Sleeping Beauty

Gabby Eagar’s house could be viewed as the stuff of dreams or nightmares, depending upon one’s enthusiasm for a ‘project’. It’s dreamy, because it is a classically proportioned Georgian grange that looks as if it has sprung to life from the pages of a Jane Austen novel. Yet to many people it might have been a nightmarish prospect. There are countless rooms, most of which are huge, and the gardens and outbuildings are both extensive and extremely demanding. When Gabby and her husband Russell found the house, it was what estate agents politely call ‘in need of some refurbishment’. Following the death of the previous owner and the auction of the house’s contents, it had lain unoccupied for almost five years, a kind of sleeping beauty waiting to be brought back to life by the care and attention of a family who would love it.

The kitchen is commonly thought of as the focal point of most homes, and this one is a vast space, with an enormous inglenook fireplace being the focal point. A duck egg blue Aga occupies the centre of it, and being lit from above by concealed spotlights, it almost looks as if it is on the stage of a small theatre. In the centre of the room, an urn of lilac cut from the garden adorns a long scrubbed pine table surrounded by 1960s style white chairs. One wall features a hand-built, painted dresser that was constructed on site and on another, wooden cupboards, also built in situ, provide the only nod towards the notion of a 'fitted' kitchen. "These were built many years ago by Ted, who is now retired. He and his wife Winnie were the gardener and cook here at the house and know almost everything there is to know about it. Ted made the special step in front of the sink too," says Gabby, gesturing towards the wooden platform that is attached to the cupboards under the old wooden sink. Everything here seems pared down; there is a big stainless steel refrigerator, but otherwise, the luxury in this room derives not from fancy gadgets and shiny surfaces, but from the sheer scale of everything. It's a working space for a house that would have been run by a team of servants and the bell panel that testifies to this fact still hangs by the doorway to the hall. "When we first got here the kitchen was in a kind of 1950s timewarp. The cupboards were all painted yellow, with red Bakelite handles and a lino floor. It was a great period piece, but though I tried, I really couldn't live with it. We kept all the cupboards, but changed the handles and painted them Farrow & Ball's New White, which may be less unusual, but is at least more calming.

"Lots of our friends thought we were mad to buy this place, I think. We had a perfectly nice house in London and we'd just completed a great deal of work on it. We were also about to exchange on a microscopic chateau in France, but we came back from there, got cold feet and pulled out. We then went on holiday and as I was flicking through a copy of Vogue I saw the advert for this place. I telephoned and found out that the closing date for sealed bids was the next day, so we drove down straight away, looked around and put in an offer but it was rejected. We went away and looked at lots of other houses, but nothing could compare. Then just as I was going into hospital to have another baby, we heard that it was available again, so after a lot of phone calls from my bed, we somehow got it."

When we actually moved in though, it was wintertime. We arrived just after 4pm and it was pitch dark. My mother and sister greeted us with the news that there were no working lights in the house, just bare wires hanging from the ceilings. Luckily they had brought a casserole that they had already made, so we sat and ate it by torchlight and then the next day, we just rolled our sleeves up and began work. I had to call in a cleaning company to help too. I remember that they had to go around sweeping up the piles of dead woodlice that had expired throughout the house. And it was so cold! The heating wasn't working properly, although the boiler was actually functioning, and of course I'd just had a baby, so I had to decamp to the boiler room every time I needed to feed her."

Although the house is very obviously Georgian, parts of a much older building are still visible. This is especially apparent in the pool room where the walls are panelled with oak that over the centuries has turned almost black. The intricate patterns carved into it look Jacobean and there are beautiful 17th century Delft tiles in the fireplace that would seem to support this, but some parts may even be Tudor. If the panelling does date from the 1500s then its quality and detail would suggest that this was an important residence. "Apparently, the house was somehow connected to Cardinal Wolsey and to a monastery in Wales," adds Gabby, "and as far as I know, we're only the third family to have lived here. So I'm mindful of that fact as we restore it. I feel that it's all right to decorate and add furniture, but I don't want to do anything to damage the 'bones' of it."

The hallway has been painted in a warm grey with a charcoal coloured carpet that is also used as a runner on the staircase that twists in classic Georgian style. Under the stairs is an oak and walnut chest of drawers bought from Strand Quay Antiques in Rye. "Keith has a really good eye and finds some lovely pieces of furniture. And I've bought lots of light fittings and glass from Andy McConnell at Glass Etc. in the town too. We brought all our furniture with us from London and surprisingly, it seems to have fitted in quite well, but we have an awful lot of space to fill here, it's still pretty empty in places, so it's really nice to buy things locally."

