Alexandra Tolstoy’s fairytale Oxfordshire cottage for House & Garden
9th January 2012
The owner of this Oxfordshire cottage was determined to stay true to its roots, and, with the help of her designer, has created a traditional interior that incorporates and complements her collection of antiques
This enchanting Oxfordshire cottage is perhaps not the most obvious Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler project. For a start it is tiny, and secondly its decoration has evolved piecemeal, retaining the personality of its owner, Alexandra Tolstoy, over the course of its various phases of redecoration. ‘The spirit of the cottage hasn’t changed much; it is still very much Alexandra,’ affirms the Colefax designer Emma Burns, who was brought in nearly 10 years after Alexandra bought it, ‘to edit, add to it and pull it together’.
The building was originally a worker’s cottage; the previous owners, who bought it from the local farm, had put in a bathroom and night storage heaters but done little more. Alexandra bought it in 2004 and had set about making it more comfortable and appealing when there was a huge flood in 2007. At this point, she brought in specialist plasterer Bob Wise, who lime-plastered the walls and ceilings as they would have been originally. He advised her to take out the wooden window sills – as cottages like this would have had plaster ones-and added plaster skirtings.
Right from the start, Alexandra says, she ‘did not want to do the obvious’ by modernising the feel of the cottage, as many might have done. Her father gave her a book called English Cottage Interiors by Hugh Lander, which she ‘read obsessively’; she gleaned from it the idea to paint all the woodwork a dark, treacly brown – ‘Wainscot’, mixed to order from Farrow & Ball, in a gloss finish – as it might have been painted originally. Her mother suggested vintage Bakelite light switches. And her aunt, the antiques dealer Vicky Heaton-Renshaw of Crowman Antiques in Devizes, helped her to start a collection of china and furniture that felt right for the cottage. ‘My sister calls it “The Museum”,’ Alexandra says with a laugh.
“My sister calls it ‘The Museum'”
Emma had already helped Alexandra and her husband with a huge project in Moscow
‘She was so brilliant, I’ve become almost scared of making my own decisions,’ says Alexandra, who has also sought Emma’s advice for their London home. Emma began with the kitchen, bringing in joiner Chris Bell to create units an inch shallower than the existing ones -a tweak that makes a huge difference to the sense of space. Elm was chosen for the worktops, the cupboard interiors were painted ‘a crazy Delft blue’, and mismatching handles were chosen for the doors to give ‘a less fitted look’. A specially made gate, that looks as if it has always been part of the stairs, acts as the smartest of child safety gates, and the space under the stairs-once a bed for the previous owners’ dogs – is now a cupboard. So without any drastic aesthetic change – the old Delft tiles Alexandra had put above the sink remained in place throughout -the kitchen just works and looks better…
Throughout are Emma’s interesting finds, from Soane rattan lampshades to vintage toys for the children. Emma also augmented Alexandra’s collections of china and pictures – adding to, for instance, the sailors’ valentines in the bathroom. ‘It’s about finding those bits and pieces that make things charming,’ she says.
In the garden, Alexandra replaced a leylandii hedge with a beech one and got rid of the unsightly oil tank just outside the back door. A rather picturesque log shed now takes its place, and next to it a pretty little courtyard is furnished with a table and chairs Emma found at The Lacquer Chest in Kensington, a shop frequented by both her and Alexandra, and a source for many more things in this cottage.
“I like houses that don’t look decorated, that have a sense that they have evolved”
‘I like houses that don’t look decorated, that have a sense that they have evolved, and this cottage is exactly that, which is perhaps why I enjoyed this project so much,’ says Emma. It’s clear to see why Alexandra wanted Emma’s help. She works in such a light-handed way, yet has confidently pulled it all together to make a picture-perfect and yet interesting cottage.