People who live in class houses
Eleanor Doughty picks up decorating tips from the Duchess of Cambridge’s designer
At first glance, the sunny kitchen in this flat in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, resembles any ordinary kitchen. Look down, however, and you’ll find the floor is painted a pale, gloss pink. Orange Le Creuset pots litter the shelves and architectural sketches adorn the dark green walls. This is clearly the home of someone with good taste.
Its owner, Ben Pentreath, is the master of classic English interior decoration. A favourite of the aristocracy, he has built up a significant following among the owners of the nation’s smartest homes, and his new book, English Houses, the sequel to 2012’s English Decoration, affords us a glimpse into this private, rarefied world.
For English Houses, Pentreath persuaded 10 of his friends to open their houses. He includes his own homes: the flat in London, plus a Dorset parsonage that he shares with his husband, gardener Charlie McCormick. The book highlights the art of “making things look as if they have been there forever”. His solution to this is simple: “Don’t worry about things matching and don’t tidy up too much.” Music to the ears of lazy decorators everywhere.
Pentreath began his career working for Royal family-approved architect Charles Morris, and later opened his own architectural studio. He revamped Kensington Palace and Anmer Hall in Norfolk for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. In 2008 he opened a delectable homewares shop, Pentreath & Hall, with a friend, the decorative artist Bridie Hall, in Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury.
Naturally drawn to English Classicism, citing David Hicks and Christopher Wren as his inspirations, Pentreath describes his taste as eclectic. He rejects the confines of a one-size-fits-all style. “I hate the idea that there is any sort of ‘prescribed’ good taste,” he says. “Too much good taste is bad taste. As Dorothy Draper said: ‘I always put in something wrong as a talking point.’ ”
The pink kitchen floor was an act of spontaneity: “I suddenly thought I’d just paint it pink one day.”
As a nation, he says, we need encouragement to use colour in our homes. In the book, Pentreath praises the Cornish home of garden designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman, which is painted in “burnt orange, sky blue, lime green, daffodil yellow and turquoise – rich, cheerful shades that have nothing to do with the subtle oh-so-tasteful soft greys that have dominated English interiors for too long now”. These please no one, he says.
“Much of my time is spent coaxing people into loving their own taste, which generally, when one gets into it, is not for the soft pale grey colour that developers choose so as to offend no one.”
Pentreath’s vision of the English home is not a prim showroom but a bit of a hotchpotch. In his book he applauds the interiors of the Jacobean great chamber at Herringston, a manor house outside Dorchester belonging to Raymond and Pollyann Williams, describing its bedrooms as featuring “that peculiar mix of un-done-up chintzy clutter that defies any decorative style”.
He also includes the north Dorset home of the eminent antiques dealer Edward Hurst and his wife, Jane. Despite its owner’s occupation, this isn’t a museum, says Pentreath. Instead, it is a “chaotic, ever-so-slightly rambling family home” where some rooms are done, others not yet begun. This haphazard, step-by-step process of decorating needn’t cost the earth, Pentreath insists. “The three most important ingredients in a room are books, pictures and plants, which you can grow yourself.” Furniture shouldn’t be priceprohibitive. “A beaten-up Victorian chest of drawers has never been cheaper, often cheaper than new furniture that has no value the minute it leaves the showroom.” To find such pieces, he advocates trawling local auctions – “the real preserve of cheap”. But it is worth investing occasionally. “Sofas are worth spending money on, as you’re going to sit on them for a long time.” There’s no reason, either, why you can’t achieve beautiful coloured walls on a budget, when “a can of Dulux is £15”. As for what’s going on the walls, “if you can’t afford framed pictures, buy old frames from a junk shop and stick photocopies in there”.
For anyone starting a home from scratch, Pentreath advises bold colour. “It’s a great way to bring character where there isn’t any. Start building it slowly, don’t rush. Remember that lovely decoration takes time.”
This is a philosophy he abides by in his own home. “Charlie and I are constantly changing things, moving a picture from here to there or cramming in furniture to make room for new stuff.” Flexibility is essential when it comes to the home, he says. After all, a room wasn’t built in a day.
by Ben Pentreath is published by Ryland Peters & Small. It is available to readers for £25 including p&p by telephoning Macmillan Direct on 01256 302 699 and quoting the reference HU8 £19, by Le Creuset ( johnlewis.com) £175, by Pentreath & Hall (pentreath-hall.com)
Stoneware utensil jar Suzani cushion
Colour pop: designer Lulu Lytle’s kitchen features in English Houses; the Duchess of Cambridge, below