An 18th-century farmhouse restoration in France
Buying the shell of an old farmhouse began a process of restoring and furnishing the interior in a way generations past would have understood. Photographs Jody Stewart
Since moving to south-west France nearly 30 years ago, Gloria and Eric Stewart have restored a number of houses, each one a magical blend of flair and sensitivity. Their latest project, an 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 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, as Gloria explains: ‘We always decide on the criteria that will suit how we will live in a house. Here we wanted a large kitchen with a fireplace, a dining room and a large living 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.’
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The plans 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 given to a laundry room and a small corridor into the first barn. The 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 offered up a fine view across the valley but ushered in natural light that spilled over into the rooms on either side. The second barn (the one used for tobacco drying) became their large living room and Gloria and Eric sourced 18th-century glazed double doors to fit between the two rooms.
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A key 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.
In describing their approach to restoration, Gloria credits Eric as being skilled in seeing the optimum way to reorder space. ‘What’s important to both of us,’ she says, ‘is keeping a sense of what the building was and not trying to make it into something it is not. I always kept in mind that this is a farmhouse and, though it dates from the 18th century, which is my favourite period, we’ve tried to temper any tendency towards grandeur.’
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Gloria and Eric have put this temperance into practice by installing reclaimed doors, fireplaces and floor tiles that match the period of the house whenever they have had the opportunity. These materials are not difficult to find in reclamation yards in France if you know where to look, explains Gloria, but each year she finds they are becoming less affordable.
The decorative finishes Gloria has chosen are simple, even rustic, though the furniture, pictures and textiles she has collected during the time they have lived in France add distinction to every room.
In each house they have restored, Gloria has always installed 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.
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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 next to it. 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,’ she says. ‘There is no tradition here of sinking into big comfy sofas like we do in England. But, surprisingly, the French love the look of the English sitting room and I’m sure I’ve 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 restored farmhouse. As Gloria explains, ‘With its interconnected rooms, this is a house for easy living, and that was always our plan.’
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