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A Home with a History: walking the halls of history in a Georgian house in Wiltshire

“We’re dinosaurs, really,” say Si Harrington and Richard Sparks of their candlelit set-piece in Bradford-on-Avon. But taking in the house’s decidedly theatrical house’s exquisitely aged walls and the couple’s astonishing collections, which include a French café transposed in its entirety, we’d say being stuck in the past is no bad thing…

Celia Lyttelton
Paul Whitbread
Harry Cave
A Home with a History: walking the halls of history in a Georgian house in Wiltshire

Bradford-on-Avon is an architectural paradise. The Wiltshire town not only has one of the most complete Saxon churches in the country, but fine examples of construction from every century in mellow Bath stone. The streets are so steep, the buildings are seen at dramatic angles. The town’s medieval hospitium (or travellers’ inn), the parish church (which appears in Gainsborough’s Parish Clerk), the widened packhorse bridge complete with chapel and the Tudor houses on a street called the Shambles are just a few of its many gems. The women’s almshouses and the Renaissance Kingston House are more.

Another of its most intriguing spots is the house of Si Harrington and Richard Sparks. Looking through their front window is astonishing. Inside is what appears to be a quaint 1940s French café: Thonet bentwood chairs, Gitanes ashtrays, Ricard carafes, a wireless, nicotine-yellowed walls. In just such a place, albeit across the Channel, members of the Maquis would have passed on coded messages, puffing on Gauloises.

This is a house full of surprises. The bathroom is home to some at least 50 Madonna statuettes and around 20 crucifixes, while in the ‘writing room’, I even discovered a mezzotint of my great-great grandfather, a Whig statesman named George Lyttelton, among their collection of past worthies. One family lived here for three generations, Si and Richard explain. They are fascinated by the former incumbents, recreating authentically the look of the rooms as they would have been lived in.

The Georgian house is a palimpsest of 18th and 19th centuries, remodelled and extended. Si and Richard, rather than modernise, have aged the rooms – bar the kitchen and the so-called Café L’Étranger. Incredibly, the couple bought their French fancy over from the Aude, lock, stock and vinyl (it came complete with a resplendent collection of LPs by various chanteuses and a record player).

All traces of the 21st century are hidden in cupboards. The walls are muted, made to look like they have not had a lick of paint since Georgian times. In broad daylight, church candles flicker everywhere. The house is mysterious and labyrinthine with two staircases, honeycombed with passageways, nooks and crannies – and it is perfect for exploring…

Si: “The building was originally part of the ‘backs’, beside a jumble of Georgian and Victorian workshops, stables, ginnels and sheds. It’s not a grand property but a ‘polite’ townhouse. From the early 1900s until the late 1960s, it was the offices of George Spencer, Moulton Ltd.’s rubber company, before before becoming largely derelict. In 2000, some structural repairs were made in the cellars. But our restoration has been about nudging the house back to how it would have looked.”

Richard: “A historian from the Wiltshire Ancient Buildings Record came to crawl around the house once. They dated the basement to 1620, while the top floor is from the early 19th century. In Georgian times, the walls here would certainly have been brighter, but I aged them to appear as if they haven’t been touched since.”

Si: “In the early 20th century part of the house was a pharmacy – that kind of history is one of our main drivers when it comes to aesthetics. The rooms here are full, but not stuffed. Each is something of a set from a period drama. We don’t buy grand antiques, but more vernacular, rustic and eccentric collectibles. Everything is second-hand from salvage and reclamation yards, car-boot sales, antique fairs or eBay.”

Richard: “All the objects here have patina and a story to tell. We have a graffitied Eton College desk, for instance, that has the school’s coat of arms burned into the drawer support. It still has the fire-warning notice on the inside of the cupboard door.

“We moved in 13 years ago, having bought the house from a printmaker. It was painted entirely white at the time. We moved in with nothing, save a campaign bed, a microwave, two director’s chairs and a sink. We waited for eight months for the house to ‘talk’ to us. Slowly, we began to peel back the layers of paint and plaster and to imbue it with a sense of its original character.

Si: “You could say this is a curated house. For example, the butler’s pantry cupboard in the sitting room is not an original fitting; Richard assembled it piece by piece, having salvaged it from the basement pantry of a derelict country house, restoring and painting the old pine a faded grey-green – a very Georgian hue.”

Richard: “I’ve always been creative. I studied design and illustration at the original St Martin’s School of Art, then I worked as marketing director for an architectural business in London. I also managed to squeeze in a lot of illustration – 110 dust jackets in all.

“I met Si, who used to work in private banking, in Frome 20 years ago. We’ve since had two antiques shop – and a bohemian life. We used to make frequent buying trips to France, repairing and restoring our finds in our workshops before selling them on. It was a good time, but in the end we wanted to start investing our effort into this house.”

Si: “It astounds me just how much we have collected – we have 10 mirrors in the stairwell alone, reflecting the light from the top floor.”

Richard: “Our French room is an interesting thing. We used to spend a lot of time near Carcassonne, where we frequented an old café. Recently widowed, the owner had closed it down. We bought the entire contents and put it in our van! We even rescued the old posters and notices; our only additions are the Mucha posters, which came from Prague. I also took colour samples from the original walls, so I could recreate their grime and patina.

“My nephew – the painter Justin Mortimer – says to me: ‘One really doesn’t know what’s going on here – or where one is!’ I suppose he’s right. Our friends love it though. It’s such an evocative space. Anytime we have people, we start off with drinks in here… On that note, would you like a G&T?”

Si: “And please smoke, if you want to! We want the café to smell of tobacco. Would you like a Gitanes?

“It’s pure, joyful make-believe. If people are here for dinner, we’ll eventually move upstairs to the sitting and dining rooms, where we can be a bit more grown-up.

“The house does have a cohesive spirit: in all our rooms, we want to evoke the past. Across the hall from the café is what we call the ‘writing room’, which has a Remington typewriter. It’s a dark and quite austere space, inspired by Denis Severs’ house in Spitalfields, and we’ve stripped back the walls to reveal the old distemper. The wooden panelling is original, as is the staircase, which was the first feature that appealed to us when we came to view the house.”

Richard: “Our workshop overlooks the yard. Everything we create comes from this room.

“Our guest bedrooms, meanwhile, are in the basement. There was a theory that the old beams and rafters in there, which are riddled with nail holes and niches, came from decommissioned galleons and had been transported down the newly constructed canals; the historian sadly debunked that idea! We do know, however, that the windows – now flush with the pavement – would once have been recessed, but the road is now higher than it used to be.

“The single room, with its collection of bed-warming pans and a basin stand, is a work in progress. We’re slowly aging it too. For inspiration, we’ve invented a character called Dolly, who would have lived here – she was a rather pious housekeeper. The space itself is actually rather dour, but our grandson isn’t at all phased by it – he sleeps soundly in here.

“We’re dinosaurs, really. We live by candlelight we rejoice in the lack of light – pushing harsh sunlight out rather than welcoming it in. I know some people might find it odd – maybe we’re just contrary. But we like it that way.”

Further reading

Si on Instagram

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