From Royalty To Rock Stars, This Decorator Has Had A Star Studded Career!

November 15th, 2023

I had the pleasure of chatting to Tony Malins who has been in the decorating industry for over 3 decades, supplying high end decoration to the rich and famous…which has even resulted in signing a few NDAs! I caught Tony just before heading off to Bristol to help his youngest son move into his first home and he told me just some of the incredible decorating projects he has worked on during his career. 

Restoring Blair Castle.

How do you even get to work for a princess?

Tony owes it to his wife! Tony and his wife, Daryl met at art college in Worthing, after which Tony took a gap year whilst his wife trained as a beauty therapist, where she was able to have a very successful career, working with the rich and famous. It wasn’t long before Tony landed an interview from these connections!

Gold leaf curtain rings.

Starting out:

Tony worked in palaces and castles under Campbell Smith & Co. Ltd for 8 years. Campbell Smith & Co are specialist decorators who trained Tony in high quality craftsmanship consisting of conservation, gilding and fine painting. He has worked on the V&A Museum, restorations at various historical places of significance across the UK and even painted clouds on the ceiling of The Queen’s House in Greenwich. He was even presented to H.M. The Queen as a thank you for his work. 

Going it alone:

“My second lucky break was probably after I set up on my own. I worked with a superb team of Sussex based specialist decorators called Highlight Decor. I was offered the opportunity to decorate an entrance hall in Belgravia for a polo playing friend of Prince Charles. I painted faux alabaster block work walls and pilasters with clouds on the ceilings, very French in style. The interior designer was Dudley Poplak. He was THE designer if you had the connections and the money, in many ways the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“He had the best clients, including Charles and Diana. I made the grade, that’s how I got to work for Diana and a few American ambassadors. Also, probably the best job I ever worked on, a Regency Manor House in The Cotswolds which belonged to a rising star member of parliament and a supermarket heiress. Amazing work, lots of painted faux ashlar block work, loads of gilding and all just exquisite. The Diana mural alterations were a brief unexpected bonus. She stood over me while I painted it! She approved though and was very chatty!”

Tony's Studio.

But it’s not all glitz and glamour!

Tony formed his own company almost 35 years ago, working in decorative art, scenic decorations and conservation which allowed him to work in some beautiful places…but it wasn’t all luxury. Tony’s work took him all over the globe and his clients would often provide beautiful accommodation, except an abandoned caravan! “I restored a grained staircase in a castle in Scotland as it was damaged after a water leak. The custodians were lovely and provided me with a log cabin to stay in. That was better than the rich banker who I put very expensive handmade wallpaper up for in The Cotswolds, he expected me to stay in an old, abandoned caravan with no bedding next to a manure heap! I declined and had to pay for my own B&B.”

Art displayed around Tony's house.

From a one-man band to a family affair…

Tony’s wife and three sons are all incredibly creative, so have often worked on projects with him. “My wife helped me restore a Romanesque mural in a club in St James. I had previously painted it several years earlier with two of my sons and it was subsequently damaged again by a major water leak. Tom also helped me paint tromp l’oeil books on shelves in an Oxford college when the library heating and wiring was upgraded.”

Silver leaf work.

I also decorated about eighty square meters of ceiling in the studio of a famous Victorian artist (Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema), in aluminium leaf, all on tall scaffold towers. It was originally like that in order to reflect the light while he painted huge portraits. My wife and son assisted, it was incredibly difficult as we had to crayon out a grid of square’s first, so the aluminium leaf looked perfectly aligned. My wife was terrified of the height and my son was in agony from the climbing and reaching…he thought it was simply food poisoning, but it turned out to be a burst appendix!! Poor Tom has the scar to remember.”

Silver leaf work.

That wasn’t even the scariest job!

One of the most nerve-wracking project occurred over seas in Croatia where he was asked to hang hand painted wallpaper on a TV unit which was imported from China made with silver leaf, there was no pattern match either, so it was quite stressful to cut! Luckily Tony brought his trusted paste table from Brewers with him, so it was another job well done. 

Silver leaf wallpaper.

Perhaps my greatest challenge and achievement was again for interior designer Dudley. We reinstated his decorative scheme for the State Dining Room at the American Ambassador’s residence in Regents Park. We assembled a team of family and friends and had six weeks to complete the work, most of us worked seven days a week for six whole weeks, we used twelve hundred books of gold leaf for the gilded areas. Somehow, we managed it, the staff were amazing and we had all of our meals with them, we went back and completed several other smaller projects for them.”

Great expectations:

With so many amazing projects to talk about, I started to wonder how somebody could work for so many incredible people without feeling a huge amount of pressure to which Tony responded: “I was probably out of my depth several times but likely suffered from over confidence, I always managed to complete the work successfully and I suppose I liked a challenge! I always seemed to take on the jobs nobody else knew how to solve because I was willing to just give it a go and learn from my mistakes” 

Trompe books.

I was lucky enough to work for another amazing interior designer, Tessa Kennedy. I did several art deco and fin du siecle rooms for her at Claridges. I pitched for a job restyling a suite of rooms in a late Victorian mansion for a mystery client, which I got. It was way more complicated than I had expected, I didn’t make much money for a year but I stuck it out. It turned out the owner was George Harrison. I worked for him for thirteen years and still work for his wife and son thirty-five years later. George was inspirational to work for, I experimented with metal oxide powders and varnishes and managed to paint his bathroom suite in an iridescent  mother of pearl finish which changed colour as the light changed. His house was like nowhere else I’ve ever seen, I so miss him!”

Painting Trompe books.

Working with the right products and great suppliers:

For these kinds of jobs, a regular contract matt doesn’t cut it! Tony has had an account with Brewers for over 35 years and became very well known amongst many Brewers branch managers, often popping in with some weird and wonderful requests. Tony much prefers using oil-based paints as it gives him more time to work with the paint. He would often use traditional painting techniques such as stippling, graining and dragging to achieve fine results. 

Albany Eggshell paint worked as the perfect base to mix with Scumble Glaze. I would hand mix all my own colours and it would allow me to work on really large areas. One of the things I loved was my local Brewers managers (much kudos to Keith and Andy ) would always mix undercoats to match the top coat colours.

It was important for the sort of work I did that the base coats or “grounds” were perfect. Preparation needed to be of the highest quality and Albany was always dependable, drying overnight so you could progress to the next stage the next day.

This wasn’t the case with lots of other manufacturers!”

Tony has also used Lincrusta, Morris & Co. wallpaper, Repair Care and Stormshield for his decorative and restorative work.

Painting columns and panels.

Looking to the future:

Tony is now thinking about a retirement plan. Based in St Albans, Tony’s art filled 1930s house has been home for a while but is dreaming of living by the sea and returning home near to Eastbourne. “I want to be closer to my family who are all based in Sussex. I would love to work on creating stained glass windows, carry on gilding and polished plaster or even open my own shop restoring furniture…who knows, maybe we will get there one day!”

I would like to say that Brewers have always been so helpful and supportive throughout my career, tracking down hard to find materials and finding solutions to problematic projects. A remarkable friendly company to work with!”

Tony's house in St Albans.

It was an absolute pleasure to chat to Tony about his career and I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for a new furniture shop in Eastbourne!