Jewel Purpose

For some reason best known to itself, Ash Cottage has decided to travel the modern world under a modest alias inspired by its 19th century youth. True, it must once have been a cottage but today, in its prime, it's a proper grown-up house with only its attractive roofline a witness to the gentle organic growth it has undergone over the centuries.

When its current owners, Alice and James, first saw Ash Cottage it wasn't love at first sight, rather a growing understanding of its potential and what it could one day be to the couple and their growing children. "I used to come here for piano lessons and knew the house well," says Alice. "Then, one day, the owners mentioned that they planned to sell and I started to see the house in a new light. I began to imagine what it might be like if it was empty of furniture and possessions and stripped back to basics - a blank canvas."

She liked what she saw in her mind's eye and having rented in a nearby village for eight years, the couple were more than ready for a country home of their own. They sold their London flat, bought Ash Cottage and stayed in their rented cottage for a couple of months while they made plans for their new home.

"We attacked the electrics and plumbing and stripped out the old kitchen but we really didn't need to rush round knocking down walls and building extensions - what we needed was already there," she says. Alice quickly had her blank canvas and she and James set to work. James is an architect by profession and they both have a love of light, space and a dread of clutter. Just how James works with light can be appreciated from one of his latest commissions - Sea Gem - a truly spectacular beach house in Camber featured recently in The Times.

Together they set about creating a style which, while not minimalist per se, nods in its general direction ensuring the very best use of the space available. Although the house began life in the early 19th century, it had, over the years, lost virtually all its period features with perhaps the only evidence of its cottage origins being some good tongue and groove in the hallway. This meant that the property had lost much of its original character and left the couple free to reveal a completely new side to its personality. "It had taken me a while to see the potential of the house when it was furnished and a treasure trove of the previous owners' possessions," says Alice, "but once it was empty, this potential was obvious. There seemed so much more space, so many more possibilities."

Through most rooms, the only changes have been to style and colour but the kitchen has undergone a complete make-over, stripped to the bone and refitted. The floor is dramatic - Dalsouple deep purple rubber - and the units and iroko surfaces are the Glendevon range by Howdens. Above the surfaces, Alice has indulged her love of brick tiling and has gone for Fired Earth crackle glazed tiles in a slate grey. She wanted a service hatch through to the dining room but found that if she took it straight through the wall it wouldn't be centred in the walls in both rooms - and so came up with the neat and simple solution of taking it through the wall diagonally.

On another of the kitchen walls (Farrow & Ball Shaded White) is a clue to a theme that runs through the house - an etching of an Ash Tree, near Holkham, Norfolk, by James' brother, printmaker Stephen Robson. In virtually all the grown-ups' rooms are prints and paintings by friends or artists with whom they have a connection.

Centrepiece of the dining room is a wonderful heavy oak, contemporary dining table from Heals flanked by benches rather than chairs. Above it is a striking mirrored ball lamp by Tom Dixon, also from Heals. In one corner stands a distressed French wardrobe - now a drinks cabinet - from James Rourke's Foxhole Antiques in Hurst Green. Another Foxhole find was the old multi-drawer French pharmacist's chest in another corner. Against the wall stands a piano which once belonged to Alice's grandmother. It's played by Alice and her daughter but it's also a reminder of how the family came to Ash Cottage.

Through into the drawing room and one's eye is immediately drawn to a cherished wedding present - a beautiful painting by Julian Vilarrubi of the Tuscan town of Certaldo where Alice and James spent their honeymoon. Another key piece is a breathtaking circular gesso and burnished bole mirror from Ochre in London. Beside the sofa is a nest of 1930s tables fished out of an antique shop in The Mint in Rye. The walls are in the same Farrow & Ball Shaded White as the dining room.

Gathered around a woodburner, the room looks a million dollars - but Alice is quick to point out that certainly isn't what it cost, citing the low M&S sofa and the tower of old wooden apple boxes that now find themselves a bookcase.

The sizeable hallway must once have been a room in its own right and again serves as a useful space. It's now home to the family Apple Mac and another lovely Vilarrubi, this one of Hampstead Heath. The walls are painted in Marston & Langinger ‘Umber' and the doors and skirting in the company's ‘Mole Brown'.

Upstairs in the master bedroom the pride of place over the bed is given to a lovely sketch of Venice by artist and former Conservative MP Brian Batsford which Alice bought at auction for a truly silly £25. Loitering is a Lloyd Loom wicker chair, another pharmacy cabinet from Hurst Green and an old Post Office sorting box tipped on its side to provide shelving. In the guest bedroom, the star is another Vilarrubi of Hampstead Heath with a supporting cast of another tower of apple boxes that have forgotten their place, and Kersaint Cob natural fibre carpeting. Alice's daughter's room is the perfect nine-year-old girl's room with a pretty wrought-iron bed and a stripped pine double old school desk. Up a tiny staircase in the vaulted eaves is her son's room, all Airfix and Boys Own stuff.

Outside, however, is Alice's pride and joy. With a jewellery degree from Central Saint Martins, she has now returned to jewellery-making after spending much of her working life in marketing. Her studio in the garden, designed by James, is based on an old shepherd's hut. Not only is its cedar exterior and gently curving roofline extremely pleasing but it provides Alice with the perfect space in which to work and teach.

"Most of my pieces are simple, tactile, elegant and really wearable," she says. "That said I do always have quite a few statement pieces in my collections so there's hopefully something for everyone. I hope that my style is distinct and individual enough that people might now recognise an Alice Robson piece.

"I also do commissions, bespoke design and remodelling of unworn or inherited jewellery," she adds. "Remodelling seems to be a growing part of my business - there's a great satisfaction in reusing stones that would otherwise be hidden away in a jewellery box or safe." When not making jewellery, she is teaching others the art, running both weekly term-time courses and taster days, both for complete beginners.

With the help of her mother, who paid for materials, she will be donating a one-off piece - a rhodolite garnet triple row necklace with a green amethyst pendant set in 18ct gold - as first prize at the St Michael's Hospice Ball to be held in September. The piece will have a retail value of more than £1000.

So what was once a modest cottage has not only become a spacious contemporary family house but a thriving artist's studio. It may have taken Alice a little while to realise the true potential of Ash Cottage but in the end it has certainly proved - dare one say it - to be something of a wonderland.

Address Book:

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