Small, unmodernised former home of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh for sale for the extraordinary figure of £7.5 million
Built in 1850, Durham Cottage in Christchurch Street, Chelsea is a house “hidden behind a high dusty brick wall” that was the love nest of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh between 1937 and 1956. Now, in totally unmodernised condition, the house is for sale after failing to sell at auction (despite a bid of £6,980,000).
The webpage of selling agents Russell Simpson gives little away about Durham House’s past and simply describes it as “magical”. Totalling just 2,042 square foot in size and featuring 4 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, reception room and garage, Olivier and Leigh came to live there after splitting from their respective partners whilst working together on Fire over England.
For the next two decades, this former coachman’s cottage was the London home of the couple and run by their small staff of a cook-housekeeper, Lady Olivier’s personal maid and a daily cleaner.
Of living there, Lady Olivier told The Sydney Morning Herald in 1954:
“It is in London and we’ve furnished it for our life here… It has a lot of drawbacks. Nobody visiting it would ever dream it could be inconvenient or that those ‘fascinating’ stairs winding around, with the landing forming a balcony in the drawing-room, could be a nuisance”.
“Several years ago we built on the dining-room. Before that we used to eat in the entrance hall – you can imagine the drawbacks to that”.
Furnishing the property was very much Lady Olivier’s department. In the same interview, she commented:
“I prefer muted shades in decorating – so much more restful to live with”.
“I have chosen no particular period in furnishing, although in the dining and drawing room it is nearly all Regency?”
“Do I consult Sir Laurence on furnishing? Well not exactly; I always tell him what I intend doing so that he has the opportunity of disagreeing – he never does”.
The cottage, the newspaper also reported, was peppered with painting by Degas, Corot, Hillier and Le Fauvre but the couple had no photographs in the house. “We can’t stand photographs of ourselves displayed in our home. We keep most of ours in albums” concluded Lady Olivier.
To Lady Olivier, Durham Cottage might “only [have been} a cottage” but with an asking price of £7,500,000, it’s now far from cheap one.
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I love this cottage. I’ve jogged past it countless times and try to take a peak through the gate if left ajar every time. It’s in a massive need of repair and TLC. If I were looking to buy, I’d jump at the chance to bring it back to life. It oozes charm & history.
The Olivers weren’t the first theatrical residents at Durham Cottage. In the 1920s and into the 30s Peter Upcher lived there with his partner Francis Garforth. Peter (1892-1963) was well known at the time as a silent film star, and spent his whole life on the stage. I’ve been writing a sort of biography of Peter Upcher and in searching for more information about his Chelsea cottage I was surprised and pleased to find that after he’d moved out to Notting Hill his old home had been occupied by such illustrious successors.
I would add that whilst he owned Durham Cottage Peter Upcher also let it for a short period (in 1923), to Countess Warwick, whom he appears to have known well. The Countess was ‘Daisy’ Warwick, who in the 1890s had been mistress of the Prince of Wales (Edward VII).
Other occupants of Durham Cottage were John Banter and his new wife in 1930. Banter was a theatrical manager and (in the 1930s) film maker in a partnership with John Baxter. Banter married Diana Beaumont, the young actress who afterwards starred in many of his films. They were at the cottage when it was still owned by Peter Upcher. Peter was a keen gardener and took a lot of care with his little Chelsea garden. He also famously owned an Irish mare called “Midget” which had starred with him in one of his films and also appeared on stage with him in a 1921 show.