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It has taken the discerning eyes of the Stewarts to fully restore this French farmhouse with such flair.
Location: Périgord, south-west France
Gloria and Eric Stewart have restored a number of houses since they moved to south-west France nearly 30 years ago, and their restorations are always a magical blend of flair and sensitivity. When they decided to move in 2009 it was to trade a large house for somewhere smaller. This 18th century farmhouse, high above a valley in Périgord, offered a majestic view but behind its stone walls was an empty shell. Until the Stewarts acquired it, the house had not been occupied for more than 35 years and, before that, only in two ground floor rooms as there was no upper floor. The rest of the long building consisted of two barns, one of which was used as a tobacco drying chamber, and both with earth floors. The roof had been maintained but there was no sanitation.
To turn this blank canvas into an authentic 18th century interior was approached in their usual way. ‘We always decide on the criteria that will suit how we will live in a house,’ Gloria explains. ‘Here we wanted a large kitchen with a fireplace, a dining room and a large sitting room. Upstairs we needed three bedrooms, one en suite, and an additional bathroom. This part was tricky because we were building into the roof space. On the other hand, the house and barns are in a straight line, there’s nothing higgledy-piggledy, so running electrics and plumbing wasn’t complicated. We worked with French builders who were sympathetic with what we were doing, but it was 18 months before we could move in.’
The plans that Eric drew up gave them a good sized kitchen by knocking down the wall between the two once-occupied rooms. Some of the space released was then allowed to a laundry room and a small corridor into the first barn. This barn was divided into an entrance hall with a staircase to the new first floor, and a dining room.
Introducing a large window and a little balcony in the dining room not only offers up a fine view across the valley but introduces natural light that spills over into the rooms on either side. The second barn, the one used for tobacco drying, became their large sitting room and Gloria and Eric sourced 18th century glazed double doors to fit between the two rooms.
A feature of Eric’s plan is the enfilade. This tradition in French architecture aligns rooms and doorways giving a long perspective, in this case from the living room right through to the kitchen. The space for rooms in the roof was more limited as the second barn was only one storey high. ‘Ceiling height was a problem in the roof,’ Gloria admits, ‘and we had to chop out some of the timbers so that we don’t bump our heads when getting into bed.’
In describing their approach to the restoration, Gloria credits Eric as being skilled in seeing the optimum way to re-order space. ‘What is important to both of us,’ she says, ‘is keeping a sense of what the building was and not trying to make it into something that it is not. There was nothing architecturally interesting about this building beyond the character of the shell. I always kept in mind that this is a farmhouse and although it dates from the 18th century, which is my favourite period, we’ve tried to temper any tendency to grandeur, for instance by putting wood cladding on some of the ceilings and the sitting room walls, a feature we have seen in modest buildings in this area. Whenever there has been an opportunity to install reclaimed materials, including doors, fireplaces and floor tiles that match the period of the house, we have sourced them from reclamation yards. Things like this are not difficult to find here if you know where to look, but each year they become less affordable,’ Gloria adds.
The decorative finishes she has chosen are simple, even rustic, although the furniture, pictures and textiles Gloria has collected during the time they have lived in France add distinction to every room. In each house they have restored she always installs a fireplace in the kitchen if there is not one there already, and Eric tracked down the one for this kitchen in a reclamation yard near Paris. It dates from around 1800 and, by coincidence is carved with the same sunflower motif that is a feature of the marriage cabinet from Normandy that stands next to it.
‘To keep control of our budget’, Gloria explains, ‘we bought kitchen cabinets from Ikea but modified them to suit the room by distressing the fronts with paint, adding old handles and fitting an oak worktop.’
The furniture, textiles and muted colours that run through the house reflect Gloria’s love of 18th century decoration, but when it comes to sofas and chairs, she always buys these in England. ‘The French tend to have formal chairs and sit upright. There is no tradition here of sinking into big comfy sofas like we do in England, yet surprisingly, the French love the look of the English sitting room and I’m sure that I have changed the opinion of a few French friends on the subject of sofas!’
Of course it is not just comfy sofas that sum up the charm of this beautiful, restored farmhouse. ‘With its inter-connected rooms,’ Gloria explains, ‘this is a house for easy living, and that was always our plan.’ A plan well made.