Me and my home: Rosemary Hawthorne

Britain's 'Knicker Lady' talks to Cheryl Markosky about her love of shabby-glam style
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Fashion and social historian Rosemary Hawthorne, 64, called 'The Knicker Lady' is best known for her intimate lectures on underwear. She lives in a Grade-II listed Georgian townhouse in Honiton, Devon with her husband John.

Fashion and social historian Rosemary Hawthorne, 64, called 'The Knicker Lady' is best known for her intimate lectures on underwear. She lives in a Grade-II listed Georgian townhouse in Honiton, Devon with her husband John.

My husband retired from the clergy 14 years ago, so we had to move. It is quite medieval, really - in one fell swoop you lose your job, your friends and your house. We had to leave a rambling, old, decaying vicarage in Gloucestershire and our eldest daughter scudded around looking for somewhere for us to go. She stumbled across this place that has turned out to be an unusual downsize for us.

When I saw it, I said, "Oh, it is Dolly Hall", because it looks like a doll's house. We bought the house from a developer who poshed it out quite nicely. It was in developer's magnolia, so we put in our own colour choices. There was a courtyard out back, but the owner held on to the old garden, which was an absolute tip. After a bit of argy-bargy, we bought that as well. In London, it wouldn't matter looking out on to a small courtyard, but we thought it felt a bit top-heavy because it is such a tall house.

It is a charming house with a lightness and sense of delicacy about it. Built in the 1790s, it was a good period for pretty clothes - and houses. The developer did a good job converting it and all we have had to do was put our own stamp on it. He retained the four storeys and we have four bedrooms.

The windows and shutters have been taken out and completely re-made. When my son, who is a set builder, saw the house he said, "Ooh, this is great." It is right on the west end of the High Street and we can get onto the A303 quite easily, which is important now that I am travelling so much for my shows.

My favourite spot is the room at the top, a studio bedroom with a Strawberry Hill lace Gothic window. The grandchildren love it up there. There is a fine staircase that winds up and you can look right down at the rest of the house. It has a lovely atmosphere. I like preparing my talks up there.

The kitchen that leads on to a Japanese-style garden with two ponds is a good size. It can be deceiving from the outside. It looks like a plain, narrow house, but many of these houses hide delights. Our kids say it is like a Tardis. However, we did have to hold a contents sale before we moved in. I am somebody who could fill a warehouse with everything I have collected. We really had to get the ruler out here.

I guess you could say I have a feminine style. I like things with the edges knocked off a bit, a kind of distressed glamour. To me, that shabby-chic look goes a long way. I live with a very tidy, austere man and need to create areas where he doesn't trip over things. One of my favourite pieces of furniture is a 1930s dressing table painted in the Italian 18th-century style. My daughter found it; it is quite chi-chi and works well. I also love the late-1800s Jane Austen dummy in my bedroom.

We have lived in a great variety of homes, from a 15th-century Kent Hall House to a Georgian mansion near the sea in Northern Ireland with many different features. I've tried them all - four-poster beds, oak refectory tables, you name it. But I do think you have to have comfortable things in a house. I like simple old chairs that have personality, like a little French painted chair with a velvet seat in the bedroom. Furniture should have a kind of youthfulness, be easy on the eye and sensible to use.

I am a London girl by upbringing and need to live where I can go out easily and buy a loaf of bread. I have done the sticks. I don't like it when you have to get the motorcar out every time you want a box of matches. With Boots, Tesco, Somerfield, the old street markets and the baker, Honiton has a sense of vibrancy. It is a town that still holds on to its ethos. It is not just a show town, but part of the Devon countryside. We also have the sea just along the road, are 25 minutes from Sidmouth, and Exeter, a good city, is only half an hour away.

We feel we need to move further east so I can strut my stuff waving my knickers around the country. They call me the Joyce Grenfell of knickers; it's a pretty fun subject. In the ladies' dressing room in a theatre in Whitehaven, I looked in the bulbed mirror and said, 'You are in the same theatre where Peggy Ashcroft trod the boards.' I don't drive so John, who was also once an ad man, has become my roadie. Our seven children and 10 grandchildren live in Cheltenham, Tetbury, London and Bath, so we think Devizes, which is quite central, would be good for us. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Whoever buys the house will have to be someone who enjoys country towns and has a sympathetic feeling for this kind of architecture. These are quite sophisticated houses in their way, with a strong sense of order and refinement. Perhaps the house will suit someone who would have liked to live in Chelsea. I think it is ideal for a townie from London or another city.

Hawthorne's book 'Knickers, An Intimate Appraisal' is available from Souvenir Press. Rosemary's house is for sale at a guide price of £325,000 through Stags (01404 45885). For details of her talks, contact Scamp on 01462 734843 or www.scamptheatre.com

Comments