Freestanding baths are an acquired taste. On seeking the view of a friend, I was told: ‘They are pretentious, uncomfortable and unnecessarily expensive’.
Then there was a pause. ‘You haven’t got one, have you?’
Well, no, but I have done in the past and wouldn’t mind one again in the future, although, admittedly, they have become so ubiquitous that they have lost much of their allure.
None of which has stopped the Duke and Duchess of Sussex from splashing out on a top-of-the-range William Holland freestanding copper tub, which apparently took 120 man hours to make and will have cost the royal couple — or rather, the public purse — around £5,000.
Taking the plunge: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have purchased a William Holland Copper bath
William Holland is a supplier to the Soho House chain, the members’ club with outposts all over the world. Prince Harry and Meghan reportedly first met at the original Soho House in Central London and their newly converted marital home, Frogmore Cottage, features many of the club’s signature designs.
I just hope that the couple tested out their chosen bath before ordering it because, from my experience, they often look sleek and modern, but can turn out to be impractical and uncomfortable.
A friend has a cheaper version than the William Holland one, but says its sides are so high and upright that lounging back and cogitating in the bubble-bath water is virtually impossible.
‘I always feel hemmed in and the sides are so vertical that you can’t rest your arms on them — so I mainly opt for a shower instead,’ he says.
Freestanding bathtubs hark back to Edwardian times, when enamelled claw-footed baths suddenly became popular and were regarded as a contemporary departure from Victorian times when few people had a bathroom of any kind.
Their revival in the past decade can be attributed in part to so-called ‘boutique hotels’, for whom a freestanding bath — often placed at the end of the bed, rather than in the bathroom — has become a symbol of trendiness, a nod in the direction of bohemian decadence.
‘Freestanding baths have had a lot of exposure and are still popular, but they work best in the middle of a big room, rather than up against a wall — and not many people have such a space,’ says leading interior decorator John McCall, of John McCall Design.
Presumably, the space won’t be an issue at Frogmore Cottage — though all the room in the world won’t convince designer Nicky Haslam of the merits of freestanding baths. ‘I hate them,’ he says. ‘If a client of mine wanted one, I would do everything to persuade them against it.
‘People have a romantic idea about putting them by the window and then looking out across verdant countryside when all they get to see is sky.’
Freestanding baths come in a range of sizes and designs. Traditionally, they are made from cast iron and are therefore heavy, at around 200kg.
Comfy: Mark tries the cast-iron Bute bathtub at Drummonds
Thermoformed acrylic ones are far lighter, but, according to Haslam, ‘look and feel like plastic’. The upmarket bathroom store Drummonds — which grew from being an architectural salvage enterprise — specialises in freestanding baths. At its flagship shop in London’s King’s Road, it’s not unusual to find well-heeled women, well, removing their heels and testing the baths for comfort and ease of access.
‘Our double-ended roll-top bath is probably the most popular, but, from a design perspective, I love the bateau bath,’ says Drummond’s project consultant Mehran Sharmini. A bateau bath has a dip in the middle, like the one Harry and Meghan have chosen.
Then there’s the single-ended roll-top baths and the slipper bath, which has a higher back at one end and tends to be shorter in length.
Roll-top baths with ‘skirts’ that go all the way down to the floor are particularly fashionable at the moment — their sides painted in a range of colours.
When it comes to practicability, it is essential to have either a bath rack or a freestanding piece of furniture on which to place soap, shampoo and other bathing paraphernalia. Balancing a bar of soap on the side of a roll-top bath is practically impossible.
The copper baths at Drummonds, similar to Meghan and Harry’s, range from about £5,000 to £10,000 (drummonds-uk.com). So can Mr Sharmini offer any advice to anyone thinking of spending this sort of money?
‘Freestanding baths are durable, easy to look after and extremely elegant,’ he says. ‘They should be treated like a beautiful piece of furniture.
‘But it’s worth remembering copper heats quickly and then loses its heat, whereas cast iron takes longer to warm up but then stays hot for longer.’