During the last few weeks as my life creaked its way to back to normality, I did much planning of the country house that looms large in my imagination and which, despite all my attempts at getting us to reconnoitre lake and mountaintop, we have yet to buy.
It's the English half of me, I think, that longs for a house in the country - I read somewhere an acerbic comment that when Brits make a pile of money they all head for the country, heads filled with notions of joining the gentry, to refurbish every bothy, parsonage and manse in sight - whereas the American half rather would like a snappy little cottage, fit only for ourselves and a couple of friends, atop a gusty dune by the ocean. The Celt, raised as he was by parents who for various reasons lived in the Scottish hinterland, considers the countryside nothing more than psychical and cultural wilderness, brimming with rain, flies and shit. Undeniably, the countryside does have a lot of each, but my relationship with a romantic idea remains strong despite me knowing that, were I there, I'd probably spend a lot of time sloshing, swatting, dodging and squelching. The Celt, as I say, does not think as I do.
I can accept that one might, romantically, wish to connect the interior of a country house to its surroundings - give a nod to the spirit of place, as it were. I accept, also, that in the language of design there is a degree of cant - conventions and pieties that seem to express an esoteric level of connection. For example, the once de rigeur phrase bringing the outside in has been supplanted by a more mystical honoring of the landscape beyond the windows - a paying of tribute, nymph-like, to the trees, the streams, the flora and fauna. What it means, of course, is that wicker, grass, rust, distressed paint, driftwood, flour-sack pillows, litters of herbal, avian and floral motifs, even a jelly-jar or two, aflitter with lightening bugs, cosy up together with hand-adzed beams, reclaimed barnwood walls and floors, faded oriental carpets, crusty antiques from
Our friend Will emailed to tell me about photographs of David Whitcomb's country house that he'd found and another friend kindly lent me the book. I recognized it immediately, of course - somewhere here there's a box of clippings amongst which is the original article about the house - I was so impressed thirty-odd years ago, when I saw the photographs for the first time. In fact I still am, and it's quite clear that Mr Whitcomb had no truck with a gimcrack pantomime of country life. His house, a converted mill, which he enlarged with a stainless-steel structure as simple as a child's building block, became his year-round residence after he gave up his city apartment.
I could bang on about Mr Whitcomb's sense of place, his appreciation of the structure of the old mill, his taste in furnishing it, and how the more contemporary room, the steel studio, has stood the test of time, but I don't need to - its clear from these photographs.
And it's clear to me that this is precisely the kind of house I would like for us to inhabit. Oh, I don't necessarily mean a mill-house, though that would have its charms; rather, a house comfortably and amply furnished, cognizant of infirmity and youth, and with those most valuable of commodities: space, peace and quiet.
Photographs of David Whitcomb's country house from Architectural Digest: Country Homes by Daniel Eifert to accompany "original text adapted by Cameron Curtis McKinley." The Knapp Press, Los Angeles, 1982.