PUBLISHED: 09:03 02 August 2007 | UPDATED: 14:47 20 February 2013
Kate Hadley discovers how colour and the handmade integrity of Arts and Crafts furniture bring elegance to 14th century Hall House
KEITH GRAY was an established kitchen designer and furniture maker, with a passion for William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, when he and his wife, Lucy, forsook the comfort of Fulham for a 14th century farm just outside Panfield, near Braintree. Great Priory Farm belonged to Lucy's father, John Tabor, and had been the home of Lucy's ancestor Robert Tabor, nearly 500 years ago.
It was 1982 when Keith and Lucy decided that a move to the country would make a better place for their two small children, Sam and Joe, to grow up in. Lucy's father was living in another house on the farm, but wanted his daughter to help run the farm and take on the renovation of Great Priory Farm.
An evidently persuasive man, although his daughter had only just finished decorating her London home, his plan worked.
Nevertheless, one step inside the entrance hall and Lucy's heart almost stopped. Plants grew through holes in the walls and ceilings. Beside the front door, just under a window stood an old bath. Lucy says: 'I suppose, while you were having a bath you could keep an eye on visitors coming up the farm track. The house had been tenanted and was virtually unchanged since 1780. In the old kitchen, lit by one electric light bulb, there were bats, the floor was concrete, and the range was boarded up.'
Today this kitchen glows with colour. Like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts people he admires, Keith has a hands-on pleasure in using colour to enrich a home. He and Lucy also like the calm elegance which a piece of good handmade furniture brings to a room. They've filled the farmhouse with dressers and cabinets, some antique and some made by Keith and his company Keith Gray & Co, which is run from their ancient barns.
The kitchen walls provide a peachy backdrop to the family's everyday life, in Fowler Pink, by Farrow and Ball. The magnificent range, which had been bricked up, along with all the other fireplaces in the house and some windows, now contains an Aga surrounded by cream cupboards which reflect light from what might otherwise be too dark a part of the room. A little Edwardian-style oak dresser, made by Keith to fit by the Aga, has a plate rack full of charming blue and white china and also conceals the dishwasher and bin.
The dining chairs are painted dark blue, over rouge red, which works well with the rich oak table. Along the opposite wall to the Aga lies a large green painted Arts and Crafts-inspired dresser, ornate with an attractive pediment. This too is something Keith made and experimented on with colour. The various shades of darkish and mid green wash have matured with time, again with a hint of rouge pink which comes through the green and burnishes the furniture's lines.
There is a set of faux drawers at the front of the dresser. The whole thing pulls out to show plate racks and other practical storage. Keith explains: 'I have always liked big Victorian and Edwardian wardrobes and cupboards with their concealed drawers and storage. I like the grand shapes. When nobody was interested in this kind of piece, I went out of my way to find them and made them into book cases and dressers. I learned the craft of making furniture by renovating these pieces.' This is when he learned to identify with William Morris and his desire to 'return to honesty in design, not to be found in mass-produced items'.
The flare for colour and cabinets can be seen throughout the house. The master bathroom is painted with a blue and white cloud effect. 'Slapped on a bit of emulsion, that's all,' Keith says. There's also a handsome Victorian dresser. In the entrance hall, on an original floor made from Suffolk whites, as uneven as the sea, stands a rare Welsh Court Cupboard. Once the old dairy ran off the hall. Now it's been turned into a good-sized downstairs cloakroom, painted oak leaf green and covered with photographs of Lucy and their children, Joe, 24, Flora, 20, and Sam, 27, riding the family's horses. Opposite this green room is another example of Great Priory Farm's many boarded-up fireplaces, an extraordinary range which Keith knocked through almost by accident, discovering behind a false wall, a museum-worthy wrought-iron pot crane. 'The baskets and the pot crane, were all there as they had been left when the range was working. It was hugely exciting to peer through the hole I'd made and see it there, like secret buried treasure,' says Keith.
In the living room and a second smaller snuggery are two of Keith's favourite pieces of Victorian furniture. In the smaller room an original Liberty dresser from about 1886, when the store opened, stands by the window. The Sussex settle under the window in the main living room is a rare piece by Morris & Co, made in the 1890s.
Keith explains: 'A friend found a bunch of Victorian wardrobes for me - they knew I liked them - and among them was this settle.
The old boy who rushed it for us had been taught his trade in youth, by another very old boy, Edward Barnsley who is a direct link back to Morris and ran a distinguished workshop in the early 20th century. So that Morris settle is linked through time and people to us, which I like.'
The original farm track to the house and the 14th and 17th century barns where Keith's kitchens are made is probably much as it was when the earliest barn was built, but with an improved surface for company vans and visitors.
In a nearby field graze their two horses, Jeeves, and Merrigan, with a small Shetland pony, Smokey, to keep them company. There is also a duck pond with obliging ducks, who turn picturesquely upside down as they forage on the bottom.
'It was hard work,' says Keith, 'but the house has a good feeling. It's been a great place to bring up a family and a marvellous place to run a business from.
Essex is particularly rich in fine timbered buildings with a lot of people coming in from the city to buy them because it's so accessible to the area round Liverpool Street. So although we work in Kensington and Chelsea, now we're getting a great many Essex clients, who enjoy driving over to the farm.'