Curiouser and curiouser!' cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)". In Chapter Two of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the protagonist finds it hard to contain her excitement - and it's a similar feeling one gets when walking into the fabulously curated Winkenhurst Manor, near Heathfield in Sussex, one marvelouslly curious room, leading into another.
For the owners, however, it was the 'chocolate box' Regency facade that first put them under its spell: "It's a classic English country house facade," says Paul, who bought the house with his partner Martin ten years ago. "The front, which was built in the 1830s is double bow-fronted with Doric columns on either side of the central door." Perfect symmetry and Regency style to the front of house hides a fabulously historic building behind: "The back of the house is an old Sussex long house, which dates back to about 1704," adds Paul. There's no doubt that this Grade II* home is rather special.
Although the couple know a little about its history - Winkenhurst Manor was originally home to the Miller family, and once housed the local vicar - what's particularly interesting these days, are the historic collections of items within. Martin, as well as running Martin D. Johnson Antiques & Interiors, has more than a pinch of the Victorian collector about him, collecting silverware, shells and historic plasterwork, amongst other things - all of which are displayed with deft care, around this spacious and beautifully light family home.
"We're not very good at buying small amounts of anything," says Paul. "We tend to go to big trade fairs, and we'll fill the pantechnicon with stock. Sometimes we will display it in the house, or keep it ourselves, although most of the stock goes into a warehouse and then up for sale - mainly to the American trade." It's easy to see why such classically English artifacts would go down a storm across the pond.
The couple, who work together in the antiques and interior design business, have made an art form out of creating unique displays of collectables: "We sell quite a lot of bookcases and create a 'look' for our bookcases - rather than filling them with leather books. People assume that all you can do with a bookcase is put books in it. We create cabinets of curiosities, which we take up to the Decorative Fair in Battersea."
They have also come up with a superb way of upcycling Victorian museum display cases: "We bought a clearance lot from a museum, as they were getting rid of them, and we chopped the legs off and made them into coffee tables, says Paul. It may sound drastic, but it gives the cases a new lease of life, and makes them relevant and usable in a modern home as is demonstrated by the one that takes pride of place in the living room at Winkenhurst Manor.
"We've sold a couple which are now in people's seaside properties in the US," adds Paul. "When the children come back from the beach, having collected shells and things, they just pop them in the cabinet." Martin would surely approve, given his own love of shell collecting, although the one in his own home, contains samples of ornate plasterwork.
Ornate plasterwork, as well as being dotted around the house, dominates the stairwell and landing area at the heart of the house: "They are mostly examples of the mouldings in Parisian or French country houses," says Paul. "These samples would probably have been used by artists as references. It's a bit of an homage to Sir John Soane's house," he adds. Soane's house, on Lincoln's Inn Fields in central London, has not been altered during the 180 years since the architect's death. It's magical, but you wouldn't want to live there. This house, on the other hand, feels loved and lived in.
"Even though we have a lot of traditional things in the house, we live in a relatively modern way," says Paul. The contrast between traditional and antique, with modern and often industrial pieces, is something you notice as soon as you walk into the house. It is perhaps most evident in the kitchen-cum-orangery, where an upcycled water tank acts as a kitchen 'server' or sideboard and is home to a large collection of antique silver and blue and white Delft-ware. "We often sell things from the house, so it's helpful to show people that you can take traditional silver, or candelabras, and make it work in a modern house," adds Paul.
Another impressive feature in the kitchen / dining area is a vast refectory-style table made from reclaimed boards and topped with silver candelabra. "We bought it already made, from a man in Belgium. He basically reclaims buildings, so they are either floorboards or scaffolding boards." Overhead are the now almost classic reclaimed industrial lights. I am about to suggest that they look like ones we had on the farm where I grew up, when Paul beats me to it: "The lamps are 1960s heat lamps, which I think were from a farm and were used to keep the chicken houses warm!" They've certainly gone up in status since then...
Paul and Martin seem to have a knack for finding furniture and artworks with an interesting, often humble provenance, whether it's the reclaimed water tank they believe to have come from a ship or submarine, or the former poultry lamps. By contrast, they have also acquired some rather special items, from rather special people. The master bedroom suite illustrates perfectly a mix of modern and antique, everyday and otherworldly.
