Modern take on antiques
Louise Johncox tours the home of antiques guru Jonty Hearnden and finds a treasure trove of old and new collectables within
14 January 2007 The Sunday Times Home

Hearnden, who appears on Cash in the Attic on BBC1, had previously lived near Henley-on-Thames, where he and Toni did up a cottage, reaping a 50% profit within two years. But they wanted to live near the antiques business that he and his mother, Sheila, own in the village of Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.

“The business was the reason for moving here,” he says. “I knew that property was on a rise, but I had no idea that I would see it go up threefold in value. I would hazard a guess that it could be worth between £1.2m and £1.4m now.”

Hearnden was attracted not only to the house but also to a large barn at the end of its third-of-an-acre garden. “It was a lovely family home with potential, but I thought it would also be useful to have a barn on my doorstep for storage,” he says. “When all I was doing was buying and selling antiques, the barn was chock-a-block.”

The home, Hearnden’s sixth renovation project, cost £330,000 to buy. He spent another £80,000 or so doing it up. The builders were in for a year, installing central heating, rewiring and redesigning the kitchen and five bedrooms.

Initially, there was only one family bathroom, but the couple added another on the top floor and gave the master bedroom its own en-suite facilities. In the drawing room, there was the small task of exposing the beams and restoring the fireplace.

“Max (the Hearndens’ eldest son) was only six months old when we moved in. The worst time was when the beams were sandblasted, because it created a cloud of fine dust.” However, all the hard work paid off. “Behind the existing small fireplace were three separate fireplaces of earlier periods,” says the television presenter. “We will never forget our delight on revealing the original stone fireplace surround.”

The house has a kitchen, dining room and two sitting rooms on the ground floor. Two separate staircases lead to the three bedrooms on the first floor, and to the two bedrooms on the second floor.

“It’s a typical building of the period, with two fireplaces back-to-back in the original part of the house,” says Hearnden. “The layout is very user-friendly: each room is comfortable and leads off in the right way, with no long corridors.”

Hearnden, 45, has had a lifelong passion for antiques. He joined Bonhams at 18, and went on to manage Lots Road Galleries in London. He has recently recorded another series of Sun, Sea & Bargain Spotting on BBC2 and has been appointed consultant editor to Miller’s Antiques and Collectables guides.

One might therefore expect his house to be bursting with antiques, but a tour reveals a complementary mix of old and new, eminently suitable for a young family. The couple have three sons, Max, 10, and twins Felix and Cosmo, 7, whose rooms show no sign of anything old and precious.

“It’s a cliché to imagine a dealer’s home will be full of antiques. I like to think I’m a modern man living a modern life. I’m not extraordinary, though I do have an appreciation of old things,” says Hearnden. “When you look in our drawing room, you will see antiques, but you will also see some modern design.”

The drawing room sofas, designed by Toni and made by her company, Dorchester Designs, sit comfortably alongside a Victorian chair, a Georgian walnut chest-on-chest, new chrome lamps from Oka, contemporary Italian glass occasional tables and, adorning the walls, monotypes by the German artist Walter Lindner, whose experimental style has evolved over 40 years.

“I use stock from the antiques business to furnish the house and regularly rotate pieces,” says Hearnden. “The monotypes are selling like hot cakes. The 1970s Perspex coffee table, as well as the 1970s console table in the corner, are also very popular in the shop.”

Hearnden’s main tip is to pick pieces that have a practical function and that are appropriate for the size of the room. “If it’s too big or too small, it will look awkward,” he says. “A lot of people buy massive sofas, but you need to walk around furniture as well. I always advise people to do a floor plan.”

He has used low-level lighting and a cosy seating arrangement to create a comfortable drawing room. “A lot of people might put sofas along a wall, but that’s not so intimate. It’s better to have chairs that are not far away from each other. This room has a lovely feel to it.”

The dining room, a former cattle barn, houses one treasured item that he will never part with: a small bronze of two oarsmen. “I was a keen oarsman as a boy and found the bronze at an auction and thought, ‘That one’s for me.’ It’s by J Durham, who made the bronze of Prince Albert opposite the Albert Hall.” The room also features a 19th-century French farmhouse fruitwood table, country Chippendale period chairs and an 18th-century oak dresser base, all chosen for aesthetic and practical reasons. “The table doubles in size, which is handy, and the dresser has cupboards. Everybody wants storage.”

The prices of some types of antique furniture have fallen by as much as 30% recently. Does Hearnden think that dark furniture is now dated? “Well-designed furniture of any period has never gone out of fashion. However, too much dark brown furniture in one space isn’t the fashion at the moment,” he says. “Sometimes less is more. It also needs to be complemented by lighter shades of carpet and wall coverings.”

Dotted around the house are prints of Henley-on-Thames, near where Hearnden grew up and married. One image of Temple Island holds memories of his wedding day 13 years ago: “We had our reception on the island and I even rowed my bride there.”

The main bedroom, which the couple designed together, combines a power shower and fitted cupboards with several pieces of Georgian furniture, including a chest-on-chest, a cheval mirror and chair. The 6ft bed is contemporary, but the headboard is a converted George III oak settle back.

Hearnden clearly has a passion for good design, but the fact that he’s been described as the Hugh Grant of the antiques business causes him some amusement. “One week I’m a sex symbol and the next I’m a gay icon,” he laughs. “It doesn’t bother me at all; the most important thing on television is to be yourself, and I think that’s what people like.”

Despite all the success, he is not about to give up Dorchester for Hollywood. “This is a lovely place to live and this is a perfect family home,” he says. “But who knows what may be round the corner?”

How to mix and match

Antiques can work well in a modern home, says Jonty Hearnden, but use them sparingly and ensure they are good-quality.
Drawing room: modern glass, Perspex or chrome occasional furniture and coffee tables will counterbalance darker furniture. The coffee table is a 20th-century invention, so no earlier low tables of similar proportions exist. Late 19th-century Howard & Sons armchairs and sofas — low, soft and comfortable, with rolled arms — are still reproduced and complement modern living spaces, as do 19th-century Chesterfields.
Modern lighting on period furniture can look dramatic. Create impact with good-quality bronzes, ceramics, clocks and 20th-century glass, used as stand-alone pieces. The flamboyance of a French or Italian period chandelier can offset the tranquillity of a modern room; 18th and 19th-century Italian and French commodes work well as sidepieces, as they are often lower and longer than an English chest of drawers.
Dining room: team 17th- and 18th-century country refectory tables with modern upholstered, high-backed chairs: they give more support than a period chair, and this mix lightens and modernises the room. Such tables are often narrow and may have stretchers running along the floor that can impede a chair’s access. Late 18th- and early 19th-century extendable mahogany dining tables remain popular, but make sure you have enough space not only for the fully extended table but also for the chairs.
Early 19th-century side cabinets and 18th-century dresser bases with cupboards provide the storage facilities that 21st-century families require, as do well-designed post-war and modern sideboards.
Kitchen: country furniture can still sit very comfortably alongside a sleek, modern look. Search the sale rooms for country dressers, 19th-century fruitwood tables, side cabinets and even early 20th-century armchairs covered in modern fabrics.
Bedrooms: main bedrooms require ample storage space, so built-in wardrobes are often installed. However, never underestimate the elegance and practicality of an 18th-century linen press. It can sit proudly within a minimally designed room and you can take it with you when you move. One good-quality period chest of drawers and cheval mirrors will also enhance the modern bedroom.
Mirrors: well-placed mirrors of the right size and quality will sit comfortably in any room, but a mirror that is the wrong size will always look awkward, regardless of its value, so always take measurements before you buy.
Paintings: less is more — don’t cover all the available wall space. Generally, demand for modern art has risen dramatically, while the works of over-romantic 19th-century artists have fallen in popularity.
Miller’s Antiques Price Guide 2007, £24.99, and Miller’s Collectables Price Guide 2007, £18.99, are both published by Miller’s Publications