Dressed to the nines

Flora Watkins finds out why dressers are the heart of the house and the most beloved fam­ily heir­loom

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

‘If the kitchen is the beat­ing heart of the home, then the dresser is the aorta’

When emma Bridge­wa­ter was cast away on Desert Is­land Discs last year, she re­vealed the in­spi­ra­tion for her wildly suc­cess­ful pot­tery busi­ness: her mother’s kitchen dresser. ‘ev­ery house we lived in had one,’ she re­called. ‘From the be­gin­ning, I can re­mem­ber a non-match­ing sit­u­a­tion… no two plates the same, cer­tainly no two mugs… and that seemed just right. And then, all amongst it, there were in­vi­ta­tions, des­ic­cated brides­maids’ bunches and, if I won a lit­tle sil­ver cup run­ning at school, that would be in there.’

An in­ven­tory of my dresser re­veals a sim­i­lar mish-mash. A potato-print Moth­er­ing Sun­day card and a pussy-wil­low easter ‘tree’ hung with minia­ture rab­bits and eggs that I re­ally must get round to tak­ing down. Sev­eral Bridge­wa­ter mugs, now for dis­play pur­poses only (hav­ing lost an ar­gu­ment with the but­ler sink), their han­dles welded back on with brown rivulets of Araldite. Another mug, pro­claim­ing ‘I’d rather be beagling’, bot­tles of dam­son gin and black­berry whisky, a Biben­dum ash­tray pur­loined dur­ing a jolly birth­day din­ner many years ago.

Some­where be­hind all that is the blue-and­white Spode plat­ter that it only seems right to use for roast rib of beef, Beatrix Pot­ter Wedg­wood egg cups from my child­hood and the green ma­jolica plates in­her­ited from my grand­mother, along with her In­dian Tree teapot with the drib­bly spout.

‘It’s the cen­tre of my kitchen,’ de­clares Belinda Wilkins of the dresser that she and her hus­band, Miles, in­stalled when they moved into their house in the West Sus­sex Down­land vil­lage of Wal­ber­ton 40 years ago. They found the shelves in an out­house, but the base was made by a lo­cal car­pen­ter from a cedar tree, the orig­i­nal be­ing ‘wood­wormed out’.

‘I couldn’t sur­vive with­out it,’ she con­tin­ues, tick­ing off the con­tents. ‘Side-sad­dle area and na­tional tro­phies, raf­fle prize from the Chid and Lec [hunt] pub sup­per, card­board Brooke hospi­tal col­lect­ing box. Phone charg­ers. Fly swat, meet card, top-hat brush. At the very top are some darts, put up there with the sparklers when my chil­dren were small —they’re now 30 and 35,’ Mrs Wilkins laughs.

The best dressers are to be found in houses in which ‘dust’ is a noun, not a verb. They’re found in kitchens that are the an­tithe­sis of those soul­less in­dus­trial ones —all white lam­i­nate, chrome and con­crete— that look more like the in­side of hunt­ing­don Life Sci­ences than the heart of a home. There will likely be a cou­ple of dog beds at the foot of this dresser and, al­most cer­tainly, some chipped Copeland din­ner plates on the shelves, plus a lazy Su­san hold­ing sticky jars of Mar­mite and jam, at least one dat­ing from the end of the past cen­tury.

Dur­ing a break from lamb­ing on the fam­ily farm at Bev­er­ston in Kent, har­riet Chal­lis jokes that ‘there’s prob­a­bly go­ing to be a mas­sive fam­ily row about whose it is’ when it comes to who will in­herit her mother’s dresser. Bought by her an­tiques-dealer fa­ther, Robin, many years ago, it’s ‘cov­ered in quite a lot of Mum’s stuff and some of mine’, but cur­rently re­sides in har­riet’s kitchen, in a con­verted barn on the farm.

‘It’s got ev­ery­thing from a Lego man to some quite nice plates, rosettes across the top and a flag my other half got for sail­ing round Cape horn, down to a chang­ing mat and nap­pies [for baby Bene­dict, aged one] on the bot­tom,’ adds Miss Chal­lis. ‘It would be

a night­mare if it went be­cause it just keeps ev­ery­thing—bills, let­ters and pho­tos get tucked in be­hind plates with pic­tures the boys have done. The car keys are on mug hooks. Ev­ery­one is quite sen­ti­men­tal about it.’

That’s the funny thing about dressers— al­though they’re in­cred­i­bly sen­ti­men­tal ob­jects, im­bued with his­tory and her­itage, it of­ten isn’t our own im­me­di­ate fam­ily his­tory. Dressers are usu­ally bought, such as that of the Chal­lis fam­ily, or cob­bled to­gether as Mrs Wilkins’s was. They’re not the sort of thing handed on dur­ing one’s own life­time—they’re just too use­ful—nor do they make a suit­able wed­ding present. With bases av­er­ag­ing be­tween 4ft and 6ft wide, they’re not go­ing to fit in a gal­ley kitchen in a flat in Ful­ham.

I found mine, a ‘dog-ken­nel’ dresser (with a large gap in the mid­dle—so use­ful for those gi­ant Le Creuset casseroles) at the Vic­to­rian Pine Work­shop in Sur­rey (see box). Once in the base­ment kitchen of my Lon­don ter­race, it im­me­di­ately felt as if it had been there since the house was built in 1860.

When Car­o­line Payne’s fam­ily de­camped from an oast house on her par­ents’ es­tate in East Sus­sex to the Cotswolds in 1992, she found her­self need­ing to fur­nish a large farm­house kitchen. Nat­u­rally, a dresser was on the shop­ping list and found ‘in a pine shop near us in Sus­sex’. To­day, it re­sides at the head of the kitchen at West End Farm in Ship­ton Moyne, which the Paynes bought from leg­endary Beau­fort hunts­man Capt Ian Far­quhar.

‘It’s a proper work­ing dresser be­cause it has all the bowls and plates we use ev­ery day—those lovely Ma­son’s Iron­stone game­bird plates. It’s also plas­tered with rosettes and funny cards, in­clud­ing lots of Tot­ter­ing and some ter­ri­bly rudes ones.’

The rosettes that adorn Mrs Payne’s dresser like colour­ful camel­lias are the sump­tu­ous, triple-tier sort, won by their home­bred even­ters. There are also pho­tos of horses leap­ing fear­some ob­sta­cles and a re­cent ad­di­tion, taken last sea­son, shows her daugh­ter, Selina, and 13-year-old grand- daugh­ter, Cle­men­tine, ‘in full cry’ fly­ing a Beau­fort wall.

Kitchen dressers can be as eclec­tic and mis­matched as Bridge­wa­ter cups and saucers. They may be the tra­di­tional oak or Vic­to­rian pine, Welsh (the clas­sic two-piece), Ir­ish (one­piece), a trea­sured hand-me-down or sal­vaged from a skip, painted or buffed to a dark patina with beeswax. What­ever its prove­nance, it’s fair to say that, if the kitchen is the beat­ing heart of the home, then it’s the dresser—rather than the Aga—that is the aorta. It’s from here that heat—of the rosy-glow sort—and her­itage em­anate around the house.

A dresser is ‘a re­quire­ment, is it? More im­por­tant than cen­tral heat­ing?’ asked Kirsty Young of Miss Bridge­wa­ter on

Desert Is­land Discs. ‘Oh yes,’ she replied em­phat­i­cally. ‘It’s much more im­por­tant than cen­tral heat­ing.’

Dressers are ‘more im­por­tant than cen­tral heat­ing’, says Emma Bridge­wa­ter

A proper work­ing dresser: Car­o­line Payne’s bears plates, rosettes and cards

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