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A Home with a History: how rescued treasures bring timeless pleasure in a Derbyshire cottage

One man’s rubbish is another’s riches, they say – and Jane and Rob Slater’s impressive array of folk art, antiques and objects, on display in their 19th-century cottage in Derbyshire, is a convincing case in point. One wonders why anyone ever threw such gems away

Will Slater
A Home with a History: how rescued treasures bring timeless pleasure in a Derbyshire cottage

“I don’t think we’ve ever bought a new piece of furniture.” Jane Slater glances around her sitting room and then to her husband, Rob, who nods in agreement. “Why would we need to?” he replies. Looking at the careworn and comfortable-looking sofa on which they sit, to the oak settle in the kitchen and to the myriad chests and dressers that huddle in various rooms, their woodwork hidden beneath centuries’ worth of paint jobs, we tend to agree.

The Slaters’ is a full house, well stocked but not stuffed, as pictures – taken by the couple’s son, Will – show here. Shelves are dotted with just the right amount of things: spongeware bowls jostle happily with mochaware mugs, pieces of patina’d pewter with painted decoy pigeons. Until you spot the magnetic knife rack by the kitchen sink, you’d be forgiven for thinking its spaces were sets from a period drama ­– except, of course, they live: this is a functioning family home, where a spaniel snoozes in the sun and chickens peck dirt in the allotment. Inigo is only slightly disappointed to learn that there’s a washing machine behind the kitchen cabinet’s curtains. “Can you believe it – we even have a telly,” Jane laughs.

Everything here – save for a few mod cons – has been bought second-hand, the result of countless dawns spent rummaging at flea markets, and hours of rifling through auction catalogues. Jane and Rob are dedicated to finding beauty in the everyday, it seems, and to giving new life to objects and artefacts that have less of a place in the modern world than they once did – weathervanes, for instance, or painted pub signs. “You can’t just chuck these things,” says Rob, a folk artist and engineer of 40 years.

It’s clear talking to both him and Jane, a special-needs teacher, the satisfaction such thriftiness brings them. But the couple have style too, an eye for the unusual and the genuine – as anyone that follows them on Instagram knows. They talk about their collected things with the air of professionals, only without a scrap of pretention. Their modesty belies knowledge, however, as a conversation with Rob about primitive chairs quickly proves. But they wear their learning lightly, instead living with – and loving – the things they buy, bringing them new life in the process.

Jane: “We’ve been in this house for 25 years now, though we knew it before we bought it, as we were living in the same town at the time. The old chap who was here before us had never touched it ­– and that was what we liked about it. A lot of the houses here have been renovated; things have been ripped out, changed or destroyed. This was the opposite – everything was where it should be.”

Rob: “When he died, we heard it was going to be put up for auction. We managed to nab it before it went under the hammer. We heard that one of the other interested parties wanted to buy it and pull it down, so he could build two houses in its place. I’m glad that didn’t happen.

“Coincidentally, I think it may once have been two cottages at some point. It was built in the early 19th century, possibly with a barn at the back, and it got Victorianised in around 1880 – I’m not sure ‘done up’ is quite the right phrase! That’s probably the last time anyone did any major work to it.”

Jane: “Apart from when we put a modern bathroom and a loo in…”

Rob: “It was very basic when we moved in. There was a boiler, but the hot-water pipe flowed directly into the bath, which was very narrow at one end and wide at the other. Proper 19th-century stuff.”

Jane: “The previous occupant had lived here all his life. His father was the local milkman, though he came from a family of butchers. Our kitchen, we learned, used to be the slaughterhouse. And they certainly kept pigs here; the sties became the Victorian privy.

“What I love about this place is that, because so little has changed, you can read its history in its fabric. Nothing’s been boarded over or covered up.”

Rob: “We’ve always liked living with history, I suppose. Our last house was similar in that sense. We had to install a loo there, too!

“Part and parcel of living in old houses – at least for us – has been buying old things for them. We’ve both been doing it since we were in our teens, long before we bought a house together.”

Jane: “We’ve collected pretty much non-stop. We do sell stuff too, when we run out of space. That said, we’re quite good at squashing things in… Maybe it’s because we find it hard to part with pieces we like.”

Rob: “I should emphasise that we’re not dealers. We just need to make room every now and then – and moving things on helps us fit more in. We never throw anything away, though. That’s important to us. We buy second-hand in part because we like the things, but also because it’s more sustainable.

“I know it might sound mad, looking at our house, but we don’t collect ornaments – hear me out! Instead we tend to buy things that once upon a time had a use, even if they now perform a more decorative function. From the decoys, which were used to hunt birds, to our bowls and our mugs, or the old pub signs, everything had a workable purpose – and often it was made to look attractive in the process. And it everything comes from a humble background too, which is important to us. We’re not into grand antiques, but more vernacular, country-style items.

Jane: “I’m particularly drawn to the aura of those things. The way you can see the wear on them, the dent of an old chair that’s been sat in for years and years. You can’t fake that. It’s genuine.”

Rob: “These objects are artefacts. They are pieces of social history that tell the story of how we got to where we are, which really appeals to me – as well as the fact that often they stand as the ultimate crossover between beauty and utility.

“That’s why I like primitive chairs. There’s nothing so useful as a chair – and the ones we collect have much more colour in them than you find in standard brown furniture. I first got into them in the 1980s. I used to do a bit of restoration work for an antique dealer, often stripping pine pieces for him. He’d pay me in chairs and spongeware pottery – things he wasn’t going to sell. But I loved them. I felt very lucky.”

Jane: “Serendipity plays a large part in our collecting. It’s not like you can go out with a shopping list for the things we look to buy. We trawl markets, auction houses, junk shops… We never know what we might find. And we never know if we’ll ever find it again, so if the price is right and it’s an honest piece, we have to buy it. I personally can’t resist spongeware. I think those pottery pieces are my favourites of what we own. And we use it all, which is very pleasing.”

Rob: “I love the chairs. I suppose that might be because it’s where it all started for me, but it’s also because the chair is one of the greatest pieces of design. I’m particularly fond of the one we bought after we got married, spending money we didn’t have. It’s an old Cornish piece.

“My very favourite objects are a secret, though. They’re the things that our followers on Instagram have never seen. You’ve got to keep some stuff private, don’t you?”

Further reading

Jane and Rob Slater on Instagram

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