If you were to look carefully at Vanessa Arbuthnott’s collection of fabrics, it wouldn’t take you long to deduce that they came from the heart and the hand of somebody deeply in love with the English countryside. Cockerels and wild flowers, acorns and leaves, cow parsley and blossom: these are what she sees all around her every day in her Cotswold hamlet, and these are the motifs she turns to for sweetly charming fabrics.
They’ve helped turn what was once a small collection of simple cotton fabrics into the Vanessa Arbuthnott brand that, these days, also embraces linens and oilcloths, wallpapers and woollen rugs, as well as a small range of beautifully judged sofas and chairs, all perfect for the Cotswold retreat.
Her own house and surroundings, in a small village just north of Cirencester, are her inspiration, and to see the house today, light and airy, all soft, clear colours, old wooden floorboards, beautifully upholstered sofas and chairs, window seats and cushions is to see a calm and tranquil family home, a far cry from the day that Vanessa, her architect husband, Nick, and their four children, moved into what had, until shortly before, been a cow byre.
‘I was pretty grumpy about it,’ she says now. ‘It was in the depths of the country, far from the children’s schools. We’d had a Victorian wreck of a house in Amberley near Stroud, Gloucestershire, which we’d bought when it was falling to pieces, and we lived in it for eight years as we were doing it up. Just when it was all done, it seemed to make financial sense to sell it, and we bought this old cow byre and some crumbling barns.’
With the dairy and a piggery, the house forms a great U-shape round a courtyard. Although it’s expansive in one sense, it’s only ever one room wide, but the big, low French windows mean that both the morning and evening sun stream into the rooms. When it came to restoring and furnishing, ‘we had to do everything on a shoestring, so almost everything we bought was second-hand. We put down old wooden floors that we bought from a salvage yard (sadly, it no longer exists) and some of the wood came from old Ministry of Defence shelving.
We’ve painted them in soft greens and blues from Potmolen Paints, an eco-friendly paint that museums use a lot. We went to France and bought our wonderful big windows, which open inwards, from Lapeyre, a sort of French Great Mills. We’re very eco-minded, so we had them double-glazed.
‘Almost all the furniture came from auction rooms round and about. I found some beautiful side tables from the one at Wotton-under-Edge, and all our lamps came from auctions.’ In the kitchen, the heart of the house (painted a lovely cream), there is a sofa, a wood-burning stove and an electric version of an Aga.
‘The big dresser we found in an auction and all the cupboards were made from old doctor’s cabinets.
We have open shelves so everything can be on display, although some of it is behind glass. We have a mixture of work surfaces-some marble from a gravestone maker, some grey slate from an old billiard table on either side of the cooker.’ Up in the roofs are nine bedrooms, each different, each with a vintage bedstead bought at auction. Vanessa’s enchanting fabrics are at the windows, on the bedheads (which she now makes) and on the beds themselves, as well as on the chairs and sofas. The four bathrooms, all tongued and grooved, were fitted with old metal reclaimed baths and basins from architectural salvage companies.
It was when they were still doing up the house that the couple decided they needed a business to help finance it. Walking holidays were the first idea and, until foot-and-mouth arrived, they were a great success. Matrons from LA who’d only ever seen the inside of a gym would arrive and be astounded at the experience of walking on earth and grass. But it wasn’t until Vanessa went to art college in Stroud and, finding the ceramics course she’d wanted to do was full, turned to surface printing instead that she found what she then knew she was destined to do. ‘I was gripped and just realised this was my thing. And, of course, I had all these windows to curtain and we couldn’t affordto buy the materials, so I thought I’d design my own, and that was how the whole thing started.’
Soon, stylists were using the house for shoots and demand for the fabrics grew. Today, there are nine main collections (hand painted, meadow, cockerel, wildflower, seaside, garden, woodland, sky and earth), as well as a co-ordinating collection of softly coloured stripes and plain linens. Vanessa’s last collection was inspired by traditional Indian wood-block printing and although she tried to get the fabrics done in India, the first shipment was a year late, so now they’re screen-printed in London. She uses only organic cotton and linen and, these days, there is a heavier linen union suitable for upholstery as well as wallpapers, rugs and some wonderfully traditional and comfortable-looking sofas and chairs. Duck-egg blue, raspberry, cornflower, straw and lettuce are the colours she particularly loves.
Creativity is clearly at the heart of the family. Nick has given up architecture and is doing a post-graduate degree in Sustainable Urban Development. Daughter Rose is a painter and her artwork is everywhere. In one of the barns, they’ve now started an artist-in-residence scheme, in which three students live with the family, are given studio space and, above all, are nurtured and given time to be creative. But best of all, the whole house hums with activity-fabrics are being designed, pictures are being painted, and, in the kitchen, a great communal supper is under way.
Life in the cow byre has turned out to be far from dull.
To view and order fabrics, telephone 01285 831437 or visit www.vanessaarbuthnott.co.uk
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