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A Home with a History: topiarist and artist Charlotte Molesworth’s handspun garden cottage

Forty years ago – against the advice of her father and the bank – Charlotte Molesworth and her husband purchased a tumbledown cottage in Kent and proceeded to gently cast a spell on the 19th-century dwelling. Salvaged brick floors, reclaimed wood, an accumulation of artwork, family furniture, peacock plumes and porcelain trinkets have, over time, all found their way into the potion pot. ‘Junk, junk, junk’ is Charlotte’s incantation – and the result is utter magic.

Interiors photography
Jasper Fry courtesy of Country House Locations
Portrait photography
Elliot Sheppard
A Home with a History: topiarist and artist Charlotte Molesworth’s handspun garden cottage

Some places just have a certain kind of magic, and topiarist, artist and plantswoman Charlotte Molesworth’s Kent home is one of those. Nestled down a winding track off a postcard-perfect village green, a little wooden gate marks the entrance to Charlotte’s four-acre idyll, where topiary peacocks, chess pieces and towering yew hedges all form part of Charlotte’s beguiling spell. So too do a menagerie of, mostly rescued, animals – a couple of loyal dogs, a small flock of Shetland sheep and a few chickens. “It’s the most friendly home,” Charlotte tells me enthusiastically. But that is precisely what is puzzling: amidst all of this majestic yew and box, where is the actual house? “Ah yes,” she says, with a smile. “A friend who came for one of our big parties a few years ago spent a while looking around before eventually asking me whether we actually lived in a house,” she recalls. “But it’s here,” she adds, referring to the modest, single-storey, 19th-century cottage that she and her husband Donald have called home for the past 40 years.

While the cottage may sit to one side of their plot and play second fiddle to the garden in terms of space, the two parts function as one for Charlotte. Both are conceived with the same lively spirit – a belief that there should be a little bit of wild abandon in everything and that beauty and joy can be created from very little. “I never buy new and can’t bear waste,” says Charlotte, who will reuse just about anything from old conveyor belts for the floor of her polytunnel to bricks that she unearthed from one of the old vegetable beds that now provide a dining room floor. Just as the garden grew almost exclusively from cuttings, the house has grown slowly out of Charlotte’s handiwork, whether that be sponging leaves on to blank walls or fashioning curtains out of a patchwork quilt.

When Charlotte and Donald bought the house in 1983, it was a dilapidated gardener’s dwelling, forming part of The Grange estate that had once belonged to Edwardian ornithologist and plant collector, Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram before it was sold to Martin and Judith Miller of Miller’s Antiques Handbook fame in 1981. “This would have been a mini farm with a pig and cow, so the cottage would have been a store and the food would have all gone up to the house from here,” Charlotte explains, pointing out a peculiar ladder suspended from the larder ceiling in which a plank of wood would have been inserted to provide a place to store cheese away from hungry mice. But by 1983, the cottage had been empty for three years and the once productive garden was a riot of thistles, flowering leeks, cabbages and bindweed.

“It was just so special,” says Charlotte, who has the admirable quality of seeing the positives in just about everything. At the time, she was working as an art teacher at nearby Benenden School, while Donald, a farmer-turned-gardener, was working for the Millers, as well as tending to other local gardens. “The bank wouldn’t lend us money because it was falling down, but the Millers enabled us to buy it by kindly loaning us the final third,” Charlotte recalls. “There was no way we were going to let it go.” And so, on Christmas Eve, the newlyweds moved in with an old donkey, two dogs, two cats, seven chickens, a bed, two chairs and a table. “All wise people, including my father, thought we were absolutely mad but we were just so happy,” recalls Charlotte, who was not in the least deterred by the crumbling roof, live electrical wires poking out of walls or rudimentary heating system.

The garden and house grew in tandem, slowly evolving as time, funds and enthusiasm allowed. “I loved how there were no straight lines in the cottage,” explains Charlotte of the space, which consists of a kitchen, dining room, study, sitting room, bedroom and bathroom. There were a few necessary changes. An opening was created between the original kitchen and what is now the dining room and a pair of wonderful, battered green double doors added. “Donald found those somewhere,” recalls Charlotte. “Junk, junk, junk – the whole house is built out of skip stuff,” she says with glee, pointing out the old-lab worktops in the kitchen that were saved from a Benenden School refit and the large butler sink that cost £5 from the side of the road. The lovely long dining room was created by knocking down a wall between two small rooms, while one half of the larder was given over to a bathroom. It is as unique as they come, with the other end of the cheese rail hovering above the bath and a row of elephant figurines on a high shelf, which decrease in size to match the slope of the ceiling.

A wonderfully offbeat collection of treasured possessions (“clutter really”, Charlotte quips) set the tone for the cottage. A pelican casserole dish in the dining room, for instance, was a gift to Charlotte from her colleagues when she left her first job at the Royal Opera House, where she worked in the dyeing and distressing department. Inside it are yet more delights – little figures made from old vests by her mother, as well as stones and other found objects that bring her delight. Elsewhere, there are ceramics, including a wonderful salt-glazed teapot picked up from a junk shop and a selection of beautiful pieces by local potter, Colin Griffith.

Their bedroom sits off the other side of the dining room and was added after the couple inherited some money from Charlotte’s “darling” aunt. “She was one of the few who didn’t disapprove when we bought the cottage, so it felt fitting to spend the money on an extra room,” Charlotte recalls. West-facing, their bedroom shimmers in the evening sun, with a view on to a rather miraculous stag-oak adorned hut in the garden and an enchanting four-poster bed. “Donald’s father lived in India for some time and the bed is made from a vast teak wardrobe that he brought home with him,” recalls Charlotte.

Snaking up behind the bed are sprigs of leaves, sponged on the wall by Charlotte with a distemper-type paint that she makes from whitening, rabbit skin glue and powdered pigment. “If you washed it, it would all come off, but what I love about it is that you can put it everywhere,” Charlotte says. Indeed, foliage patterns adorn not just the walls but also the fridge and gas pipes in the kitchen, while a jolly zig-zag design snakes around the top of the dining room walls and covers a wooden batten that the couple mounted to hang art from.

Paintings line almost every wall: some, including scenes of the garden and landscapes that she has visited, are by Charlotte and spring to life in her charming garden studio, but there are also many by a whole host of friends and artists, including Bloomsbury group artist, George Hooper, and painter, John Doyle. Others are by Charlotte’s former students, many of whom she has stayed in touch with and sometimes paints with today. There is also a rather charming painting by her aunt, showing a young Charlotte and her sister creating linocuts. It seems she was destined to weave her own magical world – one that is creative, spirited and entirely otherworldly.

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