Art house: How one couple found the perfect space for their aesthetic ambitions in a rambling, 400-year-old Norfolk farmhouse


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Escaping the hustle and bustle of the city in search of the simple life has become the near-ubiquitous dream of our times. But how does it actually work in practice?

One couple who've managed the whole thing with aplomb are Kate and Ben Lawrence. Eight years down the line, their former lives, living in Hackney with their young son and working in the commercial art world, are now a distant memory. But it wasn't the most promising of starts.

When they first mooted the idea, the pair had no financially viable plan for earning their keep and conflicting ideas on exactly which corner of England to make their home. Both wanted to return to the places where they had each studied art as students. This impasse was resolved in the manner of an unofficial race. Kate began her search in the Bath area while Ben, who studied in Norwich, started combing Norfolk and was victorious when he spotted this north Norfolk farmhouse in Country Life.

The imposing house is large and rambling, with a Regency frontage – built during an agricultural boom – hiding a much older house behind. It was relatively untouched, and what renovations there had been were of the DIY variety, with "window frames plugged with newspaper", Ben recalls. But they weren't paying for anyone else's unwanted modernisation and, crucially, most of the original features, such as Regency Carrara marble fireplaces, were intact.

"It was draughty but livable. The cold wind was the first thing we tried to deal with," says Kate. The whole front of the house was re-glazed against the north wind, with the couple taking the bold step of opting for sealed units. "It doesn't affect us as there are only about four days a year that we'd think about throwing them open," says Ben drily.

Take a look at Kate and Ben's house here...


The next step was a more logical allocation of the rooms. One of its former owners must have loved a soak, as the place had a surplus of bathrooms, all occupying the larger rooms at the expense of bedroom sizes. The couple set about achieving a more sensible balance, re-opening partitioned rooms and switching back the bedrooms and bathrooms.

Downstairs, they use one of the two main reception rooms as a more relaxed and cosy study and playroom for their sons, now 10 and five, while the other light-filled space is a more formal drawing-room. "Most of our precious stuff is in here," says Kate, although she cheerfully acknowledges that, "The kids run riot over every room."

They also brought the house up to date with a practical utility and laundry in one of the lowlier 400-year-old backrooms. The couple turned to traditional joinery company Plain English for their kitchen – the Long House cupboards are inspired by the unfussy style of joinery found in Suffolk long houses. "There was no great statement. It just needed to be utilitarian and to age well. Showpiece kitchens freak me out," says Ben.

The house had a surplus of bathrooms (Rachel Smith)

The overall result is austere but far from charmless, with interesting objects (such as the French wood panel from Norwich shop The Bell Jar) inviting inspection from the open shelves. The decorating was handled in a similarly low-key manner, using shades of off-white, stone and putty. As Kate explains, "I've spent 15 years looking at pictures on bright white walls in galleries and wanted something more homely." And under the big skies of Norfolk, the rooms are bright enough without additional help.

As a farmhouse, their home was built with dignity rather than showiness in mind, and the pared-down, Spartan quality of the couple's mid-20th-century and contemporary furniture echoes that. Natural, traditional materials such as wood and leather sit happily with the sober original features. Mid-toned woods add warmth while painted finishes create a clean but relaxed feel.

Many of the pieces were inherited or donated by friends and family when they moved in. Their favourite is the Shadey Family light that hangs above the living-room table, an early piece by lighting designer Stuart Haygarth. They also treasure the facet-framed mirror by the artist Sam Orlando Miller above the living-room fireplace and artworks by the highly collectable painter Prunella Clough.

Many of the Regency features of the original house, such as the fireplaces, remain (Rachel Smith)

Aside from the surfeit of light and space, the property came with another major attraction for the couple: extensive outbuildings, including a small cottage. The couple had long considered setting up an intaglio (etching) print studio, with adjoining cottage, where artists could stay for a few days or weeks and experiment with the medium, away from the busier and more harassed atmosphere of the typical shared print studio. It might seem specialist, but business thrives in a niche.

"It was my favourite aspect of my degree, and we both like the simplicity of etching," explains Kate. Moving from London to Norfolk made good financial sense, but the print studio alone was never going to sustain the family. However, the studio has led to a gallery, the Cold Press, in the nearby market town of Holt, and "The two are intertwined," says Kate.

Here, as well as selling the work of their visiting artists, Kate has cherry-picked pieces in ceramic, wood and brass through her years spent trawling the world's galleries. "There are plenty of galleries specialising in Norfolk artists, and it's probably not sensible to show artists from Brooklyn or Tokyo, but it sets us apart," says Kate. "They share a simplicity of line and form; everything is whittled down."

The couple have developed the business quietly and carefully, shaping it into something that is now quite viable. "In London, galleries are all about dollars and cents. We can work in a more relaxed way." And above the gallery is their latest project, a recently completed holiday let, with the same pared-back beauty as the gallery, its wares and the family home. The couple now have the kind of multi-stranded careers that those who slog for long hours may find enviable. Cue more converts to the simple life.

For more: