A long career at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler was the perfect preparation for Emma Burns’s greatest design challenge yet: the sensitive transformation of the former dovecote and stables in Oxfordshire she inherited.
In the early 1970s, Emma Burns’s parents happened on a derelict building that they bought and converted into a weekend home. ‘They converted it on the sniff of an oil rag,’ says Emma.
A staircase was introduced and two bedrooms created in the roof space where the doves once roosted. Downstairs, loose boxes made way for a kitchen and drawing room: ‘My mother was a great skip diver; even a broken arm didn’t hinder her rescue of some wooden pilasters from a skip in Kensington, where my parents lived during the week.’
When Emma inherited the house, she decided to make her own mark on the honeyed 19th-century building that caught the eye of Pevsner, who ignored the main house from which it was separated. First, she reorganised the kitchen, widening a window to allow more light.
The pleasing result is better described as a dining room that happens to also serve as a kitchen, an illusion that’s enhanced by good furniture, art and good curtains.
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‘I learned to cook at Cordon Bleu, so all I really need is 2ft of workspace and a two-ring burner. I would always sacrifice cooking space for the right aesthetic.’
Other than a run of reclaimed cupboards that accomodate the dishwasher, an Aga is the only obvious concession to any culinary pursuits.
The most recent acquisition is an early-19th century gate-legged table, which Emma found at one of her favourite antique shops: Greenway Antiques in Witney, Oxfordshire. ‘I saw it and spent a long time wondering which client it might suit until I woke at 3am and realised that I had to have it.’
However, the decision that had the most transformative effect on the house was the introduction of a glazed door and windows behind the original wooden coach-house doors. When the latter are closed, the house looks just like it’s always done, but, when they’re flung open, it swamps the ground floor with light, even in the depths of winter.
Raising the height and narrowing the doorways from the entrance hall into both the kitchen and the drawing room have also played a part in gently aggrandising the house.
Large, comfortable sofas and armchairs covered in Opium Poppy Bright linen and Jardinieres Cotton chintz by Robert Kime create an inviting atmosphere.
She bought much of the furniture from The Lacquer Chest in Kensington—owners Vivian and the late Gretchen Andersen were old family friends.
Upstairs, Emma’s bedroom is a serene space and she’s lent a timeless feel to it with walls painted in Farrow & Ball’s Shaded White. On the bed is a patch-work quilt found in an American junk shop and a cushion rescued from her great-great-grandmother’s house.
On the landing, in a nod to the building’s original incarnation, decoy pigeons now roost in the dove holes.
Standing at right angles to the building is what was once the hay barn and pigsty. ‘My parents used the space as a garden store, but I wanted to create a reason to go into the barn, so settled upon the idea of including a book room.’
From the outside, the structure is unchanged, except for the shutters painted in the same shade as those on the house, the appropriately named Pigeon by Farrow & Ball.
Inside, the ceiling rises to more than 30ft in height and at either end of the room are fitted bookcases, each with a ladder to reach the mezzanine floors—one housing a bedroom, the other a study.
Beneath, there’s a small bathroom at one end and a garden store-cum-pantry at the other.
The multifunctional space acts as a guest room, a party room and teenage den or just somewhere to read. Deliberately informal, it brims with character and colour.
The eclectic furnishings include sofas in olive, a large ottoman stool in faded red and cane chairs covered with a forgiving jajim fabric from Central Asia. A large TV is hidden in one of the bookcases.
Outside, the garden remains true to Emma’s mother’s original design and creates a considered and elegant setting for the house. The result of her hard work is a fitting testament to her parents’ excellent judgement and Emma’s almost super-natural ability to turn the most unlikely space into a supremely comfortable and beautiful home.
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