Ugbrooke House’s Transformation
PUBLISHED: 15:38 30 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013
Lady Clifford has worked a transformation on Ugbrooke House. This stately pile was very unloved when she moved in. Now she has transformed it with help from opulent Pierre Frey damask, chandelier restorers, Zoffany fabrics... and B&Q
For 400 years Ugbrooke Park has been home to the Lords Clifford of Chudleigh. Set in a romantic Devon valley and surrounded by grounds landscaped by 'Capability' Brown, this brutally handsome castellated stone edifice by Robert Adam might, at first sight, appear a touch forbidding. But for the present Lady Clifford, Ugbrooke has always been a home from home.
"I was the girl next door," she explains. "My mother's family came from Devon and I was born here. So my husband, Tom, and I have known each other since we were teenagers. I remember once, when a crowd of us were going to a party, it was deemed that I should stay at Ugbrooke. I was just 18 and hadn't yet passed my driving test and Tom's parents put me in the Norfolk Room. As it was a lovely summer evening, I opened the left-hand window and there on the window ledge was a sundial. I thought this was odd and leaned out to get a better view. The sun's rays were warming the faÁade of the house and suddenly I was struck by an overwhelming intuition which linked me with this special house."
"Fast forward 25 years and Tom and I met again and married in l994," she continues. "Having known Ugbrooke for so long, I didn't drive over the hill and swoon at the sight of this great pile. I knew exactly what to expect. One of the first jobs we tackled was remodelling the parterre garden. Tom said: "You know what this needs? A sundial." And I replied: "Yes, go up to the Norfolk Room, open the left-hand window and you'll find one on the window ledge."
A talent for discovering treasure
The sundial, now in pride of place in Ugbrooke's parterre garden, is emblematic of the way Clarissa Clifford has sensitively transformed the interior of this historic country house into a welcoming home. Her talent for discovering hidden treasures and repositioning paintings and furniture has created an elegant swan from an ugly duckling.
It's hard to believe that when Lord Clifford's parents took over Ugbrooke in the l950s, the dining hall was filled with grain up to the dado rail and there were chickens scratching around the entrance hall. As Lady Clifford reveals: "Tom's great-uncle was about to sell the house, which had been empty for many years, on a 99-year lease to a convent. His father, however, offered £5 more than the nuns, the family moved in and made the house liveable as a home. However, when I came here it did feel rather unloved, but I knew that reorganising the interior would make a major difference."
Hidden away in dusty corners she discovered long-forgotten portraits and paintings by notable artists. Her first priority was to initiate a programme of re-hanging which would not only place the paintings in coherent historical groups but also show them to their best advantage. In the morning room Lady Clifford has collected together and re-hung a number of Clifford ancestors who gaze down from their gilded frames. "My favourite is a portrait of Lady Carew, daughter of the first Lord Clifford, dressed as the huntress Diana," she reveals. "When we had the painting cleaned, lo and behold there she was with a pair of whippets. So even Fern and Clover, our Battersea girls, have their ancestors represented here."
Sensitive picture lighting is crucial
"The dining room had been rather sad and drab with paintings hung randomly like postage stamps stuck upon the wall," she recalls. "I realised that sensitive picture lighting was crucial in a room like this. Fortunately I'd met a first-class picture hanger who recommended the picture lighting expert Dr Stephen Cannon Brooks. We invited him down to see the house. He was great fun and keen to understand the plans I had for this room and the lighting in particular.
"To achieve my ambitions would have blown our budget for the room in one go, but he suggested having the room photographed for a brochure featuring a new American lighting system and the paintings are now illuminated by these extraordinary lights."
The paintings are displayed against chameleon-blue damask by Pierre Frey, a shade which is picked out in the opulent drapes and the carpet. "Good curtaining and trimmings are really important," she continues. "However, when it came to the floor, we'd run out of money. So this is sisal matting, which has been made up in a pattern echoing the design on the panelling and a shell motif on the cornice."
"I always believe in trying to save money where possible. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than finding a discarded piece of furniture which can be given a new lease of life, or mixing contemporary, reasonably priced decorative pieces with existing antiques.
"However, I know it's just not worth trying to economise with certain factors, particularly restoration and conservation. In the dining room the chandelier was prone to sending showers of loose gilt into soup bowls below. A painstaking restoration was undertaken by an expert in London and it was worth every penny."
Mushroom springing from the walls
Whilst the new dining room is perfect for entertaining guests, the family enjoys taking meals together in the more intimate dining room next door. In common with many of the fireplaces at Ugbrooke, the one in this room had been removed and bricked up. However, when Lady Clifford discovered this fireplace rusting away in the stable, she realised from the embellishments that it had been taken from this room. After restoration it was reinstated and now represents a warm focal point.
Lady Clifford recalls the kitchen once had mushrooms springing out of the damp walls and the cornice had chunks missing. The first consideration was to restore the period detail on the cornice and ceiling. Having achieved this, she chose basic MDF kitchen units, the doors of which have been embellished with a stencil motif echoing the ceiling design.
Clarissa's knack of melding the modern with the traditional is also exemplified in the sumptuous guest rooms. The romantically named Star Room and the exotic Chinese Room each feature a baronial four-poster bed shrouded with voluptuous heavy silks.
"My late parents-in-law sent some pieces of furniture to Baker, Knapp and Tubbs, an American company specialising in reproducing faithful copies of existing antiques. In return they sent us these stupendous beds. The bed hangings and quilts are, however, either Colefax and Fowler or Zoffany fabrics. I find their designs suit a house like Ugbrooke although the curtains in the Chinese Room are a traditional Chinoiserie toile from America. One thing I never skimp on is the making of curtains. You could make them from calico cotton but as long as they're well made with good trimming they will always look wonderful."
Symmetry is clearly important to Lady Clifford. From the carefully hung pictures to the artfully placed objets d'art, it is clear that her skill lies in maximising the sense of space and light throughout the house. As she observes: "In a house like Ugbrooke, maintaining a sense of balance is crucial and symmetry is a satisfying means of achieving this within these gloriously proportioned rooms."
Although evidence of her style pervades every room, Clarissa Clifford is unwilling to accept all the credit for bringing Ugbrooke into the 21st century. Paying tribute to all her dedicated and talented team, particularly Barry and Tony whom she describes as 'the Supermen of Ugbrooke', she concludes: "It is Tom who is the real driving force behind Ugbrooke. Without his vision and dedication none of this would have been achieved. His ambition is positively infectious and we have all become passionate about Ugbrooke. It may be stately, but first and foremost Ugbrooke is very much our home."
Clarissa Clifford (BIDA) can be contacted at Ugbrooke House, Chudleigh, TQ13 OAD,
(01626 853655 or in her London office on (0207 630 1744. www.ugbrooke.co.uk