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A Home with a History: the hand-hewn restoration of Bonfield Block-Printers’ Georgian home in Dorset

When artists Cameron Short and Janet Tristram first saw Bonfield, a former village shop, it was the epitome of dereliction. Now, with an astonishing amount of work behind them, the couple have revived the house and outbuildings, restored their historical features and imbued the place with all the wondrous wildness of their nature-inspired prints

Words
Celia Lyttelton
A Home with a History: the hand-hewn restoration of Bonfield Block-Printers’ Georgian home in Dorset

Visiting Cameron Short and Janet Tristram’s Georgian house in Thorncombe is like stepping into a Thomas Hardy novel. It might be because we’re in deepest Wessex here, but it’s also something to do with the way the shadowy light plays across its lime-plastered walls, and its woodburning stoves being all aglow. The rooms are furnished sparely and – save for the electrics – there are few signs of the 21st century; the couple doesn’t even have duvets, instead preferring old-fashioned sheets and blankets.

Cameron and Janet passionately believe in minimal intervention, embracing, preserving and repairing the existing fabric of buildings rather than wholesale renovation. Their house looks seamless, as if it has not changed for centuries. The whole place is imbued with meraki, the Greek idea of putting your soul creatively into what you make. It is a handmade home devoted to block-printing.

Janet and Cameron moved in nine years ago, having already established their artisan block-printing business using a 1904 proofing press. Their offerings include beautiful cushions, textiles, garments, bags, prints on paper and even logos. Prior to the move, they were living with their three young daughters in a nearby cottage. The place was so small that when they printed a roll of wallpaper, the family had to go out for the day while the paper dried.

One day, the old Thorncombe village stores – called Bonfield and Grade II-listed – came up for sale at auction. The couple bravely bought the wreck, which was full of industrial amounts of rubbish, fire-damaged and so overgrown outside that the broken windows were almost entirely obscured. Two years later it was a resounding restoration success – testament to the couple’s prodigious creativity, unwavering commitment to reclamation and restoration, and love of a good story.

Cameron: “We bought the house in 2013 and moved in a year later. Before, we’d spent five years renting a farm cottage just outside the small village of Marshwood. Our landladies were real characters; they wore threadbare scarves and their noses permanently dripped from the cold. On first meeting us, they looked Janet up and down – who was wearing Vivienne Westwood and gold brogues – and muttered to each other: ‘She won’t last a Marshwood winter.’ I’m pleased to say that of course she did ­– and many more than one!

“While we were there, I began carving in the evenings. I then bought a proofing press from eBay and soon after, in 2011, won a scholarship from QEST (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust). I was mentored by Marthe Armitage, a veteran wallpaper designer and a most gifted and generous person. At the time, I was mainly working as hedgelayer. I would drive past Bonfield, which was all boarded up, and wonder if it would ever come on the market. When it did, it was a mess – we had to wear hard hats to view it. It was full of detritus, cookers, caravans, cars and oil tanks.”

Janet: “It was so overgrown with brambles and ivy you couldn’t see the sky from the kitchen window. It was like being in the Borneo jungle.’’

Cameron: “I grew up on a farm in Hampshire. As a teen, I did an art foundation course, but it wasn’t for me so I went to France and played semi-professional rugby. On my return, I studied advertising before being hired as an agency creative. I did that for 12 years until I moved to Dorset in 2009.”

Janet: “Although I’m half-Samoan, I was born in New Zealand. I went to art school in Whanganui, where I learned to etch and did a pattern-cutting course. Carving wood and lino blocks has now found its way into my art practice.

“We trace our designs and drawings onto mainly lino blocks and mix our own inks. We are not ‘bright colour’ people – our palette is made up of blue-grey, carbon black, Elizabethan ochre, midnight blue and Venetian red. Some day, we intend to have a dyeing garden full of plants to make pigments.

Cameron: “My latest project is the outbuilding. Until recently, it was missing two walls; I spent seven months rebuilding them in field stone and lime mortar. The interior is constructed entirely from reclaimed wood, all of it hand-hewn and pre-industrial revolution. The oak staircase and treads came out of a barn, the elm from an inn in Monmouth, the bead-and-butt cladding boards from a chapel, and the floorboards from a Welsh farmhouse. In one bedroom, where butterflies winter, some of the floorboards are made from old freight boxes. Throughout, I restored every single plank of wood and all the original iron hinges and latches. I also designed the two box beds, which will eventually be adorned with our block-printed curtains, and I plan to reinstate the bread oven too.

“Derek Jarman’s film adaption of Shakespeare’s The Tempest has had an enduring influence on me. I was also obsessed with drawing islands as a child. It’s why the cottage is called The Drowned Book. I like to think it feels as if it’s been pieced together from the salvaged timbers of a shipwreck and that it’s full of magic (as was Prospero’s book, which he eventually ‘drowned’). I was inspired by the abodes of island-dwellers: Prospero’s cell, Scott’s hut in Antarctica and Robinson Crusoe’s home.

“They fire my imagination for many reasons. I like the idea that they were all built by hand, with what was at hand. They celebrate inventiveness, because having limited materials focuses the mind – you have to think imaginatively. Wood played a large part in their construction too, I would have thought. To me, it’s the most magnetic of all building materials – to touch, to look at, even to smell. And all of these island homes hark back to the protective, womb-like dens of our childhoods.”

Janet: “Cameron loves storytelling and many of our prints come about as a result of our interest in rural history ­­– our trompe-l’oeil ‘Poacher’s Coat’, which features a hare, an eel and a pheasant, is a good example. Our touchstone artists include Samuel Palmer, Reynolds Stone, Paul and John Nash and the Brotherhood of Ruralists.

“Cameron is as meticulous about our work as he has been about rebuilding our house. Once a block is designed, he makes multiple photocopies prior to carving to ensure it flows. Then we begin printing and establish the repeat. Before lockdown, the printing room doubled as a showroom and shop, but it’s since become just a workshop. We plan to reopen two days a week, so people can experience Bonfield’s unique atmosphere and feel our creations in their hands.

“The cushions and lampshades are all block-printed on our press. We also do limited-edition prints on paper from our lino and wood blocks. One of my pattern designs, called ‘Bloodlines’, is inspired by the hawthorn that grows here, but it also shows gentry and peasants sprouting speech bubbles, like the Georgian caricatures in Thomas Rowlandson’s or James Gillray’s satirical prints. Their words are plucked from William Barnes’ poetry.”

Cameron: “When we bought the main house, we had no plans to employ an architect. I had a basic grasp of building (my father ran a small company specialising in the restoration of period architecture) and I worked alongside two friends – one a stonemason, the other a carpenter. We stripped everything back and were careful not to throw anything away that was either beautiful or useful. We even left the previous incumbents’ signatures we found pencilled on the walls.

“Concrete was levered up to reveal ancient flags beneath, and floorboards were patched rather than ripped out. We found 18th-century toys like a lead tortoise and a silver acorn, and a porcelain dummy egg (for encouraging hens to lay) while restoring the building. We even unearthed a medieval carved-stone angel when part of the gable collapsed. Perhaps the luckiest find happened while I was sorting through rubbish. An envelope revealed itself, containing a roll of old £10 notes amounting to £2,000!

“After a year of working six days a week solidly on the house, we moved in. The conservation officer and his boss, a formidable lady, came to inspect and she was moved to tears because she felt we’d restored the house so sensitively.’’

Further reading

Bonfield Block-Printers

Bonfield Block-Printers on Instagram

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