At the top of the stairs there is a large mirror adorned with a carved scallop shell and further along the landing is an octagonal Venetian mirror with black glass panels. There are framed film posters dotted about on the walls up here too - Russell is a film editor and although he does a lot of work in advertising, he also works on mainstream, Oscar-winning and quirkier, independent films. Several corridors lead off the landing to different wings of the house. The younger children's bedrooms and bathrooms are grouped together and close to the panelled playroom, while the older girls' rooms are up another flight of stairs in the eaves of the house. The bedrooms are decorated in cheerful shades of pink, blue or orange while one has Jane Churchill pink and white polka dot wallpaper. One bathroom still has its aquamarine Art Deco fixtures and fittings and the bath panel features a striking ziggurat design.

A guest room has a striped and swagged wallpaper and between a pair of mirrored bedside tables, a painted French bed from 'tasha in Lamberhurst has been upholstered with a dainty white and rose pink spotted fabric. A pair of French chairs also stand either side of the iron fireplace. Their faded rose pink silk coverings are frayed but still pretty. "Mmm," says Gabby, "my friend said they weren't so much shabby chic as s***** shack. We haven't changed any of the wallpapers on this floor and I think they've been here since the 1940s or 50s. Some rooms had hardly been touched since the war and even had their blackout blinds across the windows. This cupboard was treated to a new wallpaper in the fifties, I think, as it's just so typical of that time." She opens the door to reveal a tiny room papered with crimson hybrid tea roses and dark green foliage. On a rail inside and over the door hang samples from Gabby's shop, Bird. "I used to work in fashion for a company called Club 21 in London. They look after Prada, Donna Karan and Armani. I went to all the major stores and did the hiring and firing, checked the till receipts, that sort of thing, so I knew the business from the shop floor. With Bird, I wanted to offer the level of service that you would expect from one of those designers' stores, so we'll be holding special weekend and late night events and we also offer a personal styling service. My sister and I are in partnership and we like to stock some designers who are harder to find. I felt that there were lots of women like me, who like slightly more unusual and quirky pieces but who don't have time to traipse all over the capital. We buy in small quantities, so we always have something new and when something has gone it won't be repeated. We have a core clientele in London who purchase by mail order, but we chose Rye for the shop because we feel that with the arts festival and so many good cafés and places to stay, it's got a real buzz about it now."

Another guest room is known as 'Granny's room'. Its old silver and gold wallpaper is showing signs of wear, but it is charming nevertheless. There is a very grand marble fireplace and another 1950s idea of luxury: a washbasin. "Actually it's quite useful to have it in the room, so we haven't got round to taking it out yet."
Gabby and Russell's bedroom seems vast and their 7ft bespoke bed only takes up a fraction of the available space. The floor is so uneven that the deep skirting board seems to career up and down the walls at will. There are tall windows either side of the bed and again on another wall. A gilded French sofa has been covered in sugar pink silk. "It's dress fabric, so you can't really sit on it," admits Gabby, "but it was the only thing I could find and I loved the colour." Through another door is a dressing room with leather club chair, wardrobe and a glass and metal table where Gabby keeps her perfume bottles and small accessories.

Back downstairs, a French medallion back fauteuil chair has been covered in the same sugar pink slubbed silk. The chair stands just by the doorway to the dining room, although at present, it is being used as another sitting room. It is a big, almost square space with an imposing marble fireplace and hip-high panelling. All four walls have been covered in de Gournay wallpaper that is decorated with gold leaf and then etched with acid so that there are pearly ripples of lilac and copper green running through it. When the room is illuminated by the giant chandelier in the centre of the ceiling, the effect is almost mesmeric. It looks rather like the background of a Gustav Klimt painting. "My mother says it's like being inside a giant chocolate box", laughs Gabby. "It's a lovely room to dine in at Christmas, but at the moment the table is being used by the children for ping-pong, so we’ve got the chesterfields in here. The chandelier was left to Russell's mother by a friend who lived in France and his mum also gave us the French sconces above the fireplace to go with it. The little mirrored and painted side table came from Puckhaber Antiques in New Romney. Brad and Jackie source some really interesting things and they're very knowledgeable. The bud vases on the mantelpiece are from Bird. They're in the form of boys' and girls' heads and are just sort of quirky."

The décor in the dining room is stunning, but the drawing room is just as extraordinary. The proportions here are equally grand, with two pairs of tall French windows with their original panelled shutters overlooking the rose beds and the lawns and orchard beyond. The white marble fireplace is topped with a huge overmantel mirror and around the room runs a deep skirting board and cornice. The walls have been covered with golden yellow silk that has been hand-painted with exquisitely detailed Chinese birds, trees and flowers. "I saw it in the de Gournay showroom when we lived in London and I used to think, 'one day, I hope to have a house worthy of it'. I think this room is right for it and really, it needs no further adornment." Gabby turns towards the wall opposite the fireplace where two enormous grey-green painted panelled doors swing back to connect this rather grand drawing room with the simpler, but equally elegant morning room. The proportions of this are almost identical, and there are more French windows to the garden, but here the walls are panelled from floor to ceiling. Like the drawing room, the furniture here is a mixture of very modern angular sofas and chairs and extravagantly shaped gilded and mirrored tables. The pale grey suede sofa and chairs are from Liberty and are accented with tangerine coloured cushions. A 1960s glass chandelier was bought at Rye Auction Galleries, and Andy at Glass Etc. managed to find a matching set of wall sconces. "He also repaired the metal table with the rococo style legs and mirrored top," says Gabby. "I bought it at a French flea market, but the top had a broken edge that was jagged and really dangerous, so Andy found a larger piece of glass to go over it and it's usable again. I got the other table with the gold wheatsheaf from Eras of Style in St. Leonards and the mirrored console table was bought for me in France by my mother, who saw it and knew instantly that I'd love it. The drawing room dates from the early 1700s, but this one dates from the late 1600s and has a door in the panelling that has been sealed up, so it's quite intriguing." Dark stained boards cover the floor in both rooms and add to the sense that as a pair, the interconnecting rooms might once have formed a ballroom. "Actually, it was these two rooms that really sold the house to us, and a little while ago, we held my sister's wedding reception here. It was perfect. We had the service at the church across the road and then we all came back here. We had a marquee in the garden and lots of friends and family came to help with the preparations. My uncle came over from France and built an amazing cocktail bar and his son, who plays in a band, came too with his friends and fellow musicians. It was really memorable and a lovely way to use the house."

Outside the French doors, Gabby has replanted the demi-lune rose beds with scented roses from the Old Rose Nursery in Northiam. "Jon, who runs it, is really helpful and knows so much about roses. I have left some of the plants that were here when we arrived, but some were a bit old and tired and I wanted to have profusion. We have more roses climbing over the long pergola and we've also got some lovely tree paeonies and lilies. Obviously, the garden has been here for a long time, so it's been good to watch and wait to see what comes up each season. I want to restore the glasshouse and the vine house. There's a big wooden plant theatre in there and a very old vine, that does still bear grapes, but I think it probably needs pruning." The glasshouse has an old lead water tank and shelves around the walls that still have Victorian terracotta pots neatly stacked in anticipation of great industry. In the centre of the building is a deep, stone-edged bed for growing tender and exotic plants and small trees. It's a very evocative place and gives a hint of how the rest of the house must have seemed when Gabby and Russell first saw it: lovely, but unloved and calling out to be rescued. Across the lawn stands a brick summerhouse built in the 1950s. "It still had the previous family's deckchairs inside and Ted told me that they had hammocks on wheels that he used to set out in the sunshine for them." Through a gap in the trees, a walled kitchen garden can be glimpsed. Gabby hasn't tackled this part of the garden yet and so it's quite overgrown, but the apple, plum and pear trees are still there, bearing fruit and so, upon closer examination are clumps of herbs and groups of raspberry and red and blackcurrant bushes.

The front of the house is in the solid, sober style of 'farmer' George III. The beauty of its sash windows and the door with its simple fanlight above lies almost solely in the pleasing proportions of the architecture rather than any decoration. But it is surely missing a wing as the number of windows either side of the front door is unequal and the Georgian were sticklers for symmetry. "Yes," confirms Gabby. "We believe there is a part missing and we don't know why, but then the left-hand side of the building is much older than the rest, the bricks at the base are Tudor ones, so perhaps they simply added a façade to that part which made it asymmetric.
"We wanted to reinstate the drive here, as the front of the house is so handsome, but there were too many regulations to get through and really, it's the inside that counts. We're with Atlanta Bartlett's location agency, Beach Studios and we're also going to offer it as a wedding reception venue. My sister's day was so magical and I want to make good use of the house. I think having people around helps to keep it alive."
Just before going back inside we spy a glitterball hanging in a tree. "Oh, that's left over from my sister's wedding. We put them all around the garden with lights and lanterns and it looked fantastic. That one must have been missed when we took them down, but I rather like to see it there, a bit of modern kitsch in amongst the old."

Address Book:
Gabby's shop Bird can be found at 113 High Street Rye.
Beach Studios 01797 344077
de Gournay 0207 352 9988
Eras of Style St Leonards 01424 426150
Glass Etc. Rye 01797 226600
Jane Churchill 0207 318 6000
Old Rose Nursery Northiam 01797 252680
Puckhaber Antiques New Romney 01797 364197 / 0207 385 2724
Rye Auction Galleries Rye 01797 222124
Strand Quay Antiques Rye 01797 226790
'tasha Interiors Lamberhurst 01892 890769

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