An immaculately decorated house without people to live in it and love it is futile, says Ben Pentreath, as he opens the doors to his Dorset home in his new book, English Houses. By Rosalind Sack
So often, when we think about the interiors of houses, we concentrate on the architecture, the key pieces of furniture, the decorative touches and the colours. Yet the story of a house is a tale of the people who live there and have called it home through the years.
As Ben Pentreath, architectural design and interiors expert, and one half of home furnishings brand Pentreath & Hall, says in his latest book, English Houses: ‘A perfectly decorated room without people to occupy it, love it and live in it is meaningless; and a room without a sense of time and of evolution is as empty as a diary containing entirely blank pages.’
The Old Parsonage in a little village in West Dorset – Pentreath’s home for the past eight years – has evolved and blossomed over the years, and now, he says, it has never felt more like a home. ‘It’s amazing to think that I’ve lived here for almost a decade; time rushes by, but in one sense, it feels far longer than this, too,’ says Pentreath. ‘It is a wonderful thing to begin to be rooted
to a spot, to see a house and garden develop season after season.
‘There are obvious changes that the sharp-eyed will spot – new paint colours, new acquisitions, pictures and furniture that have moved around – but there is one great, incredible change: my
husband, Charlie McCormick.’
New Zealander Charlie is a floral designer, stylist, and supplier and grower of cut flowers. Just a cursory glance through his wonderfully curated Instagram account reveals the tapestries of beautiful blooms that now fill the gardens at The Parsonage which, Pentreath says, ‘has been transformed by becoming a shared place’.
He adds: ‘My interest in the creative aspect – restoring the house, reviving the garden – had inevitably waned with time (I am always in search of a new project rather than enjoying the fruit of my labours). But Charlie has turned the house into our home, the place we both want to be all the time; and it makes me realise (as if we didn’t already know it) that the qualities that make a building feel loved, generous and welcoming are more to do with people than with architecture or decoration. It is a powerful lesson.’
Built in the 1820s, Pentreath and McCormick’s house retains all the classical elegance of the Regency period of British architecture. There were a few changes made and extensions built some decades later but, otherwise, the building has remained largely untouched.
The house stands in an idyllic position on a south-facing slope in the village, with a Victorian church spire reaching skywards behind and looking across a valley to wooded hills opposite. What would otherwise have been a relatively humble building is elevated by its setting, which gives the house a breathtaking sense of light and perspective.
There is a wide, south-facing elevation with three bays, and a smaller, two-bay façade facing west over the lawn and flower borders, to which Pentreath added a pretty timber-trellised porch
around the garden door. Inside, it is three-up, three-down, with a small bedroom in the attic.
‘When I first settled in, the rooms were spare and uncluttered. I thought about, but was slightly wary of, introducing colour; I painted the walls in shades of white, softest grey and stone,’ he explains. ‘The house in those days had a lucidity that was very calm and tranquil, but if I am honest, it could feel a little chilly during long, cold Dorset winters. So as I settled in, and as the years passed, the rooms filled with clutter and the walls with pictures, I became more adventurous in the use of colour.’
Pentreath prefers to play with colour in a furnished room that has been lived in, in which different lights and seasons have been considered, rather than immediately making bold colour choices in an empty space. The biggest changes have taken place in the kitchen, which was once white and is now a dark burnt orange. The drawing room, once pale grey, is now a soft warm pink specially mixed for that room, and their bedroom is now a dark sludgy green.
The dining room is also the scene of a radical colour change, having once been an extremely intense purple, which Pentreath admits ‘divided opinion strongly’. ‘It had a beauty by candlelight but was, to say the least, a difficult colour on a bright sunny day,’ says Pentreath. ‘Charlie hated it, quite rightly, so one of the first things we did was to repaint the room in the brightest cornflower
blue, which is equally eye-popping but has the advantage of being a happy colour, rather than making you look very slightly ill.’
Other modifications are much more subtle: ‘It is reassuring to see, four years on, how little has changed in some areas. But even here we can sense clutter, accumulations, pieces of furniture squeezed in, even more piles of books and, now, everywhere, many bunches of flowers from the beginning of spring to the dying days of autumn. Charlie is a brilliant and insatiable grower of cut flowers and there is never a moment when something is not brought in from garden to house, reinforcing that magical connection between building and setting.’
Plans are now afoot for Pentreath and McCormick to grow their lovely household yet further with the addition of a puppy, a kitten, several chickens and a rabbit. ‘The Parsonage has never felt more like a home,’ he says.
*Quotes and images taken from English Houses by Ben Pentreath, photographer Jan Baldwin, published by Ryland, Peters & Small