Ah yes, escaping to the country. There comes a time when every Englishman wants to do it. Astonishing numbers of us tune into television programmes that show others achieving that consummation. Those yet to do so talk about it with the ardour usually reserved for things done in darkened rooms. But once the great leap is achieved and that lovely Georgian rectory is yours, how do you go about fitting it out? And is there still stigma attached to he who, as Lord Jopling is famously supposed to have said of Lord Heseltine, has to ‘buy his own furniture’?
That particular snobbery no longer obtains, according to Lindsay Cuthill, head of Savills Country Department: ‘I’m happy to report that the country market has in the main dropped the requirement that buyers should have a long line of aristocratic forebears.’ Newcomers can embrace the sense of heritage that comes with owning a country house, but they don’t have to feel weighed down by it: buying the manor house no longer comes with an obligation to snip the ribbon at the village fête. And if you want to fill it with stuff that would look equally at home in Knightsbridge or Miami, that’s OK too.
This eclectic approach is supported by Giles Kime, interiors editor of Country Life. ‘Those who have inherited tend to be much less sentimental about what has been passed down and edit it heavily to a few key pieces. In the case of upholstery, they tend to reinvent it in contemporary colours and fabrics. They are much less interested in creating a period look than their parents. And much more interested in contemporary art. Those who haven’t inherited look to hotels where they have spent happy times — such as Foxhill Manor or Babington — for inspiration.’
A new wave of country house buyers is taking this free-range approach to interior design deeper into rural England. ‘City and foreign money still dominates the market for big houses in private settings, but tech money is also heading for the hills,’ says Kime.
‘Both are heavily influenced by the leaps and bounds in hotel design. Lesser mortals who haven’t sold their businesses are helped by flexible working, improving broadband and better rail links that are pushing the boundaries to places such as Tisbury, Pewsey, Kingham, Midhurst and deeper into Kent, where money often goes further.
‘Some might be more likely to spec up smaller but nevertheless high-value houses, with expensive kitchens and bathrooms and remodelling, rather than take on something that requires staff. It’s less about saving money and more about convenience. But money saved can finance a flat in London.’
Kime says the popular belief that ‘nobody’s buying brown furniture these days’ no longer holds true. ‘People have started buying antique furniture again, because they’ve realised that it’s often much better value than the modern equivalent, especially if it comes with good provenance — say from the Chatsworth sale [staged by Sotheby’s in 2010].
‘People decorate in a much more eclectic style than previously, so antique furniture will sit happily alongside modern. So-called brown furniture isn’t making a great profit for people, but it does retain its value well. The exception is antique chimneypieces, which are becoming more and more expensive. My advice would be to avoid following fashion or creating anything too rigorously focused on one period. Likewise, anything rigorously modern. A pared-back, classic look with contemporary touches is far more likely to stand the test of time.’
‘Don’t try to recreate Downton Abbey in a Cotswolds rectory,’ is the advice of style guru Peter York. ‘It will look naff; and because so much antique furniture was made for specific houses, it simply won’t fit. If you do own a house for which furniture was made and you can track it down, that’s the best option — but match it with things of your own. Don’t try to recreate somebody else’s house.’
If you do set out to buy old brown furniture, provenance is everything. Christie’s UK chairman Orlando Rock had this to say. ‘I think there is no doubt that the pendulum of taste has swung pretty dramatically over the past ten years and the market for heavy dining-room sideboards and uncomfortable formal chairs is unlikely to come back. But there is still a strong market for the very best: ideally pieces that come from an interesting or historic collection and which retain a wonderful untouched surface and patina. And if they are documented by a great maker, whether Chippendale or Gillows, then the market remains robust, with a wide collector base.
‘With this polarisation, however, there are fantastic opportunities to buy really good, perfectly honest and well-crafted 17th, 18th and 19th-century furniture for rather less than it costs to buy a modern chest from Ikea. As there are, sadly, many fewer antique dealers to support the prices of traditional antiques, you really can buy wonderful things for less than they made 25 years ago.
‘By contrast, period painted furniture and striking, architectural or quirky pieces with interesting provenances — and which resonate with a more contemporary take on interiors — are gaining momentum. I do think there is a disconnect in the market for traditional antiques, and people are starting to see real value and quality in these evocative and brilliant creations of the past.’
Among those in the trade who are ‘advocating this taste brilliantly’, Rock mentions decorator Robert Kime in Museum Street in Holborn; James Graham-Stewart of Scrubs Lane in west London, whose website says ‘his taste and style leans towards the unusual and does not deal in “polite” furniture’; antique dealer and interior consultant Edward Hurst of Coombe Bissett, Wiltshire; and Jamb, an antique fireplace and lighting shop in Pimlico.
The experts’ advice is clear: by all means go for brown, but mix it with contemporary pieces to create a house of your own rather than a pastiche of Edwardian England.
As so often, Peter York has the last word. ‘The ideal is comforting, clubby furniture, but neither dilapidated nor overpolished. There’s nothing worse than 18th-century chairs polished to a mirror gleam — they need to have some life. Above all, make it a house in which one wants to live.’