From wool merchants to drinkers, artists to journalists, Robert O’Byrne unearths the colourful history of the inhabitants of this beautifully restored Cotswolds home in his new book Romantic English Houses.
There are few buildings where the age-old adage ‘if only the walls could talk’ is more appropriate than this handsome stone-fronted house, named Greyhounds, in the Cotswolds town of Burford on the meandering River Windrush.
Its colourful history parallels that of the town – the first in the region to be granted a market charter – having originated as a wool merchant’s house in the late 15th century when the area was at its most prosperous. As the demand for highly prized, yet costly, Cotswolds wool gradually declined, the building was converted into a coaching inn, the current stone frontage was added and, by the end of the 19th century when Burford’s prosperity was long-forgotten, the building became Thomas Paintin’s Lenthall Temperance Hotel.
Burford’s links with designer William Morris coincide with this time when it’s said that he was moved to found the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings after visiting the town in 1876 to find the vicar scraping medieval paintings off the walls of St John the Baptist’s church.
Fortunately, Burford’s subsequent vicars were more sympathetic to their history and, in 1906, Reverend William C Emeris bought and restored a timber house on Sheep Street, inspiring his sister, Elizabeth Percival, to acquire neighbouring Greyhounds for £700 to do the same. She also greatly extended the plot behind the house, taking in the former gardener’s cottage, which was later rented by Bloomsbury painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell in the 1930s.
Greyhounds went on to be passed through the hands of equally sympathetic owners until 1946, when it housed the editorial offices of The Countryman magazine for nearly 50 years. It was eventually bought in 1999 by its present owners, Burford resident and antique dealer Michael Taubenheim and his partner, Irish paint specialist Christopher Moore. Taubenheim and Moore have sympathetically transformed the 27-room building into an elegant private residence, while being mindful to preserve as much of its long and fascinating history as possible.
One of the more immediate challenges they faced was the somewhat incoherent layout, including no less than five staircases, together with the lack of light from the building’s small multi-paned windows, typical of the period.
‘The aim has been to fill the house with as much light as possible, resulting in scrubbed woodwork, limed surfaces, painted floors, pale walls and seagrass,’ explains Moore. Cleverly filling the space between the front and rear of the building at the top of the main staircase – which is, in keeping with the Arts and Crafts Movement, made from recycled timber and appears to date from Mrs Percival’s time – they added a carpacious first-floor library. This houses a collection of gardening and architecture books, as well as a complete run of The Countryman magazine, in homage to its former occupiers. The main staircase, which has been stripped of wax and limed with distemper, together with the neutral walls and salvaged timber shelving forms a bright backdrop that is flooded with light from the skylights, providing a bright and peaceful reading and relaxing space. The former dining room of the 19th-century temperance hotel, at the foot of the main staircase, has also been lightened with bleached woodwork, pale parquet flooring and distempered walls, and turned into a gentle and elegant sitting room filled with antique furniture.
Reflecting the owners’ heritage, the interiors house a fusion of English and Irish pieces and the sitting room is dominated by two verdure tapestries hung either side of the Irish chimney piece. Alongside them sit two Irish sidechairs covered in late 18th-century chintz and in front of one is a 1930s Chinoiserie table flanked by 1953 coronation chairs. Sepia views of Dublin’s Liffey valley dating from the 1790s are also displayed on the walls of a guest bedroom while, outside, the garden pavilion has been constructed from salvaged doors, windows and architraves from Irish properties and planted in the large sloping gardens are many plants of Irish pedigree.
The light-filled kitchen, previously the library for the editor of The Countryman, features ceiling beams from a demolished Oxford pub, as well as 18th-century Irish Gothic mahogany dining chairs from County Limerick. The kitchen overlooks the courtyard where, 150 years ago, former owner Thomas Paintin’s horses were stabled.
The house still retains Mrs Percival’s glazed hallway, protected from the elements by doors, which she erected in the former coaching inn’s carriageway leading to the rear terrace. Today the space is filled with garden implements and plants and doubles as a greenhouse where keen gardeners Taubenheim and Moore move plants in winter to shelter them from the elements.
The house’s typical ‘busy’ English style of beautifully mismatched pieces conveys the impression that generations of the same family have inhabited the house. While that couldn’t be further from the truth, the enduring influence of Greyhounds’ occupiers through the ages results in a home that is brimming with character and stories of times past.
Romantic English Homes by Robert O’Byrne, published by CICO Books, £30. Photography by Simon Brown © CICO Books