Vintage calm

Few find what they want in life right under their noses and some of us have to travel a lifetime and many miles to find what we are looking for. But Madeline hasn't even had to step foot outside the village she grew up in to find her heart's desires. She met her husband when she was just 15 - he lived in the next village, and 13 years ago they moved into the house of their dreams which was just down the road. In fact the White House, as this delightful (and white) weatherboarded house is called, is only a stone's throw away from their previous home in what was once the village Post Office. The British artist Graham Sutherland and his wife lived in the village for over 40 years until Sutherland's death in 1980 - Madeline remembers him: "He gave a painting to the primary school when I was there and I can remember sitting in the garden of the village pub when I was seven, looking up and seeing him working away in his studio in the attic room of the house." Sutherland was a contemporary of Matisse and Piccasso and is best known for his abstract and surrealist paintings. The Sutherlands did have another home in France too, but they must have loved living in the White House as they renamed the French house 'La Villa Blanche' after their Kent home.

Madeline tells a distinctly spooky story about how they came to be the owners of one of Graham Sutherland's artworks: "We were having a new water tank installed and the builder had put the old one outside along with a load of insulation and rubbish ready to go to the dump," she recalls. "It was only by chance that I had a quick look through the pile and just happened to come across the painting." The signed work had been done on a piece of hardboard - as artists' materials were expensive luxuries just after the war - and had been subsequently put to use to help lag the tank. Remarkably, the day after Madeline found it she was due to go along to the Antiques Roadshow with a Victorian painting (which was sadly of no consequence) in Sevenoaks. "Somehow I feel that he meant for me to find the sketch at that moment," she says with a smile. The piece now spends most of its time on display at various museums and galleries. The White House is Grade Two listed, so no structural alterations have been made, but the couple have built an extension at the back of the house. It's an oak-framed garden room leading into the kitchen and brings a wonderful feeling of light and height to the ground floor. The weatherboarding has been removed from what would have been the outside wall, exposing original timber frame and the old bricks, which makes them into a charming feature of the room. The kitchen was replaced at the same time as the garden room was being built.

The cupboards and units were made and installed by a local company, Rencraft in Seal Chart, Sevenoaks. Warm and friendly red is the accent colour in the kitchen in the form of vintage kitchen chairs and the quirky bits and bobs that Madeline has found at collector's fairs and boot sales. "Old and original are the best. I love old fabrics and I'm really guided by colour. Red is my favourite," she says.

Surprisingly for a 16th century timber-framed house, the ceilings are of a good height, but the doorways make up for that (especially some of the beams across the doors upstairs) by being head-crackingly low. But the beams bring such an irresistible charm to the rooms that even after endlessly bumping into them on your way to one of the upstairs bathrooms, you would manage to rub your head cheerfully and climb on through. The house also seems more spacious and airy than you first imagine, but that's as much to do with Madeline's skilful decorating style as the intrinsic proportions of the house. There has been a little judicious whitewashing at the White House. Just here and there the normally dark wooden beams and other exposed timbers have been painted in soft white shades. Most of the walls are of a similar 'Old White', which helps to bring light, but not coldness to the rooms.

Clutter is not the word that describes the glorious assortment of objects that decorate the house, possibly it could be in less capable hands, but Madeline has managed to create carefully contrived arrangements and collections of quirky objects: everything from shoes to shopping bags. So storage jars sit comfortably with cut-glass decanters, jugs and pots appear happy among old toys and the odd birdcage or two. I counted at least three dressmaker's dummies in the front room - something that might look out of place in a sitting room (one was bright red), but they're completely appropriate here. There are small careful piles of vintage fabric all over the place and Madeline has a knack of turning the most unassuming lump of furniture into a charming period piece just by throwing a scrap of old fabric over it. It's like a magic trick, a sleight of hand. But you can tell that it needs an experienced eye in order to work. "I find it quite stressful when things don't look right," she smiles chirpily, going on to explain that each item is carefully chosen to occupy exactly the right space in the house. She can sometimes be found moving furniture and things around the house at two o'clock in the morning.

Madeline's background is in textiles. She worked for Bell House Fabrics and then set up a small business making curtains and soft furnishings, later teaming up with her partner Margaret when their children were at school. Gradually, sewing and making have given over to sourcing, buying and revamping. "Making curtains has ruined my neck," she says ruefully, although she still makes plenty of cushions and smaller items.

Old Rectory Sales operates in the local area, but they travel the South East and have occasionally gone as far as Lincoln in search of vintage treasures that might look, at first glance, like bric-a-brac, but that once teamed with other pieces and artfully arranged, become gorgeous and quaint displays. "I only buy the things that I like," she says. "I can't buy things thinking just that they will sell." It is a look with huge appeal at the moment, so the business must be doing well.

The house has six bedrooms, but only two are used for sleeping in. The attic room is now used mainly for storage and to house the drum kit that Madeline's husband plays, but it is a light and airy room and not hard to imagine as an artist's studio. Madeline's workroom on the floor below is artfully packed with cushions and fabrics, ribbons and buttons, irons and ironing boards. It is warm - like the hot, beating heart of the house. The actual bedrooms are full of vintage charm too, with wonderful old patchwork quilts being used as wall hangings. On the beds are glorious quilts and, dotted among hats, scarves and bedroom bits and bobs are yet more neat piles of quaint old fabrics.

The White House somehow manages to be colourful at the same time as being white: "I just love colour," says Madeline, "and using a background of white and old pine works well to show off other colours and patterns." It sounds such a simple recipe, but with so many things that look casually thrown together, there is a careful eye for detail and an understanding of design and form. The result is a unique and quirky house jam-packed with vintage charm.

  • words Jo Arnell
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming