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A Home with a History: all things bright and beautiful at an antique dealer’s 16th-century house in Suffolk

Unlike most Elizabethan houses, Danielle Swanson’s is luminous, its walls – save for those of just one room – a brilliant white. This brighter shade of pale, she finds, is the perfect foil for her collected treasures

Celia Lyttelton
Ellen Hancock
A Home with a History: all things bright and beautiful at an antique dealer’s 16th-century house in Suffolk

Danielle Swanson’s front door is Elizabethan. Dark and cracked with age, it has its original locks. If only doors could speak… Instead, the story unfolds inside.

Though it was constructed in around 1550, this building in the village of Wissett is not gloomy and heavy, like so many Suffolk vernacular houses. Instead, it is an airy light-filled home; even under Tupperware-grey February skies the house is suffused in luminosity.

White is the agency for enhancing and conducting light – and here it’s employed to its full potential. Except for one bathroom, all the rooms are painted in Farrow & Ball’s ‘Wimborne White’, which makes natural woodwork, such as the Elizabethan floorboards, kitchen pamments and the antique dealer’s glut of gilded and lustred objects glow. There are no curtains; instead, windows are swathed with white calico or lace drapes, not intended to block out the light, rather to usher it in. Such simplicity creates a delicate and romantic effect.

Used to bring the elegance of different materials, textures and forms into focus, white lends a steady radiance and warmth to Danielle’s varied collections of Kashmiri papier-mâché boxes, golden embroidered door hangings from Fez, silk velvet cushions and ikat textiles. Other objects benefit too: statuettes of horses, an entire bookcase devoted to shells, 18th-century creamware, ancient icons, Persian pottery and Murano glass. Drawers, meanwhile, conceal Danielle’s most treasured things, those too delicate to live in the light: piles of gossamer Ottoman Empire textiles, fragile as a moth’s wing.

Danielle has a discerning eye and an aptitude for arranging objects to look like a still life. She also has a strong sense of ingenuity. In her hands, mere decorative objects acquire a second life and are made functional. Carved French shutters, glazed with distressed mirror, now form a long, fitted cupboard in the dressing room. A pair of vases magically turn into lampstands. Burmese temple ceiling mounts become wall sconces, and ikats are fashioned into lampshades – bestsellers in her antique shop in Debenham. As a consequence, even utility is burnished into beauty here, glowing against the wondrous white. “I hate anything ugly being visible,” Danielle admits. We could have guessed.

“I found this house in winter. After much negotiation, however, I was gazumped. A few weeks later, I was practising yoga and had an out-of-body experience – I became an owl flying over the back fields of the house. Within a few days the agent rang to say it was mine, if I still wanted it. It was extraordinary.

“When I walked into the kitchen, it was covered in tar-black creosote. It was dismal. I tore up the shiny Mexican tiles that were underfoot and put in traditional Suffolk pamments instead, matching them with what existing 18th-century ones remained. I installed a double granite sink and rebuilt most of the rotten windows. Luckily, I didn’t have to do any major structural work, as there had been a rebuild in the 1980s.

“That said, they hadn’t fixed everything at that point, not least my bedroom floor, which remains at a 20-degree angle. You virtually have to walk uphill to the loo. The bathroom floor is also tilted; the double basins, bidet, loo and rolltop bathtub have all had to be raised on plinths to even them out. It took a week for my brilliant carpenter to get everything level. The bathroom is also the only room in the house with colourful walls. They’re painted eau de Nil.

“I did do some small bits – I opened up the fireplace in the guest bedroom, for instance, revealing Elizabethan madder-brown brickwork beneath; now, a 17th-century map hangs above the mantle shelf in there, showing Amsterdam. I call that space the Bird Room, as it also displays a framed piece of Chinese wallpaper with a blackbird, a painting of thrush by Paul Benney – one of four paintings I have by him – and a dove by Peter Campbell.

“I have so many pictures that I have to hang them on the doors. My favourite painting is of a hedgehog and windfarm, another of Paul Benney’s, which is in the kitchen. Paul’s also done a portrait of my daughter Rowan; he excels in portraiture. A recent artistic discovery came after I spied a Fauvist painting made by Georges Braque in 1906 in the National Gallery bookshop. It was a lightbulb moment –  I had a perfect copy of it at home, only it was signed 2001; it was so obviously Fauvist in colour and design but I’d never realised it was a copy of Braque’s. I have Guido Reni and Paul Klee copies too; I don’t mind having facsimiles – to me, they’re still beautiful.

“Something I do mind, though, is overhead lighting. I only have lamps in this house – and all of them are on a digital relay, with a single switch in every room. When there’s a powercut and I light the candles, one sees what the house would have looked like in the 16th century. It’s rather magical.

“I am very drawn to objects. Over time, I’ve learned to trust my instinct when it comes to working out what I can’t bear to part with. Lots goes in the shop, however, which is full of rustic Georgian furniture, looking glasses, folk art and much else besides. I think I have a feel for what works for others too and now work as an interior designer with the brilliant modernist Olivia Pomp, under the name Swan and Pomp.

“I guess you could say I’m a material girl, really: textiles are my favourite things. When I moved to Massachusetts in 1976, I went with a suitcase; when I returned 34 years later, I shipped four containers back with me – with a lot of textiles in there: Fortuny curtains, embroidered fragments, ecclesiastical pieces, tribal artefacts…

“I love this neighbourly village I call home. I’m not the first: in the summer of 1916, Vanessa, her lover, Duncan Grant and his partner, David Garnett, lived here. Being pacifists, they had come to pick soft fruit for the war effort, but it wasn’t considered real labour so, later that year, they moved to Charleston in Sussex to do heavier agricultural work. After visiting, Virginia Woolf wrote that the place ‘seems to lull asleep all ambition. Don’t you think they have discovered the secret of life? I thought it wonderfully harmonious.’ I agree with her on the harmony front, though less on the ambition: when I moved here, the garden was barren. I’ve since planted 140 trees, all sorts of shrubs, herbs and two vegetable patches. There’s even fruit to pick.”

Danielle’s shop, Swan House and Garden, can be found at 21 High Street, Debenham, Suffolk IP14 6QL, or on Instagram

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