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The transformation of a post office to a beautiful country house

PUBLISHED: 10:19 03 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:31 03 January 2014

A cool slab of dramatically veined Arabescato marble from Eaton Stonemasons sits atop the deep red island creating a striking focal point in the family kitchen. The cabinetry was designed and made by Jonathan Sainsbury Limited and the island painted in Incarnadine by Farrow & Ball.

A cool slab of dramatically veined Arabescato marble from Eaton Stonemasons sits atop the deep red island creating a striking focal point in the family kitchen. The cabinetry was designed and made by Jonathan Sainsbury Limited and the island painted in Incarnadine by Farrow & Ball.

Andreas von Einsiedel 2013, All Rights Reserved

Stark, minimalist, ultra-modern styling would probably be Jonathan Sainsbury’s idea of purgatory.

The salvaged teak table top was originally a chemistry-lab worktop from Jonathan’s old school, Bryanston.The salvaged teak table top was originally a chemistry-lab worktop from Jonathan’s old school, Bryanston.

The house, near Witchampton, where the interiors expert, his wife, Victoria, and the couple’s four children, whose ages range from six to eighteen, live is a veritable celebration of colour, texture, detail and life. Intricately-carved side tables, fine paintings and rococo gilt mirrors jostle for attention alongside classical busts, and monumental marble columns flank a colossal dining table made from a school chemistry bench – still bearing the initials of a bored pupil finding himself at a loose end with a pair of compasses. It feels a little like Sir John Soane’s Museum crossed with the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford; a tribute to the art of decoration, man’s ingenuity and featuring a fabulous melange of artistic schools and styles ranging from the ancient world to the early nineteenth century. “I’ve always liked the expression ‘decayed elegance’,” Jonathan explains. “I like a certain amount of noise, a little bit of chaos – I love decoration but I don’t want it to become too precious. It’s a fine line: you can have rooms filled with paintings and marbles and side tables and gilt mirrors – but it works best if it’s all just a little bit untidy, a little bit rough, a little bit chipped here and there. It’s the little imperfections that create a feeling of warmth and comfort, and if you’ve got hundreds of children racing about, like we often have, and something occasionally gets hit by a football, that’s absolutely fine.”

The melange of interior pieces has been meticulously curated. The quality of craftsmanship and attention to detail here are little short of astonishing, with every surface carefully considered, each element perfectly located; even the junctions between the architraves and the dado rail work together perfectly in a delightfully exuberant harmony of shape, form and colour. One top London decorator recently described Jonathan’s house as a ‘tour de force’ – an expression that sums up the place perfectly.

“With my work, I spend a great deal of time in really wonderful classical period houses where everything is just one step further along than it would normally be. A door surround is not simply a door surround – it is something that someone has carved and made. When people come to the house, they probably wouldn’t say ‘that’s a wonderful door,’ or ‘that carving around the bottom of the dado is fantastic,’ but somehow, it all works together to create an atmosphere. I honestly believe that the last ten per cent makes one hundred per cent of the difference.”

Jonathan has always loved art, architecture and antiques. His great-grandfather, Daniel Sainsbury, founded the family cabinet-making business, and as long ago as Jonathan can remember, his father used to spend weekends carting him around great country houses and antique shops. By the age of eight, Jonathan knew all about Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite and was able to identify Georgian and Queen Anne furniture.

Despite having travelled widely – even living abroad at one point – Jonathan and Victoria chose to return to this tranquil corner of Dorset, close to where they both grew up. It was the reputation that the village had for friendliness as well as the inviting neighbourhood and exceptionally beautiful countryside that drew them to this particular spot – in spite of the fact that there wasn’t really a large enough house available for a sociable family of six.

“We’re a bit off the beaten track here and a long way from any main roads and it’s a really friendly village, so we really don’t have to worry about where the children are or what they’re up to. As soon as they’re home from school, they’re gone – Hector off to the river with his fishing rod, the girls with their friends who have ponies.”

Although fairly small, the house they chose was in the perfect spot, with views across to Cranborne Chase and the rolling Dorset countryside. “It was literally just a tiny former village post-office,” remembers Jonathan. “It had been empty for seven years and was completely and utterly dilapidated, but the location was magical. I wanted to take on a project; I knew we had a lot of work to do to create something wonderful although even I underestimated quite how much it would entail.”

Over almost a year and a half, the Sainsburys restored, repaired and rebuilt the crumbling Grade II listed building, extending into the garden behind, including a vast underground family room which entailed excavating 1,700 tonnes of earth. There were structural issues, too; the whole of the original house had to be underpinned and each chimney had to be taken down and reassembled. A local architect, Peter Thompson based in nearby Wimborne, helped Jonathan with the planning application. “Peter was fantastic. He has an excellent understanding of period properties and the planners know and trust him, so the whole project – although inevitably time-consuming – ran smoothly.”

The house is now an inviting, light-filled series of spaces, each with its own distinctive identity, but relating beautifully to adjacent spaces. It is virtually impossible to tell which is the old part of the house and which the new, so seamlessly has the renovation been executed. Each room is filled with extraordinary collections of treasures, yet it has all been put together with such a lightness of touch that there is no sense of clutter or disharmony and the entire house is held together visually by a gloriously lofty entrance hall around which is wrapped a grand, sweeping galleried staircase.

“Our remit was that it should feel like a proper English country house, without it actually being on a monumental scale,” Jonathan explains.

One of the most difficult aspects of the design, he freely admits, was choosing the colours. With such an ambitious design, it might be all too easy to play safe with a palette of quiet neutrals, which would fail to do the house justice, or alternatively drown out any sense of subtlety with strong, overpowering colours ending up, in Jonathan’s words, ‘a howling nightmare’.

“I left that side of things to Victoria,” Jonathan confesses. “She has an excellent eye. She chose colours that were bold, but not bright; colours that would work well with the soft natural tones of the limestone floor and the soft, old, wooden worktops. And Farrow & Ball in Wimborne were enormously helpful, too,” he adds.

There is a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere here. Although undeniably grand in places – the towering entrance hall, the fine marble fireplaces, beautiful artefacts and ornate classical detailing – the overriding ambience is one of great generosity.

“There’s nothing I like more than coming home from work to the smell of a rib of beef cooking in the Aga and lots of people in the house, all with a glass of wine, laughing, drinking and generally carrying on,” Jonathan admits.

“Everything’s a bit noisy, a bit chaotic, but very, very comfortable. And I can just fall into a sofa with a dog and it doesn’t matter. That’s my idea of heaven.”

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The Sainsbury family

Jonathan (above) and Victoria Sainsbury live in a Grade II listed former post office with their four children. Also part of the family are Beau, a black Labrador and Betty, a Border terrier. Jonathan’s eponymous company specialises in making fine furniture inspired by 18th- and 19th century masters of furniture design.

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Useful Contacts

Jonathan Sainsbury Limited - Tel: 01258 857573 englishlookingglasses.com
Aga - Tel:0845 712 5207 agaliving.com

Eaton Stonemasons - Tel:01258 858550 eatonstonemasons.com
Farrow & Ball - Tel:01202 850240 farrow-ball.com
Kenneth Harvey Antiques - Tel:020 7352 3775 kennethharvey.com

Peter Thompson Architects - Tel:01202 842266 peterthompsonarchitects.com

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This article first appeared in our sister magazine The Engish Home.

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