A Georgian home in the medieval town of Alfriston
Inspired by England’s finest historic houses, William Emmett has created something magical above the antiques shop he shares with partner Nicholas in medieval Alfriston. Feature Penny Botting. Photographs Robert Sanderson
William Emmett’s love of antiques started when he was just a little boy. He recalls sitting in his mother’s embroidery shop in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, during the summer holidays and, to pass the time, he’d nip out and browse all of the local antiques shops. ‘I’d buy the odd piece and, before I knew it, I’d filled my bedroom with pocket-money finds. I had a large, iron-framed bed, used Victorian oil lamps instead of electric lights, and I hand-painted the walls to look like wallpaper. Eventually, it was a near perfect replica of a c1880s bedroom,’ he says.
This passion for antiques has stayed with William throughout his life – so much so that three years ago he and his partner Nicholas (who was brought up surrounded by antiques) decided to open an antiques shop in Alfriston. ‘Our previous home was bursting at the seams with our antiques, so opening the shop meant that we could continue collecting, as well as being able to share our finds with others,’ says William.
The shop is located beneath their home in a Georgian building within the medieval town of Alfriston. As William explains, it’s elegantly simple from the outside, while the interior is opulent and almost theatrical. Walls are painted in rich hues punctuated by oils in gilt frames, floors overlaid with Persian rugs and antique table tops filled with curiosities. It’s hard to imagine now, but when the couple moved here, the walls were pure 90s magnolia.
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‘Before deciding how to decorate, I sat in each empty room and thought about how I wanted them to feel. Then I came up with colour schemes that reflected the Georgian origins of the house and its different incarnations. The palettes I chose are taken from grander buildings than this one – inspired by the Duchess of Devonshire’s house on the Chatsworth estate, Stafford Terrace, The Yellow Room at Colefax & Fowler’s previous showroom and Charleston Farmhouse, although I also take ideas from more humble homes, too,’ he says.
In terms of favourite eras, William has definite preferences and it’s this mix of styles that keeps their home exciting. ‘I love the Renaissance, Empire and Arts and Crafts periods, and I’m inspired by the Bloomsbury Set,’ he says.
The interior of this home reflects the owners’ varied tastes. ‘For the kitchen, we decided to keep things simple and fresh, while for the drawing room I went for Regency splendour,’ says William. It wasn’t easy getting exactly the right shade for the walls, though – in the end they needed six coats of paint. ‘In the evening, the room comes to life with the candles and table lamps, and it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time,’ he says.
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This room is also home to Nicholas’s favourite item in the house: the 18th-century marquetry William Speakman longcase clock. Other treasured pieces include the 16th-century Elizabethan Brussels tapestry depicting a nobleman in a country landscape c1580 and William’s beloved series of Buccellati table lighters. ‘They’re so over the top and the craftsmanship is fabulous,’ he says. Other favourite collections include pug-related pieces, Fornasetti designs, stone specimens, Chinese porcelain and vintage clothing.
And is there anything that they absolutely wouldn’t part with? For William, it’s a portrait of Lord Byron and his grandmother’s hairbrush. ‘I adored her and she was the inspiration for so many things I’ve done in my life,’ he says. For Nicholas, it’s a 19th-century cuckoo and quail clock, and a miniature pair of stepladders. ‘They were made by my grandfather in his woodworking class at school. The craftsmanship isn’t great and the steps are a bit wonky but, to me, they’re beyond priceless.’
The house is constantly changing, as William and Nicholas find new pieces to incorporate into their schemes – something visitors find fascinating. ‘It’s an over-the-top country house look. We aren’t scared to be bold and eccentric with our interiors. When we have visitors, there’s always so much for them to look at that we don’t get much attention. My sister, Rebecca, is always nervous, as her children like to pick things up. Once my niece, Ella, was running around with a bowl on her head. My sister asked if it was old and I calmly said, “It’s OK, it’s only 17th-century”. The bowl was put back!’
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