How to have a natural Christmas
When it comes to Christmas, antiques dealer Josephine Ryan is a traditionalist and loves to fill her elegant south London home with candles and natural foliage. Feature Maggie Colvin. Photographs Robert Sanderson.
Antiques dealer Josephine Ryan is happy to describe herself as somewhat controlling when it comes to decorating her house at Christmas. She has no time for artificial trees, fake garlands or silk flowers, she says, no matter how realistic.
She is as adamant in her hatred of such things as she is passionate about heading out to gather fresh mistletoe and seasonal foliage foraged from local – albeit inner-city – hedgerows. Extra greenery comes from the trimmings Josephine takes from the Christmas tree; these she arranges along shelves and mantelpieces to create a lush backdrop for her silverware and other ornaments.
The emphasis is on ease and simplicity, which chimes perfectly with Josephine’s aesthetic throughout the rest of the year: antique chairs and sofas are upholstered in plain linens, no matter how ornate the frames; luxurious-seeming throws are fashioned from antique fur coats which she ‘alters’ by tucking the sleeves out of sight. ‘If they are really ragged, I might just cut them off,’ she says.
While the aim is to create a sense of faded grandeur – like a country house in the city – in terms of furniture, she is drawn to simple, painted pieces over gilt and marquetry.
The drawing room
Josephine traces her particular fondness for rustic, country furniture to a childhood spent surrounded by the antiques that filled her parents’ home in Ireland. ‘A love of antiques is in my DNA,’ she says. ‘Both my parents were avid collectors so I was destined to follow their lead. I grew to love that distressed, battered look of simple, rustic furniture.’
She bought her first antique from a dealer on Portobello Road and paid for it in instalments. It was only a matter of time before she entered the trade herself. As a dealer, Josephine has always believed in buying the things she likes, even if she has felt at times that these pieces were beyond her budget.
‘It’s simply a matter of confidence,’ she says. ‘Having the staying power and believing that what you like will appeal to someone else, and, in turn, they’ll want to buy from you.’
Josephine deployed the same confidence and staying power when she decided to buy the double-fronted house that is now her home. The house had been owned and semi-renovated by a builder, so it was structurally sound but unsympathetically modernized and still lacked central heating. All the Victorian sash windows had been replaced with aluminium frames, and original features such as the old fireplaces had been removed.
It was a challenge, but full of promise, and Josephine couldn’t resist. ‘It had country-house proportions, with large, light, almost square rooms,’ she explains. ‘And I loved the way it was laid out – double-fronted and only two storeys, so I wouldn’t have to spend my life running up and down stairs!’ This was a key consideration for her at the time as she was pregnant with her first child.
The work was extensive and involved knocking down the walls between the kitchen and dining room, replacing windows and reinstating fireplaces. Josephine also removed the many differently coloured carpets in order to paint the floorboards.
The dining room
‘In those days I would buy something for the house, run out of money and decide I needed to sell it,’ Josephine recalls. Consequently, the rooms and the overall look of the house were in a constant state of flux.
But she had a good eye and was always able to turn a profit: her first batch of furniture swiftly sold out at Newark antiques fair. ‘Instead of spending the money sensibly, I promptly bought a whole new lot of pieces,’ she laughs.
These days, with grown-up children and a thriving interiors business, there is no longer any need to sell the furniture and the look of the house has settled. ‘I’ve stopped buying new things,’ she says, ‘not that I ever bought anything much that was actually new except for candles and lamps.’ And candles are key to the way Josephine decorates the house at Christmas.
Apart from a few twinkling lights on the tree (a rare concession to the 21st-century take on festivities) the rest of the house is bathed in candlelight. ‘I like to place mirrored mats below candlesticks,’ she says, ‘as it doubles the impact of the glow and adds more sparkle.’
Other than lights and swags of locally sourced greenery, decorations are limited to Christmas cards, which are displayed on an old Edwardian fruit picker’s ladder in the hall. But despite her firm rules regarding the Christmas decorations, the day itself is relaxed.
The house is filled with family and friends, and guests are welcome to potter around in dressing gowns if they feel like it. ‘The day is about chatting, listening to old LPs of children singing carols, and playing games,’ she says. ‘Friends say I live in another century,’ she smiles, happy to take the compliment.