Far from the daily stresses of urban life and idyllically tucked away outside the small village of Marlborough, two hours south of London, lies a discreet farmhouse from 1815.
It doesn’t look like much from the country lane, but the courtyard is hopping with activity. Children and dogs run around playing while a beautiful horse sticks its head out of the stable, asking for some peace and quiet. It is a cloudy day in January and we are visiting the co-owner of Farrow & Ball, Tom Helme, at his farm in Wiltshire.
Tom’s wife, Mirabel, is the first to greet us. She apologises for the slightly chaotic surroundings, and explains that she and a couple of the children – (the couple have four in all ranging in age from 10 to 17) – are about to go riding. Tom is not joining them, since this is the day he works from home.
“We took over the place in 1984”, Tom begins,” “and spent the first couple of years restoring a wing of the main building, or should I say, rebuilding it from scratch. All that was left was a couple of stones and the fireplace in the hall”, Tom laughs. “We wanted to place the living rooms and bedrooms in this wing, as it faces south and overlooks the garden.”
A university degree in Art History, combined with an education as interior designer (working among others for David Mlinaric) got Tom the prestigious job of advisor to The National Trust. He followed in the footsteps of John Fowler, and for almost 20 years, advised the Trust on the decorations and restoration work on country homes, castles and manor houses in the United Kingdom.
We are soon to discover for ourselves that Tom Helme’s sense of decoration is indeed second to none. “Although not an architect, I designed and prepared the drawings for the rebuilding of this wing myself.
Every room has its own personality, and there is no doubt that much time and effort has been poured into the details.
All the rooms in the new wing have bespoke windows – exact copies of the old ones in the main building. They also have built-in shutters and small bars. The recesses in the tall window frames serve a double purpose – they function as radiator covers as well as seating areas. The seats are dressed with upholstered cushions which match the Irish printed linen curtains, specially woven for Tom and Mirabel.
The narrowness of the wing allows daylight to flow in from both sides of the room and the interior is comfortably worn with fabrics that have been faded by the sun. The furniture has patina – clearly, it is being used by the large family. The wide elm wood floor boards add a beautiful glow to it all.
The colours on the walls are faded. Tom is an addict to these 1700s and 1800s tones, which he is so familiar with due to his restoration work for the National Trust. This is, incidentally, how he got in touch with the paint and paper specialists at Farrow & Ball, the company he bought in 1992, together with his childhood friend, Martin Ephson. Now Tom handles design and creative development, while Martin is looking after marketing and finance.
To obtain the desired matt velvety finish on the surfaces, Tom has used Farrow & Ball’s casein distemper on his walls. “It doesn’t swallow all the light, but reflects it more beautifully than standard paint with its high level of water and plastic”. The colours are a soft green-greyish in the hall and living room, while a discreet pink (Farrow & Ball’s own Entrance Hall Pink) in the dining room and guestroom.
Tom’s use of the descreet colour palette is not just professional convenience – he loves their subtle shades and soft matt finish, “I was taught that the art of the decorator is not to be seen, and so have always liked rooms that appear not to be decorated”, Tom tells.
Dead flat oil has been used on all the woodwork. Tom explains that the woodwork can never get matt enough for him. “It suits the velvety finish on the walls, leaves an unpretentious look – and it puts focus on the fine joinery”. In the guest room and bathroom the floorboards are painted off white in Farrow & Ball’s floor paint. “Painted floors are a smart way of adding colour to a room without using expensive carpets”, Tom elaborates. “The method originates from the 18th century.”
Our guided tour finished across the courtyard, where Tom recently finished a complete overhaul of the hayloft above the ram shackled stable. The loft is now a stunning home office, with slanting walls, free standing rafters and skylights. A tall ladder takes you to the pigeon hole, used as a filing cabinet and the tall narrow bookcases contain an extensive collection of interior design work.
“This is where my best creative work happens”, Tom finishes, as he plunges into one of the inviting sofas.
And so we are left with tons of ideas for our own small places at home. Can’t wait to get started.
Photos by Stuart McIntyre.