A Rich Tapestry

While she kindly makes sure that she has made everything just as the WT team like it, I nose around her kitchen. It's made up of freestanding units and one wall is dominated by a broad, painted dresser. Along the top there is a life-size china Aylesbury duck (bought at an antiques shop in Tenterden) and a large soup tureen in the shape of a cockerel. "I think it's probably early 20th century French," says Helen, "it's got a few chips in it but I really like its quirkiness". Helen is perhaps better qualified to identify such things than most of us, having worked as an interior designer in France for many years before returning to Britain to set up an antiques and brocante business with a partner. She's an avid collector, and has a professional eye for display. As I admire the collection of white and gold-rimmed porcelain on the dresser I notice that most of the pieces are from a classic Minton dinner service. "The Minton belonged to my Aunt Joyce. She had a house in London that was gorgeously furnished with interesting and exotic things. When I visited as a child I thought it was terrifically glamorous. Because her china is white, it's easy to find things to complement it. I often place things here that I will then sell on at a fair, but it means that I can briefly get some pleasure from them and change the display when I feel like it. I also find that it's a good trick to put more humble pieces with the fine china as the really good stuff elevates whatever else you put with it."

In the first-floor drawing room I take a seat in a low, Bergere chair that occupies the bay window. It is well situated because the cane back and sides mean that instead of the light from outside being blocked, it filters through it. "The light is really important," says Helen as she settles into a generously padded chair and begins threading chunky, amber-coloured beads to make some of the costume jewellery that she loves. "When I bought this place it was all rather dark. The elderly lady who had owned it had furnished it well, but it was a bit gloomy, with heavy, ox-blood curtains and thick, claret-coloured carpet throughout." Helen got rid of the "bobbly" wallpapers, stripped the floors back to bare boards and created a much simpler canvas on which to display her colourful belongings. "Suddenly the house seemed much bigger and of course, the coastal light here is one of the things that attracted me in the first place."

An imposing William IV mahogany chest of drawers from Wishyard Antiques in Rye stands to one side of the window and next to it a painted chair that Helen brought back from France has been recovered in rust and mustard yellow damask. "It's quite a simple chair really," she laughs, "but the rather grand fabric and the fringing seems to have given it a throne-like appearance." Next to it is a console table that Helen has painted in a similar yellow, but this time, she's used a crackle glaze. "You have to know what you're doing," she explains. "First I painted it dark red then added the glaze, and finally the yellow top coat with which the crackle glaze reacts. It's all very easily disturbed, so it takes some experience to get it right."

On the opposite wall, a pair of inlaid mahogany mirrors complement the carved mahogany sofa upholstered in rich burgundy brocade, shot through with a bottle green that catches the light. "The sofa came from my Aunt Lucy, and I found the fabric by chance. I think it's more fun to search for the unusual, and to mix things up a bit. These days, anyone can go and buy a complete ‘look' at IKEA and it can look good, but it's a bit impersonal for me."

Before we go up to the third floor, I peep into the bathroom. Although a luxuriously deep roll-top bath dominates the floor space, it is the giant coloured baubles that hang from the ceiling like oversized Christmas decorations that really catch the eye. "There was a horrible strip light on the ceiling and when I took it down I was left with a kind of scar across the paintwork, so I hung the baubles there so that you hopefully wouldn't notice the ceiling."

At the top of the house, Helen's bedroom has great views of the sea and town. It is a serene ivory white but the wall above the bed is a joyful collection of oil and watercolour paintings of flowers. Some are from France, others from local junk shops, some from the beneficent Aunty Joyce, and one was even rescued from a dump. The bed is dressed with a hand-made ivory quilt and masses of cushions, some of which have been sewn from the same linen that Helen had used to make window panels. A huge mirror in the centre of a magnificent French wardrobe reflects light back into the room. The wardrobe is painted white and gold, but when Helen opens the doors the drawers and shelves inside are beautifully constructed from dark, glossy mahogany. "It belonged to a French woman who lived near here," Helen tells me, "She had found it in an abandoned house in France and had then brought it to England, but she didn't have enough space for it at her next house. I wasn't sure that I did either, but I had to have it."

The bedroom is where Helen keeps the majority of her vintage swan collection which features throughout the house. Displayed lined serenely in rows, grouped according to colour and size, the collection inspired the name of her antiques business ‘Swan Time'.

In one corner, Helen has stacked four sets of small chests of drawers. "They're those cheap wooden ones you get at IKEA. Normally they have a little hole at the top of each drawer, but that seemed a bit utilitarian, so I turned them around and attached different handles to each one. I've painted them different colours so I know where to find my red, blue or green beads."

As we descend the two flights of stairs to the dining room, we first pass walls covered with oil paintings, pen and ink drawings, photographs, fabric panels and framed needlepoint pictures that Helen has sewn. Then on the lower flight there are brightly coloured 1950s educational prints illustrating a lighthouse, the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner, and farmyard animals. Designed to appeal to a child's eye, they have an endearing simplicity and are composed of wonderfully vivid, pure colours. "I bought these locally and then realised that they were printed by the publishing company that my glamorous London aunt and uncle worked for. I have some more in the dining room and some from Paris too. Oh, and come and see the doors that I found in a skip." I follow Helen into the dining room through a pair of very grand doors that are unmistakably French. "I found these in a skip in Paris. Can you believe that people would throw such things out?" This room is an explosion of colour, as if one has walked into a Fauvist picture by Matisse or Dufy. One wall is almost entirely covered with paintings and prints, some of which are by local artist and friend Brian Osley. A low cane sofa occupies the bay window and is padded with a rainbow of cushions in 1920s jazzy stripes, scarlet knits and 1950s printed linen. Either side of the window, multicoloured velvet curtains drop from ceiling to floor in generous folds. "I make those myself," says Helen. "Because the velvet is so thick and I line them with Liberty prints, they're very heavy, so I use painted scaffolding poles as curtain rails. They're great because they're so strong, you can put a scaffolding pole across a wide space and you don't need supports." On the wall by the door a green faux bamboo dresser is covered in majolica style dishes in hues of emerald green, ochre yellow and burnt umber. They have raised, patterned surfaces and some are for serving delicacies such as oysters or asparagus, with indentations in which to arrange the shells or spears.

The dining room sums up what Helen does best in this house. Combining colours and being bold in those choices is hard enough, but she also pulls together quite disparate elements and then stimulates the eye and brain by providing a variety of pattern and texture too. It's a painterly approach informed by professional experience, but instead of it just being a collection of things, a display, she has managed to make it look and most importantly, feel like a proper home.

Helen's vintage decorative and antiques fair business, Swan Time, named after her huge collection of vintage china swans, will be having a fair on 13th March 2010 at All Saints Church Hall, All Saints Street, Hastings, from 9.30am until 4pm. For more information visit www.swantime.co.uk.

  • words Claire Tenant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming