosen pieces of contemporary furniture and a lot of
British art on the walls, including pieces by Patrick Heron and Howard
Hodgkin, whose modernity combines well with the period interior.

The house was almost completely destroyed three years ago, when the roof
caught fire. “I had just finished modernising,” says Karen, “after spending
two years putting in the bathrooms and kitchen. A week after we had
finished, someone in the park opposite saw smoke pouring out of the roof,
and thankfully called the fire brigade fast.”

In the end, all that was burnt inside was an inch of panelling on the top
floor, but the water damage meant Karen had to move out for three years
while the entire house was refurbished.

Each and every one of the original Georgian panels had to be taken down and
restored; each and every wattle-and-daub ceiling had to be replaced in the
same style.

The house is now on sale for about £5.5m. Why leave? “It’s too big for me on
my own,” she says. The couple’s youngest, Joseph, 18, has just left school,
and their two daughters, Aminta and Emma, are in their thirties and live
independently. “It needs to be looked after and loved. And I’m keen to get
on with my own building project in Cornwall.”

So what have been the most memorable moments of more than two decades in the
house, many of them with one of rock’s most notorious and influential
players? Helicopters landing on the lawn? Defenestration of Fender
Strato-casters onto the quiet Twickenham street below? Er, no.

“My cherished memories are having family events here,” says Karen. “Joseph’s
birthday parties, when he was a little boy. The girls’ 21st-birthday
lunches. Great big family days when my four brothers and sisters would all
be here with us.”

What about Pete? Is he wistful about the house going on the market? She
smiles. “He just lets me get on with what I want to do with it,” she says.

Pereds; 020 7221 1404, www.pereds.com
 -Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!


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