Two years ago we sold my family home just off leafy Kingston Hill. As it happens because of subsidence and my step father’s intransigence the house was falling down. But in its prime it was a classic upper middle class home. Built with a large half acre garden, secluded by a hillside and a mature line of rhododendrons the four bedroomed two bath roomed house was built in a semi Lutyens style.
This meant there were several arts and crafts features. Wood panelling in the large hall, semi grand stair way and common areas. Tiled fire places ,leaded windows,even the odd touch of stained glass. Despite being a large house it was by modern standards hopeless. My terrace house has as many and better bedrooms. Only two of the bed rooms were any size, the kitchen was very pokey and below stairs, the bath rooms very old fashioned. Of course when the house was built in 1920 most made do with outside privies, this house had two bathrooms and three WCs. Luxury indeed.
Nevertheless the overall feel for the house was dark-the effect of the wood panelling and the hill the house backed onto. So two years ago a good friend of ours has bought the house to develop. It was pulled down and a new house put in its place. So while my parents house represented a kind of folksy snug kind of “Harris Tweed” wealth, what has been built in its place is rather different.
Last week I went to see the new house now in the fitting out phase. The new house is nearly double the size. First there are six huge bedrooms each with a large state of the art bathroom ensuite. In the huge living areas where there was wood there will now be marble. Whereas the previous house nestled discreetly in the trees and bushes the new behemoth towers majestically over the road. Glowering in fact at a very similar house which has in the last ten years been built over the road.
As with all the grand modern houses on this now gated private road it starts with the Doric columns and the wow porch. Everywhere it is high ceilings, space and light. There are spaces for several cars. There is a stately drive. This could easily be the Kazakhstan Embassy, it may well become the ambassador’s suburban residence. Here we are not hiding wealth or showing any discretion but showing it off,
And that surely is the message of these two houses. The modern era has seen wealth not only increase exponentially with new technology and the rest but Thatcherism in various forms has decreed that wealth is no bad thing, if fact it shows how much someone has contributed. It may well be that the influence of less democratic cultures has also made the wealthier less sensitive.
When I first started going out with Vivien my mother(Socialist all her life) did at one point mention that her parents were trade. That is successful businessmen. My mother, a civil servant, although she owed a lot of her wealth to a successful grandfather who was in music publishing, felt those who went into jobs which did not require degrees were somehow inferior. Bless.
So the big over the top house goes with the similar cars,yacht, holiday homes and watch. The idea that the upper class hide their wealth so as not to excite envy has gone. But the politics of envy have entered the election-wealth tax, get the non doms, mansion tax and the rest. Politicians know these measures are counter productive but what irresistible,populist buttons they are.
As a footnote to the London property market the house on the site which my parents bought in 1968 for £28k will go later in the year for £7m. That is a multiplier of 250!