The Old Curiosity Shop

On a rainy winter's day, a journey across Romney Marshes easily evokes images of Magwitch emerging from the mists to frighten poor Pip in Dickens' Great Expectations. Patchily inhabited, and with its ancient churches and little new development, it somehow seems an appropriate place for a couple of antiques dealers to choose to reside. For some, the landscape of the marshes is an acquired taste. Its flat, solemn stillness is so different from the softly rolling and lushly wooded slopes of the Weald, but it has a unique personality. Reclaimed from the sea, it has a stoical, defiant character that, by comparison, can make other parts of the county seem almost too blousy and obvious in their charms.

Brad and Jackie have lived in their extraordinary house for 30 years. Timber framed and built of stone, brick and plaster, it has evolved through five centuries, having been added to from around 1550 onwards. Fittingly, the couple have furnished it in an original and eclectic style. Every item is an individual, one-off piece. Even the kitchen avoids the mass-produced, because Brad made all the drawers and cupboards himself, copying a classic Georgian lancet motif to decorate the doors. This room is the only ‘modern' part of the house, though it also spans several periods with its old-fashioned cat slide roof and wide, metal Crittall windows. The kitchen table is made of oak with barley twist gate-legs and is surrounded by scrubbed elm broad arm chairs. "I've been in the antiques business for nearly 40 years now," says Brad. "I'd always been interested in antiques and I started buying and selling things when I was made redundant from my job as a computer programmer in London. I rented a pitch at Bexhill Antiques Centre and it just went from there. But the business has changed enormously in that time. The fashion used to be for highly polished ‘brown' furniture, but now people are more interested in country, painted pieces and quirky, one-off items. It makes life more interesting for us, because if you wanted a Georgian mahogany chest on chest, I could find you a great one, but then I could probably find you twenty more of them pretty much the same. Jackie and I like to source idiosyncratic, decorative things, old mirrors, paintings and carved items." "Yes," agrees Jackie, "it's more about selling a look. Things don't have to be in pristine condition any more, in fact, signs of wear make them more intriguing."

"Jackie's the stylist," interjects Brad, "she arranges things beautifully, but we only buy things that we like. There's no point in trying to sell something that you don't have an enthusiasm for, so what we do is try to pass on some of our passion for things with integrity. We sell a lot to interior designers and supply vintage items to Vogue's favourite, The Hambledon in Winchester. We have our own shop with Nimmo & Spooner in Lillie Road, Fulham and we also show every year at the Battersea Decorative Fair. That's a major event for us, and we sell to some very rich and famous people, but it's interesting that they, too, have generally moved away from the glossier types of antiques."

Brad and Jackie's love of the more unusual is apparent in every corner of this gnarled old house. "Structurally, it had hardly been touched for 100 years when we moved in," recalls Brad. "There was water pouring in and it was in quite a state. We tanked the room that we now use as a study and all over the house I exposed the brickwork and timbers and uncovered some of the fireplaces that had been bricked over or covered with hardboard. I suppose I can ‘read' old houses, so I knew where to look to find the features, but nevertheless, there were some slightly strange things, like the fireplace in the wall of the corridor upstairs. It's an odd place for it to be because the space is so narrow and it can't have been part of another room."

Next to the kitchen the snug groundfloor sitting room is arranged around a newly installed woodburning stove. The couple removed a rather ugly quarry-tiled mantelpiece and replaced it with something far simpler. Above it a small oil painting of a clump of trees is painted in a limited palette of colours that gives an ordinary subject a sense of drama. Brad and Jackie laughingly refer to it as one of their ‘French daubs'. It's a good picture nevertheless, but treated without pretension and mounted in an appropriately modest frame. At the end of the mantelpiece stands an early 19th century pencil drawing of a mournful-looking girl. "I love that picture," nods Brad, "she's just so miserable it's almost comical, so she cheers me up!" A Knole sofa is upholstered in old French linen sheets. "We use those a lot for the furniture that we sell," says Jackie. "We can both upholster things, but we're too busy with the rest of the business these days, so we have some really good people that we can rely on to do the work." Along a deep windowledge, Jackie has arranged a collection of some of her favourite mercury glass candlesticks, drinking glasses, compotes and etched baubles that reflect the cool afternoon light around the room.

A dainty yew tripod table displays antique rolls of glittering gold-threaded fabric that over time has almost faded to silver. Originally intended for trimming ecclesiastical robes, Jackie thought she might use them for upholstery, but then decided that she liked them just as they were. A French tub chair re-covered in calico stands beside a fine Georgian walnut bombé chest with an unusual concave, rather than convex front. In the corner, a sober-looking grandfather clock rather surprisingly sports a pair of angel wings. "That's another thing that I collect," admits Jackie. I've got them all over the house, and I don't really know why, I just like them." Up a few steps there is the study; its ancient stone walls and brick floor evoke the feeling of an even older structure. Its almost crypt-like and Brad confirms that many houses in the area incorporated older, ecclesiastical buildings, so it's not such an unlikely comparison. "The alluvial soil here was so fertile that the medieval Church bought vast tracts of it and still owns it, which of course means that there's been relatively little development too. People used to set off for the crusades and pilgrimages from New Romney, so there's a Rome Road and a Jerusalem House there. It was an important part of the country and it's a fascinating area. People think it's a bit cut-off down here, but in fact we've got great, easy connections to France, where Jackie and I go three or four times a month, and to London. I can drive to the capital in 50 minutes or catch a fast train from Ashford, yet we have all this open countryside and the sea is just over five miles away."

