Living in an English country house
A colourful history and captivating architecture make Michael and Jo Peters' Commonwood home an enviable one, as Pat Bramley discovers...
FURNITURE designer Michael Peters says it’s a fact that when the economy is in a hole people play safe and invest in timeless classics. When a sense of well-being prevails, caution evaporates and avant-garde designs are the crowd pullers.
‘The economy does dictate the style of furniture that sells. When money’s tight families want things they feel comfortable with and that tends to be traditional furnishings. When the economic outlook is brighter they can be a little more adventurous,’ says the English born designer who spent his childhood in South Africa until he returned to the UK with his parents when he was 16.
The beautiful rosewood dining table in the drawing room of his house in the Hertfordshire hamlet of Commonwood is one of the pieces he made when he was a student at the Camberwell School of Art and Central St Martins in the first half of the 1960s.
At college he came under the influence of lecturers who were among the best in Europe – the German born British painter Frank Auerbach, the late American artist Ron Kitaj and the British painters Euan Uglow and Robert Medley who have also since died.
'When money’s tight families want things they feel comfortable with and that tends to be traditional furnishings'
Initially, after completing his training, he went down the interior design route and worked on major commercial refurbishments including the Odeon in Leicester Square. ‘But I found the disadvantage of being an interior designer was that the quality of the result depended on too many people which was why I decided to become a furniture designer where the relationship with the client is more one-to-one.’
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He sells his blueprints to a string of well known companies who manufacture his pieces – mainly sofas these days – and they’re sold under someone else’s brand name all over the world.
So, yes, Michael’s home in a Hertfordshire hamlet is a vision of an English country house furnished with understated elegance – above all it’s a comfortable environment to relax in, no bleak hard surfaces, no in-your-face colours – but the credit for the seemingly effortless style is not his alone.
Mike’s wife Jo is also an artist although she doesn’t sell her work. Her background was the fashion industry before she worked in administration but she is sufficiently talented as a sculptor to have been taken on as a pupil by the daughter of Lucian Freud.
The lifesize busts on the shelf above the drawing room fireplace and decorating other shelves and windowsills in the Peters’ home show just how good she is. Most of them are clay but she also works in stone and wood and one particularly fine carving of a middle-aged chap in a cap has been cast in bronze.
For the past eight years, home for Mike and Jo has been a three-storey wing of a sprawling Victorian mansion in a lyrically beautiful woodland setting a mile or so from the village of Sarratt. Previously they lived in a large house in Moor Park.
‘We’d been thinking of downsizing for some time because our son was at the age when he was about to leave home and we didn’t need so much space. We knew Sarratt and thought we’d like to move out here but there hadn’t been much for sale.’
Their initial visit to Commonwood House was to view a flat, one of eight freehold apartments and houses created when the mansion was split up into separate residences in the 1950s.
‘We didn’t like the flat so the agent asked if we’d like to look at a house (within the mansion) that was on the market. Until then we didn’t know one of the houses was for sale.
‘I came into the hall,’ Jo remembers, ‘and immediately I felt this is right.’
One bedroom has become a top floor studio for Mike overlooking rooftops and the woods
Whether they downsized or not is a moot point. What they did gain was a house in a mansion where a resident gossip columnist could have made a fortune.
There for the writing is a chart-topping TV series on the colourful past of Commonwood House and the parade of well known characters from all kinds of backgrounds who have been part of the Commonwood scene, especially during the years in the first half of the 20th century when it was owned by a vivacious London actress and her wealthy husband who made his money from the family-run printing company which revolutionised the advertising of theatre productions.
Not surprisingly, the Hertfordshire house the Victorian newlyweds bought as their weekend home has quite a bit of theatre about it both inside and out.
Its appearance on the landscape comes as a surprise if you haven’t seen it before. It’s set back from the road facing a small common which appears in a clearing at the top of a narrow lane bordered by woods.
At first glance, seeing the corbelled chimneys, the old timbers and gables, panels of white rendering and herringbone red brick, you might guess the mansion is Elizabethan. It’s not. The house was first built in the 1880s. ‘I call it regency-Tudor-bethan,’ Michael laughs. ‘The architecture has no special merit, the house isn’t listed.’
Cissy Grahame, ‘the well known leading lady of the London stage’ who married advertising pioneer William Allen, was a great believer in employing locals to help her extend the house to accommodate all the visitors they invited.
Her favourite builder was Tommy Downer from Sarratt. According to one informed account ‘he travelled around Europe and sketched buildings and architectural details. She had the money to spend and faith that local skills could reproduce these features’.
During the 1920s and 1930s, following poor William’s death from a brain hemorrhage in 1919, she more than doubled the size of the house which had originally been built with a modest eight rooms.
By the early 1920s each of the Allens’ three grown-up sons had his own suite at Commonwood House and a huge circle of friends but socially they didn’t mix. Separate sets of guests were segregated if they turned up at the same time.
Regular visitors included the legendary actor Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, the great golfer Henry Cotton plus an assortment of ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, artists, actors, music-hall stars and Russian exiles. Should their host fail to turn up to greet them they would be left standing in the hall like a spare part. The other brothers wouldn’t come to the rescue.
In 1939 the house was requisitioned for the war effort and by 1943 Cissie had decided to sell up. Subsequently it became the country headquarters of a major electronics corporation and then, less successfully, a country club.
The club enterprise suffered two major setbacks, first a fire which destroyed almost a quarter of the building and then, almost as bad, a police raid following a tip-off about after-hours drinking.
These days the respectable residents of Commonwood House enjoy the peaceful woodland setting and there are no dramas to disturb the tranquility and convivial neighbourliness.
One couple has moved three times to a new property within the mansion, another twice. It’s not unheard of for a resident to move away and then come back because they missed it so much.
Michael and Jo’s section, called The White House, has four bedrooms and three bathrooms – the master suite has a dressing room and a svelte bathroom both designed in-house.
A further bedroom has become a top floor studio for Mike overlooking rooftops and the woods; there’s also the wonderful hall that enchanted Jo on her first visit with the handsome staircase leading up to Mike’s favourite part of the house, the first floor landing with its arches and built in bookcases. There’s also the high ceilinged drawing room with big bay window
at the front overlooking their castellated terrace, added by Cissy in a flash of inspiration in the 1920s.
A more recent improvement is the designer kitchen but the huge cellar with ambient temperature that’s just right for wine has always been there. The Peters also have a private garden at the back of the house and at the front they look out on to a lovely old oak tree on the common that changes colour with the seasons.
Unfortunately, Jo has suffered for years with an acute back problem which now severely limits her ability to get up and down stairs. They’ve got to give up the house they’ve loved so much which is why it’s on the market with a guide price of �835,000 through Savills in Rickmansworth.