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Photo Perfect

One would never for a moment describe Fuller House in Staplehurst as a mad house but it is certainly a touch on the eccentric side. I speak, I hasten to say, architecturally. Its owner, portrait photographer Emma Freeman and her husband Mark, are eminently sane, although, by Emma's own admission, "I'm a real trial to my husband. I'm afraid I talk too much and tend to say what I think. Coffee or tea? Foxx, in your bed, good girl. Milk? David, would you like a doughnut? What was I saying? Sugar? Yes, undiplomatic. Talk too much. But you won't print that will you?"

The house, however, needs few words from Emma. It speaks eloquently for itself. Built in around 1580, it is an exceptionally handsome three-storey property with a jettied first floor and twin gables. The second gable was added in the 17th century and the whole house re-oriented to face the road. Both upper floors are supported by superb carved corner posts and pretty Gothicy windows were added in the early 20th century. The latter would be seen now as serious cultural vandalism but it has actually left the house with a pleasing touch of fairytale.

Its earliest recorded occupant was John Buckland, a wealthy wool manufacturer who lived there from 1641 and it remained a single, prosperous family home - picking up its name from the Fuller family - until it was bought by local landowner Henry Hoare in 1841. Hoare divided the house into four tenanted workman's cottages and it was in a sorry state by the time the family came to sell it in 1904. Major renovations were carried out - probably including the addition of the new windows and it then passed through various hands before being divided, in 1952, into two houses - Fuller House in front and Fuller Cottage at the back.

With such a chequered past, it's hardly surprising that the property has picked up a few quirks along the way, among them twin staircases, roller coaster floors and a little landing that seems to begin to go somewhere and then suddenly changes its mind. "I was very lucky when we first moved in - I had designer Ally Wylie to help me and she chose virtually the whole colour scheme. She was amazingly resourceful and very clever when it came to stretching the pennies."

The double-aspect drawing room gathers around an imposing inglenook lit cleverly by unseen halogen bulbs on a wire concealed by a beam. The room is also home to a baby grand piano, a 'houseguest' owned by pianist and music teacher Anthony Zerpa-Falcon. Beautiful it looks, too, although it might not be in such lovely condition had it turned up a couple of days later than it did. "Just before the piano arrived someone put their foot through the floor and we discovered we had deathwatch beetle," says Emma.

An elegant traditional white corner sofa is juxtaposed with a high-tech leather swivel chair that at first one might not think would be an automatic choice for an oak-panelled Tudor room but, as is so often the case, ancient and modern coexist in pleasing harmony. Both sofa and chair look a million dollars but, in fact, came from Ikea.

On the walls is a selection not only of Emma's own photographs but some superb paintings by her sister, artist Sophie Walbeoffe. In the corner is a heavy walnut chest with brass trimmings which belonged to Mark's family and an oak writing desk that was her mother's. Above us, the heavily beamed ceiling would make a spirit level weep. "Nothing's level in this house, ceilings or floors," says Emma, but points out that the dragon beams that run diagonally across the house are of particular architectural interest and contribute to its Grade II listing. She leads on to the dining room to point out an example.

We enter to find six kittens paired off and wrestling busily on another white sofa and Foxx, a 'posh' deerhound-cross lurcher looking on with that expression of deep resignation that dogs reserve for cats they're not allowed to eat. Sure enough, the beam is still there and very fine it is, too. A big woodburner stands in another big inglenook and on the walls are more of Emma's lovely family photographs. On the table is 'Cat', a large leopard made from mesh, straw and glass. In the corner, guarded by Foxx, is a delicate 18th century glass-fronted cabinet, another of Mark's family pieces.

In the kitchen, carpenter Mick has worked his magic with bespoke oak shelving and cabinets that look for all the world like mahogany but are, in fact, artfully painted MDF. "Hate the range. Hate the lighting. Can't see a thing in here," Emma quips and we're off up one of the house's two staircases to two pretty attic bedrooms at the top of the house occupied by her 11-year-old twins, Sissy and Kit, and Lily her 14-year-old daughter. In both, the little pointy Gothic windows add a finishing touch of childhood romance. All the bedroom furniture is painted white. We have, in fact, arrived in White Painted Furniture Land. In almost every room upstairs, Roger Charlton from 'Tasha Interiors in Lamberhurst has taken old desks, cupboards and chests of drawers that, in their original state, may have not been particularly special and turned them into elegant and interesting bedroom furniture.

Another staircase leads up to the main landing and a passage in which stands, improbably marooned, another large inglenook, a legacy of the many changes the house has seen over its considerable lifetime. At the end of the passage, past a wallfull of books, two large teddy bears sit in period highchairs waiting patiently for their picnic.

Off the passage is her 17-year-old daughter Chloë's light bright room with its own white painted floors and furniture. Behind a white and rose print curtain hides her own bathroom. A second door leads of from Chloë's bedroom onto a small landing-cum-gallery just large enough to accommodate a substantial telescope, a bureau and a second door into Emma and Mark's master bedroom.

Here the centrepiece cannot but impress - a huge Jacobean-style four-poster so heavy that it would have had any modern floor throwing in the towel some time ago. It is, however, magnificent and despite its considerable size and presence, it is in no way overbearing. Light pours in from the pretty windows and a supporting cast of white-painted furniture, white carpet and white curtains, with just a touch of peach, win the day. On the walls are more monochrome prints including a nude series for which Emma is happy to take the considerable dual credit due to both photographer and model.

Emma is one of the few family photographers who includes nude photography in her portfolio, although it is more popular with clients in Switzerland and France - where she also works - than in the UK. She almost always opts for monochrome silhouettes. "We're still a little conservative in England when it comes to nude portraits," she says. "Personally, it's one of my favourite kinds of work. It shows us as we really are. All women are beautiful and it's my responsibility and pleasure to show that beauty."

In the UK, Emma's main commissions tend to be portraits of children, families and pets - particularly horses - with only the livestock in the buff. She invariably works in black and white and tends to shoot in a natural environment, rather than a studio, using only available light. Occasional work happens in her studio on the top floor of a converted outbuilding above a children's den and sauna. "Whenever I speak of this rather magnificent home, I have always said how it embraces one," says Emma. "It's almost organic, how it envelops those who live here."

Fuller House is a delight, slightly quirky and awash with architectural interest. Through the ages it has survived feast and famine, seen radical changes to its village and its own structure and while once it stood on a country thoroughfare it now finds itself on a busy Cranbrook-Staplehurst road. And yet, somehow, it has managed, almost effortlessly, to retain its original character and integrity. But close the door and one is merely left with paradise, which, I think, would do most of us very, very nicely.

  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming