‘Having left their Sussex smallholding for coastal Dorset, Nick Ivins and Bella Pringle now host events including a pop-up gallery and supper club in their Georgian townhouse, which has proved as adaptable as they are.’
Text Ros Byam Shaw Photographs Michael Sinclair
HOUSE & GARDEN magazine.
Nick Ivins and Bella Pringle are masters of reinvention. For 11 years they lived in Sussex in the prettiest red-brick Georgian farmhouse. They had a vegetable garden, which was as picturesque as it was productive, and bees, rare-breed pigs, quail and chickens. Like characters in a Thomas Hardy novel with a happy ending, they lived a life of old-fashioned rural charm.
They made an income by hiring out their home as a location for film and photography, and Nick continued his previous career as a photographer by specialising in weddings. Such was the visual appeal of Walnuts Farm, its gardens, fields and animals, that they hosted some 40 shoots a year. Then, three years ago, they sold up and moved to a tall 18th-century townhouse by the sea in Lyme Regis.
‘We’d always thought of Walnuts as a 10-year project,’ says Bella. ‘As Flora came to the end of junior school, we started to hunt for another smallholding. West Dorset was one of several areas we considered, as it had good state schools. We spent a weekend camping on a farm and saw about 15 properties, all with land. Nick knew Lyme because he used to visit for holidays as a child and suggested we have lunch here. We viewed this house on a whim. The moment I stepped into the hall, I felt I had come home.’
Nick was not so keen. While Bella grew up in London, where her father had a gallery in Cork Street, and returned after a degree in art history at Warwick to work as an editor at Dorling Kindsersley publishers, Nick was a countryman through and through. ‘I was brought up in Kent and spent my childhood fishing, in between visits to Tate Britain,’ he says. ‘After art college in Canterbury I worked on a farm, then went to agricultural college in Cirencester.’ When they met, Nick was living in a tiny cottage in Sussex, while Bella owned a chic, minimalist flat in Battersea. ‘Nick used to collect me from the station with two ferrets and a lurcher in tow,’ she says. In 2002, they married and Bella sold her London flat. ‘So this time round, it was my turn to choose,’ she says. ‘I knew we could be happy here. It’s a small town, but there’s a lot going on and this house is like the London terraces I’ve always loved – the interior reminds me of Spitalfields, where we married.’
Without livestock and gardens to maintain, Nick would have time to fish and paint and could use the fourth-floor attic room, with its wrap-around sea views, as a studio. Bella, meanwhile, had plans to make the house work for them, just as Walnuts Farm had done. Sited halfway up a hill, a steep climb from the shops, above the curving harbour wall known as the Cobb, 15 Pound Street is one of a pair, dating from circa 1790. Next door is the detached Georgian villa known as Belmont, home of the novelist John Fowles until his death in 2005 and recently restored by The Landmark Trust. With its pink facade, iced with neoclassical masks, friezes and urns, it was once the home of Eleanor Coade, who had a successful company making moulded architectural decorations in the hard-wearing stone substitute she invented.
What visitors to Belmont lacked was somewhere to get a cup of tea. So, Bella decided to open her front door and serve tea and home-made cakes from her kitchen. Visitors poured in and also bought from the array of antiques, jewellery, pottery and art (including work by Nick) on show in the ground- and first-floor rooms.
So began the idea of Open House events. They have since opened at Christmas, with a snow-machine wafting snowflakes over a towering tree in the front garden, and at Easter, when the first-floor drawing room became a Seaweed Salon, offering pressed seaweed prints by Molesworth & Bird. Their Marine Artists’ Open House – with sea-inspired paintings and drawings by Nick, vintage pond yachts, jewellery and other nautical-themed delights – was timed to coincide with Belmont’s open weekend and the Mark Hix Food Rocks event in September. In April, the house was transformed into The Garment Maker’s House, with bespoke tailoring by Kat Bazeley of BlueBarn.Life – walls, freshly painted in white, became the canvas for large-scale figure outlines by Nick, and a small tree in one room acted as a hanger for Kat’s linen toiles.
The house is like a stage set, which is appropriate, and not just because Nick has a third career as an actor, on top of artist and photographer, having played the lead in a community theatre production that later went on tour. For each event, the house changes its character. There have been twiggy nests and tulips suspended in swags from the ceiling for Easter and giant pom-poms of mistletoe, wood fires and candlelight for Christmas. Nick and Bella have variously conjured Kettle’s Yard simplicity, Dickensian cosiness, poised modernity and the period serenity of a Vermeer. Soundtracks and scents complete the experience.
When they host supper clubs with chef Cass Titcombe, of Beaminster restaurant Brassica, the ground-floor sitting room next to the kitchen, and the main bedroom and drawing room on the first floor, are converted to make three private dining rooms. It is a chance to meet Dorset artist- makers such as Cameron Short of Bonfield Block- Printers, chef Gill Meller and his wife Alice co-owner of lifestyle shop Ryde & Hope, as well as other locals and visitors interested in fine food, art and interiors.
What is easy to forget, as you savour the smoked cod’s roe bruschetta, or ponder the purchase of a painting or hand-made coat, is that Bella and Nick, and daughters Flora, 16, and Peggy, 13, also live here. When not shared with friends and strangers, the house is a stylish, comfortable home. ‘We stripped out carpets and painted, but didn’t do much else,’ says Bella. The rooms are sparely furnished with antiques – some inherited, some bought at local auctions – and there is no clutter. ‘The house has to be flexible,’ says Bella. ‘The only rooms that don’t get changed round are the girls’ bedrooms and the bathrooms on the third floor.’
The house is as versatile as Nick and Bella have proved adaptable. ‘We have metamorphosed from country small-holders into seaside-town dwellers,’ says Bella. ‘Starting afresh in a new skin feels very invigorating.’ They’ve certainly embraced their new life fully. Bella joins a group of women who swim in the sea all year round, and Nick rows in one of the gig teams that are a feature of coastal life in the West Country. ‘I don’t think anyone should lead just one life – we’re all Renaissance beings,’ says Bella.