On one wall is a large abstract and colourful oil painting. "We bought the picture as part of a job lot of paintings that used to belong to Adam Faith," says Paul. My eyes are also drawn to two metal and glass occasional tables at the foot of the bed. "They used to belong to Sir Norman Hartnell, the Queen's dresser. He designed the Queen's wedding dress and coronation gown. They were from his original Bruton Street studio where most of the royals went to get dressed and a lot of stars as well. We have a picture of Merle Oberon stood next to one of them," says Paul.
A dressing room, which is next to the master bedroom suite, was created by a carpenter friend of the couple. Standing on and inside a display cabinet by the window, are spats and boots, which also belonged to the famed couturier: "We don't wear them! I don't think they would fit! We just thought they were a nice thing to have in a dressing room," says Paul.
A dressing room is certainly a very civilised thing to have... as is a master bedroom with two en suite bathrooms. I ask if this helps them avoid arguments? "I don't like sharing!" laughs Paul. So, who is the tidier of the two? "I'd like to say me, but it's probably not true. I tend to leave my clothes where I drop them!" Tidiness aside, the gentlemen's bathrooms are very different in style.
Paul's bathroom is unfussy and painted in pale grey with white tiles. On one wall, a selection of silver-gilt frames have been used, quirkily, to enclose found objects with visual appeal - rather than pictures. Opposite, is a Lucian Freud-esque portrait of a bearded man with ruffled hair, called Far off Gaze signed simply 'C. Spratt' and two Russian-looking sailors by the artist Joe Machine. Clutter is avoided by encasing it in a chrome and glass display cabinet, lending ordinary items such as toiletries an air of the collector's item.
Martin's bathroom on the other hand is shamelessly that of a collector, more specifically a collector of shells. Shelves are used for the display of shells and corals in complementary pinky peach shades while a classical bust, covered in shells by an enthusiastic Victorian, stands on the windowsill overlooking the scene. It is this bathroom which is also a Jack and Jill, and can be used by guests in the neighbouring guest room, if required.
This particular guest room is another example of careful curation. Pale painted furniture, including French-style chairs and commode, as well as another bespoke upholstered headboard offer a simple backdrop to some seriously ornate French church candelabra, wall sconces and an imposing classical bust. "We collect quite a lot of church relics," says Paul, "from Portugal, Spain and France - they tend to decommission their churches as they had so many of them, so there is a ready market for church relics." Over a surprisingly rustic bare-brick fireplace hangs a large starburst mirror. "We buy them from antique auctions. That one is mid 20th century I believe," says Paul.
As well as this guest room, there is also a guest suite in the old part of the house - which can be reached by a secret door on the central stairway. It comprises a bedroom, bathroom and anteroom which Paul uses as an office. "The guest suite is handy when we have friends visiting who have children, as they can use the anteroom as well" says Paul. The bedroom area, compared to the rest of the house, has a relatively low ceiling with an ancient beam across. Fortunately, five sash windows help to keep the room lovely and light, as does the muted decor: "The whole house is either Cornforth White or Lamp Room Gray by Farrow & Ball," says Paul.
The 'Whistle' lettering on the wall, reminiscent of today's popular illuminated letters is in fact from an old railway station. "We bought it from another dealer, so we're not entirely sure of its origins," admits Paul. The louvred cupboards were here when Paul and Martin moved in, but seemed to suit the room's understated style so were left in place.
Winkenhurst Manor really is a wonderful combination of original, unspoiled features and tasteful modern additions - all of which have had to comply with the tight restrictions one associates with a Grade II* property... All except one.
"In the early 1960s, before the house was listed, someone took all the walls out making three rooms into one great big, enormous, 36' by 30' room," says Paul. This area now contains two vast seating areas as well as a baby grand piano. "I was having lessons," he continues, modestly. "We use it when we are having functions in the house but we usually bring in a pianist."
If ever there was a home that warranted a pianist, this has to be it. Classic, grand, and with more than a touch of glamour, Sir Norman Hartnell's clients would feel very at home here.