An American catching sight of a friend's particularly fine painting, sculpture or piece of furniture would have no hesitation in paying the appropriate compliment and casually adding 'Waddyagiveforit?' We Brits are considerably more reticent when it comes to discussing money. We may be dying to know how much a piece cost but would rather die than ask.
Imagine then the unimaginable. A British home where not only are compliments welcome but questions about price actively encouraged. A home where the owner is delighted not only to discuss the undiscussable but actively hopes you will broach the subject. A home where, if you have not mentioned the cost of an item you admire, the owner will - and all in the best possible taste.
Such a home is that of Minnie Craske, husband Peter and children Beth, Harriet and James. A very handsome three-storey Victorian town house in Tunbridge Wells, it's a home where you can not only admire and discover the price of an item but actually buy it - because antique dealer Minnie has decided on a new way to display her pieces. No longer will they be shown out of context in an elegant but impersonal shop but the in the surroundings for which they were designed - a living home.
Minnie and her family moved to Tunbridge Wells from Reigate because her two girls were set on TWGGS and the commute from the former family home in Reigate simply wasn't practical. At the time Minnie had three shops - two in Reigate and another in Guildford and initially she planned to commute back to Reigate from the new home in Tunbridge Wells. "I tried it but it just wouldn't work," she says. "In the end I decided it was time to take a long hard look at my business and see if there wasn't a more family-friendly way of running it."
The most radical question she asked herself was: did she really need the shops, with all their overheads and commute, at all? "After a while I thought, I'm lucky enough to live in a rather elegant period house in Tunbridge Wells - a house that would make a perfect environment in which to show my antiques," says Minnie. "I only buy pieces I really like myself so why not furnish my home with my stock and invite customers to viewings here where they can see things in context, in a real home?"
So she made the break and backed up her home-based business with a strong online presence. Today, customers tend to make their choice on line but Minnie is more than happy to make an appointment for her clients to see the piece in the setting of her own home. She is also now planning to have open days when you and I will be able to browse at leisure and pick up ideas on how individual items might be used or displayed to best effect. "The whole idea has worked brilliantly," she says. "On the one hand I can carry on a business I enjoy and on the other hand I'm always here for the family."
Minnie's home begins underground with a stunning basement conversion that provides a dining room, kitchen and the children's computer games room. The walls are the original glowing brick and white lime mortar and the floor throughout oak boarding. The kitchen section is divided invisibly down the middle - the business side all black granite and steel and the other a far warmer world of soft shades, shadows and antique wood.
Along the latter side stands an 18th century Swedish Gustavian sideboard, two of its glass doors allowing the display of the porcelain within. On it stand two chunky faux stone table lamps and a collection of white iron stoneware Italian confit pots. Next to the sideboard is a Scots pine linen cupboard and next to that a delicate little zinc-topped French bistro table. Holding the kitchen centre ground is an old mending table from a cotton mill.
The dining room gathers round a bespoke bleached oak table and an eclectic collection of white-painted and old bare wood chairs. Nearby hides a small white painted butcher's block trimmed with a pretty cotton curtain. But the real star of the dining room show is the house's lovely courtyard garden. "When we first saw the house there were only small doors through to the garden and we felt that running doors along the full length of the wall would really make this downstairs space," says Minnie. And so it did. Minnie also deals in garden antiques and furnishings and so the garden is not only a source of light and colour but of continual interest as pieces move in, are sold and move on.
At the other end of the basement space, the focus is the handsome brick fireplace, home to the cleverly disguised children's TV, opposite which is a deep black Danish leather sofa - perfect for endless gaming. Should the children ever look up, they might notice the elegant shuttered bay that also ensures that this end of the basement, too, is light and bright. In the bay is a Danish rosewood desk while next to the fireplace is another Danish contribution - a limited edition Union Jack egg armchair created for the Olympics. "I've always specialised in Scandinavian and French period furniture," she says. "I think both are beautiful in their own right and go really well together."
However, Minnie's interests go far beyond furniture - her house is a treasure trove of objects of beauty and interest. As we head up to the ground floor we pass a wooden case of old soda siphon bottles and a pretty drawered shelf on which stands a collection of soda siphons and some fat green bottles. "I love old bottles," she says." They're not only attractive and interesting in themselves but they have all sorts of uses - not least, of course, as vases."
