Period Property of the Month - May 2010
A pretty townhouse in Devizes is home to a most unusual collection: Victoria Jenkins investigates
Naughty but nice
Rosemary Hawthorne is famous throughout the UK as the 'Knicker Lady'. She travels up and down the country with her one-woman show (called, suitably, 'Knickers') giving talks on period costume. The star of her collection is a pair of voluminous drawers once worn by Queen Victoria herself.
"They're always the highlight of my talks," says Rosemary, an actress and fashion historian. "They're rather large and are embroidered with a tiny crown and VR on the waistband."
Rosemary and her husband John, a retired clergyman, have recently moved into a charming terraced townhouse in Devizes which is straight out of the 18th century. Their handsome black labrador Byron (so-called because he is "a tad mad, a bit bad and not at all dangerous to know") came with them.
"The deeds go back to 1778 but we think our house is even earlier, maybe dating back to the late 1600s when it would have been a little cottage," says Rosemary. "It has lathe and plaster walls and like other houses in this terrace is timber framed. It also once had an open passageway, now our hall, along which horses could be led to stabling at the back."
Parts of Devizes became quite gentrified in the late 1700s and Rosemary thinks the cottage was then given a makeover. "Our drawing room shows every sign of it. For instance, we can tell the rustic beams in the ceiling were covered over, the walls were panelled and an elaborate carved wood and plaster mantelpiece, decorated with ribbons and garlands, was built round the old stone surround. A new staircase was also added, spiralling elegantly up to the top of our three storeys. This is probably when the passageway became an entrance hall."
When the Hawthornes first saw the house it had not had any major work done for a long time. The previous owner had lived there for 35 years and it was beginning to look tired. But even the Baxi fire with back boiler projecting from the pretty fireplace and heavy dark carpets could not disguise the charm of what Rosemary calls her dolls house. However, John thought the kitchen 'hugger-mugger' with its old chest freezer, FormicaŠ worktops and assortment of cupboards. As for the walled garden at the back, which rose up a slope from a lean-to conservatory, it could hardly be seen thanks to the bank of leylandii blocking the view. There was even an old telegraph pole stuck in at the far end. However nothing daunted Rosemary's enthusiasm, so the Hawthornes bought the Grade 2 listed terraced house three years ago and have set about redecorating and refurbishing it. "Structurally it was fine but we put in new wiring, new plumbing and new central heating," says Rosemary.
"In the 1970s a kitchen extension had been added at the back of the house, or maybe it was converted from old stables," adds Rosemary. "It was very dark when we arrived as there was just one window looking out onto the leylandii and a half glazed back door leading straight into the ramshackle conservatory.
However, the couple have removed the leylandii, and the telegraph pole and had the garden terraced. The window has been turned into a pair of French doors leading onto a patio and the ramshackle conservatory has gone.
The kitchen too has been transformed and has acquired a new black Aga, the units came from Woodstock Kitchens in Bristol painted in French Grey by Dulux, with worktops of slate and oak and a big Belfast sink. "The slate was recycled from an old broken water tank found in my daughter's garden in Gloucestershire and the oak worktops round the sink were made by our my son, Joe, who builds film sets," smiles Rosemary with pride.
Once the structural work was finished Rosemary, who loves the soft glowing colours from the Queen Anne period, had the house painted throughout. For instance, in the drawing room she has put Fired Earth's Rose Mallow on the walls, Oak Apple on the decorative fireplace surround and Ultramarine Ashes in the alcoves.
The alcoves were created from cupboards on either side of the fireplace and both they and the mantle had been covered in heavy cream gloss paint. "So we had all the paint stripped and removed the cupboard doors," adds Rosemary. "Then we had our builder, Mike, put in new bow-shaped shelves and reeded architraves (bought from B & Q) to transform them into 18th century-style alcoves." Always a collector, Rosemary then set about furnishing her home with the many quirky antique and vintage items she has found over the years at auctions, antique markets, junk shops and especially church jumble sales!
"A small room at the top of the house is my work place, where I write and store old costumes," continues Rosemary. "The rest of the house is given over to all the other treasures and family bits that John and I have collected. There's a lovely comforting feeling about this dear old place and if we do have any ghosts they can only be friendly ones."
What makes our house special
For almost my entire life I have been a collector of antique and vintage items and now I have the perfect period house in which to display them. John and I have spent our lives together in many fine old rambling rectories and vicarages but now he has retired we can choose where to live and we've found our "dolls house"in Devizes. My old hand-painted china, Victorian dolls, oval-framed portraits, antique embroidery and classical statuary would just look quite out of place in a modern property and so would Queen Victoria's drawers!