Art Scene

It's an old cliché but when choosing a new home the top three priorities for most of us probably are location, location and location. But close on their heels come a raft of other major considerations covering the needs of every single family member – including, of course, non-human members – and the final equation tends to look not unlike a Stephen Hawking doodle.

This is not to say I am so cynical as not to believe in love at first sight and that there are properties that you know you shouldn't really go to see because they simply don't tick enough boxes but you go anyway and end up falling for them. But rarely have I come across an owner who had bought their house with no consideration whatever for its physical structure or whatever lay within.

"I walked in through the gate, saw the garden and knew I had to live here," says Stella Hayes. "The house was completely irrelevant."

On a wall in the kitchen is a bright – very bright – grasshopper painting by Ilze Avotina. "I treated myself to a museum quality work despite family really hating it," says Stella, "but it's so happy! I went to the artist's house – she only ever wears black and white – and her house was all white, but her work is these crazy colours."

Now one might be forgiven for thinking that way madness lies – but that would be before you saw the garden. If it had been gathered round no more than a yurt, Stella's decision would have been perfectly understandable. This is the ‘wild' garden of a million rural fantasies. Everywhere great untamed banks of colour tumble over one another enfolding the house which far from being a yurt is a lovely 17th century sandstone farmhouse. A surrounding area of cut lawn separates the house and its beds from a swathe of untamed grasses and wild flowers that drfit into a wood beyond which is a secret stream.

"The garden was the consuming passion of the previous owners who had been here for over 40 years," says Stella, noting that she and husband Kevin are only the third owners of the property since official records began. However, the previous owners' passion did mean that the house had been somewhat neglected and was caught in something of a '70s time warp.

"What we had to do was to make sure we maintained the character of the garden and the house while still creating a contemporary home," says Stella. As far as the former was concerned she had the huge good fortune to inherit, with the garden, Barry Davis who had helped tend the garden here for more than 30 years. "His depth of knowledge, skill and enthusiasm is invaluable – and I really mean invaluable," she says.

As far as the house was concerned, Stella had three equally invaluable resources – her own considerable eye for design, a wonderful collection of furniture gathered over the years and a superb collection of paintings, the result of her experience as a gallery owner. Until recently she had her own gallery in the Pantiles and plans to have a sale of many of the paintings that still remain from the gallery later this month (see page 105 at the end of this article for further details).

Although the house needed to be completely redecorated and refurnished, and new roles designated to many of the rooms, Stella was unwilling to alter the fabric and original layout of the building so no walls were knocked down or through and no additions made.

The large kitchen was, she says, really just a "functional mess". It remains functional but far from a mess. The centre-piece is a superb walnut-topped island unit, tailor-made by Somerset-based kitchen company Chalon.

"It was ridiculously expensive but it is my entire kitchen," she says. "It houses everything and serves as informal dining table." Surrounding it are chairs that might also be Chalon but, in fact, came from Fired Earth. The sink unit is also a triumph – huge, chunky and deeply distressed, it has a surface that could, for all the world, be marble but is actually a more durable Corian composite. At either end are heavy stone pineapple lamps from Gardener & Cook in the Pantiles.

The French gilt chairs are another Parisian find. "We used to go regularly to Paris and loved to go through the brocante markets," says Stella. "We'd never come back empty-handed."

On the wall is a bright – very bright – grasshopper painting by Ilze Avotina. "I treated myself to a museum quality work despite family really hating it," says Stella, "but it's so happy! I went to the artist's house – she only ever wears black and white – and her house was all white, but her work is these crazy colours."

Stella's taste in art is truly eclectic. "For me it's all about the people behind it – the artists' stories and personality. I want part of them around me," she says. "Generally, I don't believe in good or bad art – I know its a clichι but if one likes something then it's good. Who can say that football posters are not art but Damien Hi.rst's skull is?"

Off the kitchen is a long, high and bright dining room that has more than a touch of orangery about it. The huge pine dining table came from eBay "because nobody anywhere else was selling anything big enough". The red velvet, French grey-painted dining chairs are a pleasing contrast. Above hangs a vast chandelier bought by the couple in Notting Hill Gate many moons and houses ago. All are kept company by a slim and elegant old four-drawer sideboard that, like so much of their furniture, was found in a "junk shop".

"There was a time when everyone wanted new or pine and period furniture and the junk shops were just full of wonderful old stuff," she says. "You just don't find places like those today."

On the wall is a vast nude Stella bought at a student show some years ago. "It was the scale of the painting that I enjoyed," she said. "At the time we had a big Victorian house in Tunbridge Wells and so we had the space for this kind of work."

Also off the kitchen is a guest bedroom where the pride of place goes to the first bed the couple ever bought – a handsome piece with panelled pine head- and tail boards. Above it is an impressive set of antlers and, by the door, an antique brass-inlaid Chinese cabinet from YiJu in the Pantiles. The walls are in ‘Apple' from The Little Greene Paint Company.

Focus of the beamed drawing room is a lovely honeyed sandstone inglenook before which stands a striking custom-made black and white striped glass coffee table and two period French chairs bought in Paris and re-upholstered. At the end of the room stands Stella's John Broadwood grand piano and on the side walls, a Chinese medicine cabinet from YiJu and another long and elegant four drawer table on which stand two wonderful tall iron lamps from Foxhole Antiques in Hurst Green and above which is an abstract, Lines of Life by Philippe Partoune.

Upstairs, in the master bedroom, is a lovely rosewood scroll-top bed, another eBay find. "It would have cost a fortune in a shop," she says. The walnut occasional table she found in a junk shop and upon it sits a beautiful and surreal golden dress. Behind is another large and impressive canvas – Red Shoes by Jana Brike. Against another wall stands a superb marble-topped yew chest of drawers and on it stands a pair of Chinese table lamps from Hoopers in Tunbridge Wells.

The French gilt chairs are another Parisian find. "We used to go regularly to Paris and loved to go through the brocante markets," says Stella. "We'd never come back empty-handed."

The elegant bathroom is a triumph in Farrow & Ball London Stone. "By sheer luck I found a lovely glass-fronted cabinet in Gardener & Cook and it was exactly the same colour," she says.

The guest bedroom gathers around a particularly pleasing Victorian brass bed. The matching side tables and stone table lamps come from Homesense in Tunbridge Wells North Farm Industrial Estate, as does the large black and white mirror. "We bought a lot from Homesense both for our current house and our Victorian house in Tunbridge Wells," says Stella.

"I walked in through the gate, saw the garden and knew I had to live here," says Stella. "The house was completely irrelevant."

Considering that Stella's passion for this property was ignited by its garden and that what existed within the glowing sandstone walls played very much second fiddle, what she has done with its once tired and dated interior is little short of a triumph, both in terms of a home for her family and a living gallery for her art.

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For further information on The Cottage in the Garden, visit www.cottageinthegarden.co.uk

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