The drawing room is divided into cool elegant formal and cool elegant casual and is her main show room. In the more casual area a big cream Danish horse-shoe sofa faces the television on the wall opposite and light pours in from a wall of glass doors which open out onto a large timber balcony overlooking the garden. "The kitchen floor is always buzzy with people chatting or going to and fro - upstairs is more of a chillout space," she says.
Above the sofa is a huge old Danish white and gilt mirror while in the TV side of the room there are all sorts to fascinate - from some old leather suitcases in lovely condition and a collection of wicker picnic hampers to a long and superb French console table. Beside the table is a rough-hewn object carved from a single piece of wood which looks for all the world like a child's canoe but is, in fact, an old dough-making trough. An old grey industrial glass-fronted cabinet houses a collection of jugs and other assorted goodies while atop it stands an 18th century wooden carved cherub - the mould for a generation of plaster cherubs that now, somewhere, adorn village churches.
"I love antiques not just for their beauty but their history," says Minnie. "I love the stories each tell and I love thinking about where they've been and what they've seen." A perfect example is the sweetheart cushion on the wall between the two sections of the room, once sent to a convalescing soldier of the Great War. Embroidered with rose, thistle and shamrock and perhaps the couple's initials, it speaks volumes of the time. Who were these lovers? How and where was he wounded? Did they marry and live happily ever after?
The more formal part of the room gathers around an old oak coffee table which Minnie plans to bleach and an impressive fireplace. The sofas are from Wesley-Barrell and virtually everything else from either France or Scandinavia. White halfshutters framed by fine linen curtains screen the room from the road making this end of the high-ceilinged room as bright as the other. In the window stand three black-clad 19th century mannikins, one particularly unusual in that it has legs - not something that 19th century women showed a great deal of.
Four wonderful Louis XVI fauteuils stand sentinel around the room, their faded embroidery untouched for two centuries. The mirrors, too, are a feature here - a large gilt Louis Philippe mirror over the fireplace and next to it a 19th century French rococo piece unusual in that it can be hung portrait or landscape. In fact, all around the house are original Louis Philippes of varying sizes, some gilt some painted.
By the door stands an old Chinese chest that once belonged to Minnie's father. It was once dark wood but Minnie had it professionally repainted to give it a new lease of contemporary life. On it stand two ornate and increasingly rare French church candelabras. Another nearby stands under a cloche. "Cloches are great things," says Minnie. "You can display virtually anything in them." Under her own she has a variety of items from a pair of vintage wedding shoes to a statue of the Virgin Mary.
In the black and white tessellated hallway stands a lovely ornate and mirrored French dresser, more like a wedding cake than a piece of furniture. On it stands a chunky French confit pot doubling as a vase and a pair of mercury glass candlesticks, while underneath is a copper hat case which one protected the ceremonial headwear of one J.G. Phillips of the Royal Navy.
And so upstairs and past a demi-console table and on it another cloche displaying Minnie's own bridal head-band. Centre-piece of the master bedroom is a large and elegant French corbeille bed over which hangs a 1950s sunburst mirror. "Mid-century pieces are very popular at the moment," says Minnie. "Perhaps because they go so well with so many styles." One wardrobe is a Swedish-style piece and the other French from Mark Maynard in Tunbridge Wells and standing by is a delicate Louis XVI sofa.
Minnie's three children must have the most elegant bedrooms in Kent, all furnished with some of her favourite pieces. In the eaves is her younger daughter's room - pink bunting, an antique white iron bedstead, Susie Watson coverlet, a Victorian pine dressing table and an old school teacher's desk.
Beth's room is graced by a brass and iron bedstead, French wardrobe, Louis Philippe mirror, a large Danish table serving as her desk and, on her wall, an old pair of girl's ice skates. James has not only the most elegant boy's bedroom I have ever seen but also the tidiest - a French distressed dressing table, French antique bedside tables backed by deeply distressed old cupboard doors, seriously chic bedside lights, an Edwardian slipper chair and Union Jack bedspread and rug.
There are many absorbing and interesting things about Minnie's house but the most interesting is just how she has managed to present so much of her beautiful stock without the slightest suggestion that this is in any way a showroom. What she has created primarily is a warm and welcoming family home. It's just that much you see just happens to be for sale. A gift that is, quite simply, priceless.