The views from Nicky de Bouille’s home in Saumur haven’t changed in around 200 years. The front of the house looks out across the Loire river, which runs through this historic town – famed for its eponymous red and sparkling wines – while the back overlooks its magnificent medieval fort. So far, so fairy tale and, happily, the interior of Nicky’s home is just as magical.
Built in 1732 as a merchant’s house (Saumur was an important trading port, connecting Paris to the Atlantic) the property remains largely untouched. ‘It’s almost like a museum,’ says Nicky. ‘Not much has been altered since it was built – apart from the addition of a few modern comforts.’
Nicky was born in New Zealand and has always had an obsession with ‘the patina of age’ and European architecture, and it was features such as the oak ceiling beams and delicate detailing on the bedroom cupboards that drew her to the house five years ago.
‘The whole place felt quite theatrical,’ she says. ‘It’s spread over five floors but each floor is only 50 sq m so it’s really intimate. Humans love to live in cosy spaces and this place is definitely cosy. The oak staircase that winds through the house gives it the feel of a treehouse, too.’
On moving in with her children, Augustin (now 16) and Olympia (now 14) and family dog, Vespa, it was a given that Nicky wouldn’t interfere with the bones of the house. However, painting the ground floor walls in a deep shade of blue was a must.
‘I’d loved Farrow & Ball’s Hague Blue for about 15 years before moving here,’ she says. ‘I had noticed that art galleries were gradually moving away from whitewashed walls and using rich colours and I decided that Hague Blue would do me well here. As soon as I painted the living room, I felt at home.’
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Nicky decided to keep the property’s few modern additions: the charming 1950s tiles in the bathroom and the Formica units in the kitchen serve as pleasing reminders of the passing of time and trends. Apart from these 20th-century details, the house is furnished with antiques. Gilded picture frames and sconces fill the walls, and handsome wooden furniture complements the oak beams and staircase.
Cabbage ware plates line the open shelves in the kitchen (inspired by her grandmother’s collection of the same designs) while equestrian drawings, which speak of the town’s historic and prestigious cavalry school, are dotted through the house. ‘I’m a real auction hound,’ says Nicky. ‘Ninety per cent of what’s in my home came from the local saleroom.’
And, while Nicky is a proud aesthete, she’s also working to a budget: ‘I love beauty, but it has to be on a shoestring. Luckily, there’s no need to spend a fortune – France is filled with affordable antique furniture.’
The inlaid bookcase in the living room cost just €60 from auction, while the early 18th-century Imari plate displayed on the secretaire cost just €20 (bought in three separate broken pieces and later glued back together).
Nicky works for the travel company Sawday’s, heading up its French operation, but she also works as an artist and garden designer. Beauty is her currency. When she first moved to France 25 years ago it was to live in a historic chateau – an experience that she believes helped her to develop an eye for interiors and decorating with antiques. ‘I love the Directoire style – the transitional period between Louis XVI and Empire style. It’s actually quite English and masculine; I’m not into the fussy Louis XV look.’
Her biggest splurge was on a secretaire from this period that now sits in the living room. ‘It was so naughty of me but I’ll never regret it,’ she says. ‘It has all these little drawers that are inside a curved frame – it’s like a miniature theatre. I like to display funny collections of things in it. At the moment there’s a Louis XV salt cellar, a shell from New Zealand and a coin that was under the floor in the basement that dates from 1619 and predates the house. That’s the great thing about living somewhere so historic – there’s always something new to discover. It’s endless.’