When I was very young, I used to play for hours in an old stone barn at the back of our garden in Dorset, 150 miles west of London. It is one of the first rooms I can recall with clarity. I loved its smells and dusty shelves filled with old clay flowerpots and spiders’ webs. I can remember that shed intensely, although I have not been in it for more than 30 years.
What is it about our memory that it is intertwined so strongly with recollections of places, smells, rooms, I wonder – as much, or in fact more so, than people? In the 1950s my grandparents built a house overlooking the Beaulieu River in Hampshire. Having bought their plot of land, they couldn’t afford much for the house; so it was a fairly simple wooden bungalow, with shingle walls and wide glass walls overlooking the woods and the river. I used to love staying there.
My grandmother had been influenced by the Festival of Britain when decorating. There were many Festival fabrics, and prints by John and Paul Nash in the bedrooms. My bedroom was named “The Cornfield” after the picture of John Nash’s famous painting of that name. The dining room ceiling was painted a rich purple, and my grandfather’s study was lined with books and his collection of Greek antiquities, and painted a deep Pompeian red.
They had arrived in England at the end of the war, after 10 years in South Australia, without furniture but with a large, cold headmaster’s house in Shropshire to move into and furnish. My grandmother set about visiting country house auctions and snapping up the old brown furniture that was not at all in fashion. The combination of modern textiles and good, plain, inexpensive Georgian furniture is something that I think I might have learned from her, and I love it to this day.
When I was 17, at school, I made such a nuisance of myself that I was allowed to join an exclusive small boarding house located in an old block that had originally been built to house the estate gardeners.
Each room was painted white and had bare wooden floorboards and a simple Victorian sash window. It had a small, very plain fireplace and I can still remember, on the mantelshelf, having a pair of white china and brass candlesticks, and on the windowsill growing a pair of white geranium plants (something else that I love to this day). Although I didn’t know it at the time, being in this room was exactly like living in a watercolour painted by Eric Ravilious.
A couple of years later I was a student at the University of Edinburgh, where I read History of Art. I gravitated inexorably towards the great grey New Town, where for my last two years I lived with four friends in a huge early 19th-century flat in Abercromby Place. It had a tall, double-height stair hall with an extraordinary stone staircase – the sort of flat that you dream about, and which passes into legend.
I am not sure I have ever lived in such a handsome room as during those two years. The fireplace was classic Adam, made of pine with cast gesso decorations; there was a plaster cornice, and a broad sash window overlooking green and stone rear gardens with tall New Town houses opposite.
I graduated from Edinburgh and moved to Norfolk, where I worked for the architect Charles Morris. He taught me a huge amount about those magic ingredients that make a house sing and a garden flow, and about the emotive qualities of materials and architecture; and showed by brilliant example that, in order to be right, everything must be put together with consummate care.
In the local village, I rented a tiny cottage down a long lane, surrounded by fen and woodland. It was called “The Hideaway”. Appropriately, the rooms were incredibly small and had mere six-foot high ceilings. It was here that my landlady Caro, who lived in London at the time but would come and stay at weekends, set about turning the two-acre wilderness into an extraordinary garden and taught me to re-love gardening for the first time since I had my own small vegetable patch at home when I was six. There is nothing in the world so satisfying as making a garden; my greatest pleasure is now restoring the garden around my own house in Dorset – but that is another story.
From this remote Norfolk cottage I moved, when I was 27, to New York. That enormous change was mitigated by my finding, with a lot of luck and some perserverance, a minute flat on the top floor of a beautiful, crumbling 1820s townhouse in Greenwich Village. My cousin Ben came to stay and we ripped up the grim carpet and scrubbed the floorboards. I painted the walls – first a pale grey and then a year later, in the middle of a very cold New York winter, a strong Chinese yellow. My bedroom walls I wallpapered using tea-stained photocopies from a book of botanical engravings. The Greek Revival fireplace drew perfectly, and for my first two years in New York City, this little apartment on Bank Street was my nest.
I was working around the corner, in the then unrestored Meatpacking District, for Fairfax & Sammons, one of the small but powerful and growing band of traditional architects now practising in the US. Richard and Anne taught me an enormous amount, both about architecture and business, but probably the greatest influence of all was just living for five years in hectic, beautiful New York City.
When it was time to leave Bank Street, I moved to a narrow railroad apartment on King Street, where the Village meets Soho. It was what they call a “six-storey walk-up”, which was no joke if you forgot something on your way out of the house, but being on the top floor it had extraordinary views on three sides and I used to wake up and go to sleep looking across the New York skyline to the Empire State Building. It was in this little apartment that I first experimented with a few strong fabrics and some contemporary furniture alongside old brown tables and chairs, and loved the results.
When I moved back to London in the autumn of 2003, with tears in my eyes but nonetheless so happy to be coming home, I rented a small, panelled early Georgian flat in Bloomsbury. It is another tiny place, but it suits me brilliantly. Around the corner I subsequently opened my architectural office, and then more recently our shop in a little pair of Victorian shops on Rugby Street.
I have been here for nine years now, and it is a part of London that I love—not least, I have to admit, because I have been lucky enough to combine living here with taking a long lease on a plain, unrestored 1820s parsonage in west Dorset. There I have been able to escape, and have both the time and space really to make a garden.
All of these places and experiences have, I think, gone to define my approach to decoration. They are all quite simple spaces and (with the exception of the parsonage and Edinburgh) very small indeed. But they all had character and they all have had a spirit of quiet contentment.
Edited extract from ‘English Decoration’ by Ben Pentreath, which is due to be published on September 6 (Ryland Peters & Small)