By Karen Darlow
Buying a period home that had already been sympathetically restored, gave Gloria Stewart – who's a dealer in French brocante – chance to focus on other considerations, like making the most of the space available. It's something that becomes especially important at Christmas, as she soon discovered.
Gloria knows more than most about moving house. She moved from England to France, made multiple moves over there, and then returned to England. In 2018 she traded country living in Kent for a house in the nearby town.
Making an appointment to view an early 18th-century house for sale on the town’s tree-lined high street was an obvious move for someone as well informed on period buildings and interiors as Gloria. But she was in for a surprise. ‘It’s the first time I’ve viewed an old house not just correctly restored but aesthetically as well. Usually I’m taking on a house that needs an overhaul, so deciding right away to buy this house was a bit of a shock!’ she says. It may be small, but its Grade II listing and painstaking renovation makes it one of the worlds best homes.
Little is known of the history of the Grade-II listed house except it had at some point been a shop. Its restoration had taken the previous owners three years, with the landscaped garden, using reclaimed bricks for its walls, the finishing touch. A completely new hot-water system had been installed and Gloria was delighted to inherit new underfloor heating. Underfloor heating can make such a difference in a period house as radiators often dictate furniture layout, especially in smaller rooms.
Another huge undertaking had been to dig out and tank a basement to create a laundry room. It was a relief not to have to repair the roof or have the house rewired as both had also been part of the recent renovation. The front door opens into a small hall with stairs opposite. It marks the link between the old house and the kitchen, added at a later date. Removing doors into the adjoining rooms gives an initial impression of spaciousness.
There are many inspiring living room ideas in this historic home, including major remedial work to replace the damaged floor with French oak, this was continued into the dining room. There was no storage, however, so Gloria had to build in bookcases. And the fireplace was just a hole in the room’s one brick wall. Gloria had that wall plastered and fitted a simple 18th-century fire surround to confirm the status of the room. The cushions on the sofa are Chelsea Textiles' Wisteria design.
Another skill honed over many moves is Gloria’s talent for fitting lots of furniture into a living room without it appearing over-crowded. ‘I needed as much seating as possible in the living room and managed two sofas, an armchair and an antique French chair. Then I crammed the 18th-century walnut chest, full of tablecloths and napkins, into the window bay and it helped to balance the arrangement of the other pieces in the room.’
Anyone wanting to create a vintage dining room scheme will find some great dining room ideas in Gloria's compact dining space. To the left of the fireplace, the door leads to the basement laundry room. Removing the door into the dining room has improved circulation on the ground floor. However, fitting everything in continued to be an issue because she has gathered so many treasured antique pieces she is reluctant to let go.
Then, as December arrived, where was the Christmas tree to go? ‘I like to bring in the tree two weeks before Christmas,’ Gloria explains, ‘and in previous homes, a big tree.’ The window bay in the dining room was eventually established as the best, indeed only, place for it. ‘The tree takes my mix of red and white baubles and lights and there are so many accessories on tables, shelves and walls, I limit other decorations to indulge my love of candles.’
Extended family comes to stay at Christmas and setting the table for the traditional feast is a task Gloria enjoys quietly on Christmas Eve. She brings out an antique monogrammed linen tablecloth, 19th-century French plates and glassware, adding decorative fruit and plant details, all lit with candles. Above the 18th-century French buffet is a gallery display of French 18th-century flowered plates, arranged around a little Venetian mirrored sconce.
The well-planned kitchen has brought pleasure to cooking for special occasions and the room offers plenty of kitchen ideas. There are many well thought-through details in its design, even to fitting the fridge inside a cupboard with a door made from reclaimed wood. Glass doors give an elevated view of the garden and a balcony is planned to link indoors and out. Gloria found the French farmhouse table at Tara Franklin Antiques and the blind fabric is Nicole Fabre’s Palmyra Indigo.
The kitchen mixes cabinets with open shelves and includes an electric Aga and gas hob. The old floor was replaced with French limestone.
The only way to get one of Gloria's favorite sofas into the bedroom upstairs was through the window. The quilt is another 18th-century treasure, from Provence. Much needed extra storage ideas were added with built-in wardrobes.
When Gloria reflects on buying this unexpected house, two things give her great pleasure. One is how well rooms have responded to the antiques she has brought to furnish them. The second is the fact that the house opens out from the front door and gives an illusion of space. It makes good on that promise, especially when family and friends spill through the door at Christmas.
Words/ Celia Rufey
Photographs/ Jody Stewart
I'm the homes editor of Period Living magazine and an experienced writer on interiors and gardens. I've also moved house quite a few times – totting up 10 homes in 12 years during a particularly nomadic time in my life. I like to think that makes me quite the homes expert, or at least very experienced and with a clear idea of what I like and don't like in a home.
I love visiting and writing about old houses for Homes & Gardens' sister magazine Period Living and working with photographers to capture all kinds of historic properties. It's inspiring to talk to people about their traditional homes and to hear the stories behind their furnishing and decorating choices. And by the time I've finished an interview with a homeowner I've always got a handful of new ideas to try in my own house, as well as plenty of good stories for the magazine. It's the perfect work-life balance.
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