Think of the Tuscan city of Florence and you may imagine miles of terracotta rooftops and domed basilicas; vast Renaissance paintings in lavish golden frames; and the soft patina of ancient stucco and plasterwork.
Artist and designer Susi Bellamy has captured all of these things and more in her Northumberland home, which became her private sanctuary after moving back to Britain from the Italian city 10 years ago, where her husband, Michael, had been stationed for work. ‘All of these ideas poured out when we returned,’ she explains. ‘I felt quite displaced, so I threw myself into renovating the house, to create a space that felt joyful and happy.’
The property itself is unique: a central sliver of an Edwardian manor with a private entrance and garden, it caught Susi’s eye in 2000 while she was driving her children to the nearby prep school. Optimistically, she wrote a note to the owners and put it through the letter box. ‘Luckily, they were moving to Russia and wanted to sell!’ she laughs.
It was a home on a whole new scale: high ceilings and sweeping corridors were studded with deep, detailed coving, and enormous sash windows offered unspoilt views of the countryside. But, the space needed work. ‘When we first moved in, it was like a gentleman’s study,’ Susi explains, with much of the woodwork stained a dark shade of mahogany, and a flow from room to room which felt stilted and unnatural.
However, a sudden move to Florence put all renovation plans on hold until the family returned six years later, brimming with brilliant ideas from their time spent abroad.
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To oversee the project, Susi employed her friend Ike Isenhour, who encouraged her to alter the layout of the ground floor and vault the ceiling in the entrance hall. This created a long vista that now ushers in the outdoors and bathes the space in natural light.
He also inspired her to paint all of the dark woodwork off-white: ‘It was possibly a bit sacrilegious, but I wanted to feel light and uplifted in my home, not austere.’ Still fizzing with inspiration from her time in Florence, Susi enrolled at university to do an MA in fine art, and began to transition from her career as an artist and focus on homeware design. Soon, the house became a canvas for her own work. Colourful cushions and wallpaper designs began to pepper the bedrooms, while marbled fabrics enriched the sofas in the hall.
When it comes to decorating, Susi can never be accused of playing it safe. As much of her existing furniture was dwarfed by the scale of her new home, she turned to antiques shops to find pieces that could command attention in large spaces. A colossal antique Scotch chest, bought from a dealer in Woodbridge, guards the first-floor corridor.
A tall chest of drawers, upcycled by Sarah Parmenter of RelovedMCR using Susi’s Orange Feathered wallpaper, creates an optical illusion in daughter Charlotte’s bedroom, and a pair of mid-century chairs upholstered in a wild boar hunting scene were the starting point for son Jack’s room. It’s these unexpected touches that make Susi’s house feel fresh and unique: ‘There are lots of elements of surprise in my home, with punctuations of pattern and colour,’ she says. ‘It’s important to push boundaries. Life is too short!’
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