Sympathetic Victorian restoration

With many projects behind her, Jennifer didn't let a limited budget stop her ambitious plans to create functional and elegant home with a cool, sophisticated colour scheme

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This grand Victorian country house in south west Scotland was waiting for just the right people to come along and bring out its original splendour.

Thankfully, in 2008, Jennifer and Laurence Bristow-Smith found the house and could see past the heavily embossed 1970s wallpaper, garish red carpets, avocado bathroom suite, and unnaturally orange varnish on all the woodwork.

In two short years, while Laurence, a diplomat, has been continuing his professional duties in Milan, Jennifer has scraped back the dated finishes to reveal the idiosyncratic period character of the building.

Her achievements are clear at a single glance: the house has elegance, functionality, and clever design ideas throughout; this project was the unmistakable winner of the Best Country House category in our Readers’ Awards 2010 – and was given the prize for Best Budget Project by our panel of judges.

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The sash windows of this grand Victorian country home have been repaired during its renovation

Consolidated experience

Much of what Jennifer has learned about creating a home over the years seems to have synthesised in this renovation. She explains: ‘Before I met Laurence and moved to Milan, I lived in Norway for over 20 years; I still love Nordic simplicity, light, natural materials – I collect antique linen – and a Gustavian palette. I also spent several years in Marrakech, where I took on projects for friends; that’s where I learned to create unusual interiors on a budget. I also called on my training as a sculptor to redefine interior spaces and use grouped objects to form interesting vignettes.’

While Jennifer has obvious design talents, she was not wary of getting involved with the hard work of this renovation, which began with the lengthy process of finding a new home. In between fulfilling her role as a diplomatic wife, she flew back and forth from Italy to the UK in search of the ideal home. ‘We looked everywhere from the south to the north, east to west, until we eventually found this place; we admired the village and the landscape as well as the house. But I knew that it was a major project so I’d have to be very careful with our limited budget.

‘We were fortunate that, quite early on, some good contacts were recommended to us,’ she continues, ‘and I worked very closely with just one tradesman throughout the renovation process, making the schedule and finances much easier to control. Brian McKend – our builder, plumber, carpenter and electrician – has been exceptional; he only called in extra help for jobs that needed certification.’

Sitting room in Victorian country house

Jennifer’s clever use of lighting is seen here with Jim Lawrence pendants over the coffee table; above the fireplace she used pages from a dictionary as wallpaper

Restoration for an extra income

Before she could begin the main house, though, Jennifer decided it would be wise to freshen up the adjoining cottage so that she could let it out as soon as possible as a holiday home to help pay for the work. That done, she and Brian set about restoring the main house as well as providing the option of running it as a bed and breakfast business: the upstairs layout has been sympathetically altered to give it five bedrooms, each with its own en-suite bathroom; and to make the building more energy efficient, they installed two condensing boilers and a new water tank to improve the water pressure.

Bathroom in Victorian country house

Jennifer chose basins from Ikea for the master en-suite bathroom, and off-white tongue-and-groove panelling

Original features

Jennifer and Brian have restored some of the original features, too, for instance: servants’ bells in the kitchen that were hidden under layers of paint, and badly stained tongue-and-groove panelling and cornicing in several rooms. They also repaired the sash windows and wooden doors throughout, revamped the pitch pine staircase and brass rods, cleared out the four open fires, and cleaned the tiled entrance hall floor.

Another challenge was to build bookshelves in the original drawing room to house Jennifer and Laurence’s huge collection of books. ‘Between us, we own many thousands of books, so it seemed sensible to create a library,’ Jennifer says. ‘But like the rest of the renovation, it had to be done fairly inexpensively so I came up with the idea of using standard boards from a DIY store and then adding beading on the edges, and coving along the top to make it look more impressive.’

Window desk in Victorian country home

A small table and chair from Norway provide an appealing place to sit overlooking the front garden

Budget ideas

There was one area, however, that Jennifer was certain she didn’t want to compromise on – and that was the lighting. ‘I decided to buy good quality fittings with a period feel from suppliers including Jim Lawrence, Tinsmiths, and RE. Although I managed to cut costs in other areas, this wasn’t something I wanted to economise on.’ The lighting is a dominant feature in the house, and it has been used to create interest and intimacy in equal measure. Desks or tables in bay windows are illuminated by low hanging pendants, as is the sitting room coffee table, which is served by a pair. There are many tripod lamps, spotlights and wall sconces; the attention to detail is evident always.

Jennifer has been just as thoughtful throughout the rest of the house, using an inexpensive kitchen from Ikea with solid wooden worktops and some open shelves to create a country feel; the bathrooms feature basins and sanitaryware from Ikea, too. ‘I like to combine functional low cost pieces with more quirky finds,’ she explains, ‘and eBay is a great source of inexpensive and unusual furnishings. I have an idea of what I want, then hunt it down.’ Vintage luggage, for instance, is a much-loved collection, put together from online auctions and local antiques shops; it provides not only useful storage in the hallway and in many of the bedrooms, but has an evocative feel of adventurous journeys enjoyed by passionate travellers, like Jennifer and Laurence themselves.

Another innovative idea evident in some rooms is Jennifer’s unusual feature wallpaper. She has created a focal point over the sitting room fireplace using pages from a vintage dictionary – perfectly apt in a room that also serves as the library. Meanwhile, in the downstairs cloakroom, she chose music sheets above the basin; to ensure the paper is waterproof, she covered it with clear acrylic medium.

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Why this house won Best Budget Project 2010

Jennifer spent £93,500 fully renovating and furnishing this large house.

Building work (project was hands-on and self-managed making huge savings)£10,000
Plumbing£4,000
Electrics£7,000
Central heating£10,000
Window repairs (refurbishing existing sashes rather than replacing)£2,000
Roof repairs£2,000
New kitchen (using inexpensive Ikea kitchen while investing in solid wood worktops and quality appliances)£8,000
Five new bathrooms (using Ikea pieces with solid wood)£24,000
Furniture (sourced from eBay, antiques shops and auctions)£10,000
Lighting£5,000
Paint/wallpaper (replicating heritage shades with Dulux paint)£1,500
Flooring/carpets£6,000
Accessories£2,000
Gardening/landscaping£2,000

Photographer: Brent Darby