'It’s lovely to be able to sit in a room, look around and say: “Those are the opium weights that we bought in Burma; that bedcover belonged to a Berber tribeswoman in Morocco and we found the cow skin cushions on safari in Kenya”,’ says Dennis Doggard of the home that he and his wife, Raffa, share in south Dorset. Walls are painted or papered in jewel-rich colours and filled with inherited furniture and paintings alongside exotic rugs and other treasures.
They’ve bought at auctions in this country, but what sets their home apart is the many unusual pieces brought back from their travels. The couple are inveterate globetrotters, and in recent years have stayed with tribesmen in Nagaland, ridden motorbikes across Bhutan and driven across Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
When Dennis and Raffa stumbled upon their house, they’d been searching for more than four years. It was owned by an architect who loved old buildings, but had an idiosyncratic taste in antiques. On that first visit, Raffa remembers being startled to see a strange object on the table. ‘I asked what it was. A man trap, I was told!’
Such oddities apart, the house had much to beguile them. High-ceilinged and lightfilled, thanks to vast sash windows, its original features remained largely intact. There were, and still are, shutters on most windows, a working fireplace in most rooms, and magnificent double mahogany doors leading to the drawing room that are thought to have come from a building in Bath’s historic street, The Circus. ‘We both walked in and felt this is what we’d been looking for,’ says Raffa.
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They found out more about the romantic history of the house only after they moved in. ‘It was built in the 1820s for a vicar who had fallen in love with a young girl from Bath. To win her hand, he commissioned what was essentially a Bath terraced townhouse in a quiet Dorset village. Sadly, the story didn’t end well. The young lady in question turned him down, so he was left rattling around with only five dogs for company,’ explains Dennis.
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There’s little sense of this lonely owner’s existence now. The couple have three children, all of whom grew up here. They love filling the house with people and have a uniquely eclectic decorative style in which colour is a key ingredient. ‘I emerged from growing up in a very beige and green house and thought, OK – I’m going for it,’ says Raffa.
The combination of old, new and quirky begins in the entrance hall, where three unframed Angelica Kauffman roundels depicting muses hang. They came from Bruce Castle – a progressive 19th-century school in London, set up by Dennis’s ancestors. A palette of red and yellow assails you when you enter the drawing room. Exotic rugs bought on trips to the Middle East, inlaid Indian tables carried home as hand luggage and Chinese glass paintings bought in a junk shop in Beijing add to the opulent effect.
The elaborate Dutch marquetry bureau that takes centre stage in the room is Dennis’s most prized family heirloom. ‘It brings back lovely memories of my mother sitting at it writing, and the drawers are still full of odd things like my father’s medals, and my mother’s visiting cards that she used in the 1930s when she was first married,’ he recalls.
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Above hangs a large painting of a camel by contemporary British artist Kate Boxer. ‘Although we wanted a painting of an elephant, and Kate Boxer had made a series of elephant prints, by the time we sought her work out, she’d moved on to camels. But we bought the camel anyway with this room in mind,’ Raffa explains. The exotic flavour of the room is accentuated by a pair of striking red and yellow Indian parasols. ‘I bought them at Chelsea Flower Show, meaning to use them for the garden, but mostly they live here. I love the jingle of the sequins when the wind blows,’ says Raffa.
An accomplished florist and stylist, evidence of Raffa’s creative skills and humour is scattered throughout the house. On the kitchen wall hang two large seahorses made by Raffa from driftwood that she collected from a local beach. ‘They were made for a charity dinner. Seahorses live in the waters at nearby Studland, so they seemed an appropriate decoration,’ explains Raffa.
Elsewhere, in a bedroom, the canopy that Raffa made from Indian saris sits happily among old doll’s houses that belonged to Dennis’s mother, and a Victorian découpage screen discovered in a Suffolk junk shop. A classical bust is decked with a leather helmet that belonged to an Afghan soldier, and Dennis’s skiing medals, and driftwood trees sprout beneath family portraits.
Although the couple absolutely love entertaining and spending time in their exotic home, their wanderlust remains as strong as ever. They are planning a trip to Central America later this year – it will come as no surprise if they return laden with a haul of new and exciting pieces to add to their collection.
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