Up a narrow flight of bare pine steps is the landing, where the walls and ceiling have been painted with a rich ochre yellow wash. A rare, 19th century Qashquai rug hangs on the wall. Another sensuously curved bombé chest was bought by Brad from a house in Sandgate. It dates from about 1800 and depicts Italian boar hunting scenes in its inlaid panels. "I like flamboyant pieces," confirms Brad. "Chinese furniture has great charm too, there's something exuberant and sort of cheerful about things like this."

A little way along the corridor with the incongruous fireplace is the upstairs drawing room. This room really does look as if one of Dickens' characters will step back into it at any minute. A huge brick fireplace with an unusual demi-lune brass fender dominates the space. "This fireplace had been hidden behind a plywood panel and its style is quite specific to this area I think," says Brad. "There's a huge inglenook in the room beneath it and very often in this part of Kent people built another fireplace on the floor above that simply jutted out from the chimney." Another woodburner has been installed to warm the room, but the colours give an impression of cosiness too. A yellow Chinese silk rug covers the broad old floorboards and a pair of Victorian sofas with yellow chintz covers add to the sense of comfort. A barrel-backed elm corner cupboard was salvaged from a house in Ruckinge. "It dates from about 1700, so it's an early one; there was a pair that were made specially for the house and really the owners should never have split them up, but they didn't want this one and I didn't want to see it destroyed."

An early elm Windsor chair displays a group of vintage teddy bears and at the window, a rather battered plaster polar bear surveys the scene outside. "He was outside a shop in Maidstone, advertising Foxes Glacier Mints, and for two years, I admired him as I passed by, until eventually I went in and made an offer to the owner. The man willingly sold him and I wished I'd asked before when he wasn't quite so weatherbeaten."

Through a low door is their son Martyn's room. He has recently joined the business and has brought an enthusiasm for industrial, director-type furniture, so there is a battered leather club chair in one corner and a large vintage clock on display. One wall is panelled in oak and although it looks entirely in keeping with the house, Brad says that he installed it and that it was salvaged from the old Stock Exchange in London, an unwanted piece of history when the brokers moved premises. A brick fireplace houses an iron firebasket that is slightly twisted and leans almost drunkenly to one side. "This used to be our dining room," says Jackie, "and on Christmas Day with the fire going, we all used to roast, never mind the turkey, but it was very atmospheric." A BEA poster extolling the virtues of London for the 1960s traveller adds a dash of patriotic colour and is another of the family's enthusiasms. "We love these old travel posters and sell quite a lot of them along with the club chairs, which are the sort of thing that look great in a big kitchen," Jackie adds. Above the chest of drawers is an oil painting of two spotted rabbits in a chalky, lime-washed frame. "Two pounds at a boot fair in Hamstreet," grins Brad. "You can still find the odd bargain you know. It's a simple little picture but we changed the frame and I think that can make a big difference."

Brad may be self-deprecating in his conversation, but we both know that what really makes the difference to such things is having an eye to spot the potential in a grubby old picture in the first place. It's also about knowing how far to restore or ‘improve' something. Brad points to an Italian X-frame chair as we walk back through the drawing room. Its grand proportions make it look more like a throne and Brad confirms that when he first acquired it the chair was extravagantly upholstered in green suede with red griffins and gold tassels around the seat. "I bought it years ago and it was very worn and torn. The fashion then was to make things look as they had done when they were first made, so I removed the old coverings thinking that I would restore it, but I never did and I've always regretted interfering with it in that way. I should have just left it alone, but I learned from that experience."

Back along the corridor, Brad and Jackie's daughters share a room that is full of new and vintage toys. A dolls' house stands by the window that is framed by curtains made from a Georgian style spriggy floral print. The girls' desk already shows signs of an enthusiasm for collecting things too, with shells and found objects carefully arranged in groups.

In the sea green painted bathroom a vintage rolltop bath seems fathoms deep and next to it stands a 19th century metal Arras chair, made in the town of the same name in northern France. "Garden furniture is another weakness of mine," shrugs Jackie. "Arras furniture is incredibly collectable now. It has this rolled seat and often the feet are forged like lion's paws. We source it for people all over the world and have recently even shipped some to Tasmania. We sell to places like Anthropologie and to Robert Young, who is really at the forefront of this vintage, country look."

The couple's bedroom is more sparely furnished than the rest of the house. An ‘old' Laura Ashley rose print fabric has been used for the curtains, one of the few colourful elements in an otherwise pale scheme. Though on closer inspection, the iron bedstead, with its delicate lattice pattern, is not the usual Victorian black but is actually painted verdigris green with a garnet red Greek key pattern traced around the posts. "Most iron beds have been smothered in black paint," explains Brad, "but originally, iron beds were painted in a variety of colours and featured little patterns or designs." A small circular metal table stands to one side of the bed and an opaline glass lamp with gold palm leaves sprouting from the top adds a dash of French glamour. The silk shade was bought at Hoopers in Tunbridge Wells and complements the vintage silk and straw hat that is perched on the corner of the bedstead. "Yes, another of my enthusiasms," adds Jackie almost guiltily. "I love old textiles and hats but I've pared things down. You become more discerning and even ruthless over the years, but I've held on to this one."

In such a modest space, a wardrobe might have seemed overbearing, so Brad has created cupboards using old French shutters with carved fretwork. An old Venetian glass mirror hangs above what they call a ‘useless but pretty' tiny Dutch table. "The mirror is really quite badly spotted," says Brad, "but this quality of glass can't be compared. If you take two sheets of mirrored glass, one old and one new, they might look the same from a distance, but put them side by side and the old one just has a softer, quieter quality that can't be imitated. It's seen a bit of life, I suppose, and tells its own story."

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming