32. Imperfect Little Cottage

Last week my son-in-law lent me a book called Perfect English Farmhouse by Ros Byam Shaw. Ms. Shaw is a foremost English interior designer and has written several books: Perfect English Cottage; Perfect English; Living Colour; Old House, New Home; as well as Perfect English Farmhouse.

There were several items of entertainment and enjoyment in her book, as well as some inspirational pictures and good color ideas, so in order to adequately discuss these books, I tried to order Perfect English Cottage from the local library. There was only one copy in all of Allegheny County and it was on the holdshelf… So I forked out $$ and bought it, hoping I wouldn’t be sorry.

I will confess to loving decorating books, but I. don’t. purchase. them. I read them from my local library. Otherwise I would overspend my already large and out-of-control book budget. There is not a single decorating book on my bookshelves, unless you count Shelves, Closets, and Cabinets, a no-decorating how-to DIY. There is a lot of pressure to love this book.

I love antiques, real stuff made from real wood, real fabric, real metal, and my house is filled with them. Every one has a story. I’m a 100% kind of person — 100% cotton, 100% wool, 100% old. And here’s the thing : we think 1800s are old! When the English say old, they mean medieval — not like in the US where 100 years is old; some of these farmhouse kitchens have leaded glass windows from the 15th century. Makes the 40s cottage seem downright modern!

AGA Ranges

Every kitchen in this book has a wonderful old enameled cast iron stove called an AGA. Oh, I drooled on Pedro’s book! Turns out, one can still buy them!

This is a photo of an Aga from MurphyHeating.com.

They were originally designed and built in Sweden in the early 20th century and became a hit in England from 1925 on. They are never turned off, which makes them an extra heater in the kitchens of chilly England and Northern Europe. Chefs love them; Jamie Oliver says, “I think the AGA makes people better cooks; they’re generally technically better cooks because they understand cooking.” Each AGA has at least three ovens — a roasting oven, a baking oven, and a slow-cook oven. Devotees say they take the place of toasters, slow cookers, tea pots, and clothes dryers. I’ve never seen a demonstration, but they surely are beautiful. Perhaps luvly is the better word.

They come in gas, propane, or electric and some of them have dual fuel options — electric oven, gas “hobs”. (Burners, for all of us Yankees!) This photo is from the AGA website.

Just look at this pistachio one! There’s also one in English Racing Green! and Aubergine! Each of the traditional cookers is hand made in England after it is ordered and then shipped to you in pieces and installed by the dealer. There are nine AGAs for sale on EBay right now, and they vary in price from $1050 to $12,250 — a little over budget no matter how cheaply we got the cabinets, the doors, and the windows — A girl can dream…

Earthy Walls and Paint Shadows

One of the pictures in the book that made me laugh out loud was a photo in the chapter called ‘House of Leather’. The house is 130 years old and “…Much of Matt and Jax’s work on the house consisted of stripping off layers of ancient paint and wallpaper, and they have left this wall unpainted like a mottled map, showing the history of the various colours and patterns that have decorated it in the last 130 years.” Can you imagine? Our cottage is about 65 years old, and we are complaining about scraping off four layers of paint and one of wallpaper… And this wall they left made it into a very elegant decorating book. I love it! I have walls like this! So now I know that we can just leave the walls in the bathroom.

Bathroom wall — looks like old Italian plaster, eh?

They are kind of swirly, yellow avocado and pink–definitely looks like old Italian plaster! Holes might be a problem, but then again, they can just be covered with wall art and towels, yes?


Paint shadows around this closet showed us the original moldings. That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to paint over the shadows though…

In a similar scenario, Botelet Farm is a third generation B&B in Cornwall. As son Richard was redoing an upstairs bedroom, he found a paint shadow of a mantle that his parents had removed when they were “modernizing” in the fifties. The old paint showed the details of what had been taken off. He wasn’t sure what to do with it, so it got left like that for a time. (My kind of reno!) After a while, he decided he liked it that way and just left it. We have those too!  As a matter of fact, the paint shadows show how the trim over the doors and the windows used to be, and that has helped us decide how to do the trim around the doors. And look at our fireplace…20121028-132239.jpgThe Cottage Book

The Farmhouse book was lots of fun — I loved many of the rooms and the general simplicity of most of them. The cottage rooms are less stark, but actually, just as shabby. Maybe more so. It just isn’t what I expected. This book is not about cozy, light-filled, chintz-covered cottages. There are saggy rocking chairs with torn upholstery; there are antique pieces with big varnish blotches front and center; and old upholstered chairs draped with scarves, quilts, and antique textiles. I should take comfort in this. I have shabby antiques and sagging rocking chairs. In fact, we are wondering how to make this look better:


That is NOT a varnish blotch on the drawer! (And the fake brick linoleum will soon be gone…)

I’ll be honest here: I don’t put stock in perfect things. But I would like the bottom of this kitchen island to look a little less shabby. (I think by the time we’re finished with it, it will.) If I had a lovely old cupboard with an unsightly varnish stain right in the front, I would fix it — no matter what it did to the ‘antique value’. And I can stand a lumpy rocker, but if photographers were coming to feature my home in a decorating book, I would get out my staple gun and staple up the hanging undergarments.

That’s not to say, I didn’t like any of the vignettes in the book — many of the rooms were charming with spectacular harvest tables, luvly painted kitchen “dressers”, and huge old stone and brick fireplaces. But I’ve got a decorating book for sale, half price…

(I’d like to show you some of the pretty rooms, but I don’t want to violate any copyright laws, and I’d be scanning the book to put up photos illegally. I actually requested permission from the publisher, but I am too impatient to wait for their answer. If they ever give me permission, I’ll repost this with photos of the charming spaces.)

11. Lights, Hardware, Action?

The kitchen cabinets are looking creamy and shiny — the luscious color of steamed milk. They are ‘curing’ in the garage bedroom, and before we leave them for awhile, I have a confession to make : I spent as much on the new hardware for them as we spent on the cabinets themselves.

The bottom two handles are from an antique cupboard that we bought from the E.N. Miller Antique Mall (***** 5 stars) in Verona last year. It is the bottom to an old schoolhouse cupboard that held art supplies. We will be using it as the island in the kitchen. It has great charm, but could be considered by some to be in rough shape. More on its transformation later…

The handles are wonderful — old, heavy, off-set pulls — and I wanted those exact handles for the other cabinets. I found them online at VanDyke Restorers. I’ve blanked out how much they were individually, but the final total was about $280. (I missed out on the sale price by “thinking” about whether I really wanted to spend that much. When I made the decision to buy — a day later –they were two dollars more!)

I confess to having measured the holes on the cabinets. And I ordered 3″ handles. They don’t fit. The holes are actually 2 7/8″ apart. Stupid me, I assumed that handles were uniform on the half inch. I guess that is modern cabinetry. Carpenter husband assures me it’s only a minor glitch, but the cabinets are painted, and I’m ready to dress them up with their finery, but now we have to drill new holes. Patience is being taught here…


Painted cabinets awaiting their handles.

The next step is the lighting and that means rewiring (not MY job) before the ceiling can be installed. This is what Michael reads before bed:


Bedtime reading — It puts him right to sleep!

On to the fun stuff — the lights. Michael hung them temporarily so we could visualize and also see if the kitchen was bright enough. (Yes, at our age we like lots of light — no squiggly bulbs here!)

These are just up temporarily, so ignore extensions cords hanging from them! (We are visual learners…)

The light in the center is over the island; the ones that are pendants are on either side–over the sink and over the pass-through. (I think we will lower them a couple of inches.) I realize that’s backwards and most people have hanging lights over the island, but we tried it and like this better. It’s more symmetrical, and I like symmetry! A LOT! When I see the asymmetrical, I want to go fix it.

And now, back to the island cabinet…Michael spent many hours on these beautiful doors:

The center of the doors was originally veneer. It was warping and buckling so I scraped it off, and we decided to put thin wainscot on because that’s what is on the inside of the cupboard. They looked like this:


He painstakingly beveled all the edges and then had to get just the right stain mix to match hundred year old wood.


The mixologist at work…

We also spent time researching what kind of finish was on the cabinet and how to clean it. The librarian did the research, the woodworker did the experimenting. (What a team!) We determined it was lacquer and cleaned it with a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine. They were detailed instructions and if you want the full article on cleaning and restoring shellac, lacquer, or varnish you can find it here. http://www.ca.uky.edu/hes/fcs/FACTSHTS/HF-LRA.053.PDF We still aren’t finished with the cupboard, but it looks lots better already, and the doors look like they were original.


With the temperature hitting 100 degrees, we were glad to work inside in air conditioned comfort.

How amazing that we have air conditioning in our humble cottage when our walls look like this:


and this:

It looks like someone took a shotgun to it, but it was really just Clara’s picture wall. It was covered with photographs. She must have moved them around a lot…


Patience is being taught here…