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Make It Tender: A Ceramicist/Shopkeeper’s Gently Cared-For 1500s House in England

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Make It Tender: A Ceramicist/Shopkeeper’s Gently Cared-For 1500s House in England

February 4, 2022

Usually, when we feature a home, we ask what design choices have been made, what changes, what upgrades and tweaks.

In the case of this particular house, however, the poetry is much more in what hasn’t been done—what’s been left unchanged.

This is the 16th-century home of ceramicist and shopkeeper Sophie Wilson and four of her children in The Fens, in England, and little has changed within its walls, even before Sophie moved in. “I had been looking for a long time for a renovation project, preferably Georgian, in London without success,” she says. “One day I extended my search criteria by 50 miles and the Manor House popped up. It was a wonderful and terrible discovery at once, because I knew I had to have it, but it seemed a tremendous ambition at that time.”

The house was grand but badly decaying. “It had been neglected for many decades,” Sophie continues. “The previous owner lived in only one room, in squalor. The building had essentially been standing in a pool of water for one hundred years, which had caused serious subsidence and damage.

“The oldest part of the house dates back to 1551. The building is in essence three dwellings which have been pushed and melded together over four centuries. The date 1690 is carved in stone around the house and marks a significant period of investment and repair by a man called Aubrey Hunter who worked for the East India Trading Company. The latest part of the building dates from 1730.”

There have been precious few upgrades over the centuries. Sophie is still in the process of shoring up the structure, the roof badly needs replacing, some of the many rooms are without electricity, and the house can be cold in winter. (“Ultimately we dress appropriately for the temperature,” Sophie writes on Instagram. “We put another jumper on. Simple as that.”) But with an entirely untouched structure come rare things: still-rich coats of paint on the walls—salmon pink, deep green—that appear as they did centuries ago, patterned ceramic tiles from years past, even reeds uncovered within a ceiling, used as insulation and estimated to be more than 300 years old.

Sophie also recently launched a shop within these walls: 1690 Store. As she describes it on the site: It’s “a sort of Diagon Alley-style place where I imagined Molly Weasley would go for her essentials,” featuring her own ceramics as well as soaps, cloth, jams, and more.

A certain unfussy as-is attitude meets painterly, fully saturated rooms and unblemished historic details: Join us for a look inside Sophie’s 1690 house.

Photography by Sophie Wilson (@1690works).

when sophie and her family moved in, &#8\2\20;parts of the wooden supportin 9
Above: When Sophie and her family moved in, “parts of the wooden supporting structure were so rotten you could push your finger into the timber,” she says. “The first job was to redirect the drains and dry the foundations out. We moved in after the house had had a very deep industrial clean, which took three weeks to complete.”

Even with a rebuilt cellar and dried-out timbers, “the structural damage remains a very real problem,” Sophie says, and the roof in particular needs repair. Photograph via 1690 Store.

&#8\2\20;\1690&#8\2\2\1; is inscribed above a door, giving name to soph 10
Above: “1690” is inscribed above a door, giving name to Sophie’s shop.

“My only ambition for this beautiful house is to make it sound for the next 150 years and halt the decay,” she says. “It is so absolutely beautiful, the atmosphere so peaceful and still, I have no intention of interfering with the spirit of the building at all.” She’s hoping to be able to continue the work with support from Historic England.

there are three kitchens in the house, including what sophie calls the &#8\ 11
Above: There are three kitchens in the house, including what Sophie calls the “Middle Kitchen.” Her only change to the space was installing a window that overlooks the garden “and the spire of Crowland Abbey beyond.” The poster leaning on the mantel is by Sophie.
&#8\2\20;this house has very few secrets,&#8\2\2\1; sophie says. &# 12
Above: “This house has very few secrets,” Sophie says. “Everything is revealed: the exposed plasterwork, the protruding Fenland reeds, the peeling lime wash, the woodworm, the splitting, cracks and crevices—hundreds of years conceal nothing. And in this I have learnt how to simply accept flawed beauty.”
the kitchen. of \1690 store, sophie writes on her site: &#8\2\20;i made can 13
Above: The kitchen. Of 1690 Store, Sophie writes on her site: “I made candles and balms and jams, but what really took off were my ceramics, which I started making in earnest in about 2019. I…installed a kiln in my laundry room: 1. so I could carry on working once the children had gone to bed, and 2. so I could dry the washing quickly.” Practicality meets utter charm.
&#8\2\20;this is the real &#8\2\16;manor house&#8\2\17; wing of the 14
Above: “This is the real ‘Manor House’ wing of the property,” Sophie says of the circa-1730 section. “The impressive panelling, stonework, fireplaces, Diocletian windows, and Palladian details are all still original and intact.”
&#8\2\20;i have made very few changes to the aesthetic,&#8\2\2\1; she s 15
Above: “I have made very few changes to the aesthetic,” she says. “I inherited an incredible palette of madder red, iron oxide, calamine pinks, and pea greens. The colors here have made me much braver in terms of design.”
a niche in the living area becomes a shadowbox for sophie&#8\2\17;s vignett 16
Above: A niche in the living area becomes a shadowbox for Sophie’s vignettes: found branches, fruits, or her own ceramics, many of which are inspired by life here. “I found an old shard of glazed pottery in the floorboards of the servants quarters, which inspired a project for Nickey Kehoe in LA,” she says. (One Nickey Kehoe vase is available here.)
Above L: The hall features original Victorian Minton encaustic tiles. The encaustic process—where pattern and color are inlaid in the clay, rather than on the surface—means the tiles remain largely unchanged, all these years later. Above R: The Europa wall hanging is by Sophie. Her sconces depicting Greek gods and goddesses—like this one, but wired for light—are available via Rêve de Renard.
&#8\2\20;do you know, living here is like theatre,&#8\2\2\1; says sophi 19
Above: “Do you know, living here is like theatre,” says Sophie. “Every aspect is cinematic; every shadow is a story.

“When I first visited this house, I had a very real sense of the lives that had gone before me, and I wanted to become part of this building’s history. I wanted to live in it actively, acutely: for the children to scamper about, to hear them squabble, to smell cinders in the fireplaces and lavender from the garden, to hear piano music drifting up the staircases, to know the ghosts. Everything I make is essentially a prop for this stage. I am grateful to live here. And I think the house is grateful to have us.”

the view into one of the children&#8\2\17;s rooms, painted entirely in an u 20
Above: The view into one of the children’s rooms, painted entirely in an untouched salmon hue. “Strangely, pink, or any manner of red, I now consider a neutral,” says Sophie. “It is the color I work up from and against.”
the boucherouite style rug is by @old yarns. 21
Above: The boucherouite-style rug is by @old_yarns.
a view into a wc. 22
Above: A view into a WC.
sophie has only taken a brush to two of the baths, like this one, painted in ol 23
Above: Sophie has only taken a brush to two of the baths, like this one, painted in Old White by Farrow & Ball. “It is a sooty kind of white and sits well with dark wooden floorboards and my richly colored boucherouite carpets,” she says. In the downstairs loo, “there is a very good blue-green called Rivington Blue by Abigail Ahern. It is a tiny space, but I painted every surface in this color and it explodes out in quite a dramatic way.”
a bedroom in original mottled pink. 24
Above: A bedroom in original mottled pink.
&#8\2\20;the inherited color palette dictates the furniture and textiles,&a 25
Above: “The inherited color palette dictates the furniture and textiles,” says Sophie. “I have introduced layers and layers of pattern and color, but they are all very close in tone, so the effect is harmonious, I think. Rich without being ostentatious.”
the family isn&#8\2\17;t precious with the space; walls bear inscriptions a 26
Above: The family isn’t precious with the space; walls bear inscriptions and drawings and layers of life. The lamp base is Sophie’s own creation; the shade is done in Liberty’s Jade Wiltshire Shadow.
sophie&#8\2\17;s own tiles serve as an ad hoc backsplash in a bath. 27
Above: Sophie’s own tiles serve as an ad-hoc backsplash in a bath.
a bedroom at dusk. &#8\2\20;frankly, home—what and who we choose to  28
Above: A bedroom at dusk. “Frankly, home—what and who we choose to surround ourselves with—is, I believe, the most creative endeavor,” Sophie writes on her site. “So make it lovely if you can. And tender.”

See more of Sophie’s whimsical ceramic work via 1690 Store. And for more tender rescues, see:

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