The designer and antique dealer Birdie Fortescue has decorated her Norfolk house in a highly distinctive style. She spoke to Arabella Youens; photographs by Simon Brown.
As interior-design careers go, Birdie Fortescue’s started off on the right foot. Having begun at Percy Bass, a revered interiors shop and design service based on Walton Street in South Kensington, SW3, she went on to join Imogen Taylor’s team at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler’s old premises in Mayfair.
It was, she explains, an enlightening training. ‘This was in the late 1980s, when Americans were lapping up the English country-house style and we worked on lots of projects all over the US, sourcing and shipping antiques in phenomenal quantities.’
At the time, Imogen was the principal decorator, who inherited Fowler’s clients when he retired in 1971. Despite the common assumption, it was much more than an education in decorating with acres of chintz and complex window treatments. ‘Not a bit. A lot of the designs were really pared back. I was with Imogen for five years and she taught me so much about proportion, balance, colour and context,’ remembers Birdie.
‘She was like a wonderful, nurturing grandmother and she was so generous with her knowledge.’
After a while, however, it became apparent that her heart really lay in the antiques side of the business, having caught the bug after going on various buying trips with knowledgeable members of the team.
‘I learnt the basics of buying antiques, the most important of which is that you should never go with a specific shopping list,’ explained Birdie. ‘A piece of furniture has to speak to you first; you can always find a home for it later.’
The most interesting interiors, she believes, boast an eclectic mix of pieces that have character, authenticity and natural patina, but, crucially, juxtapose style and periods. ‘It’s the art of placing a contemporary sculpture on a 17th-century chest.’
With a three-month course in decorative antiques from the V&A Museum under her belt, she left Colefax and set off to fairs across Europe, particularly in the south of France. There, she spotted an emerging appetite for understated late-18th- and early-19th-century French furniture in pretty, pale woods.
Back home, the pieces were easy to sell: they mixed well with clients’ (often inherited) brown furniture and the more contemporary, less formal look that was gaining popularity. ‘I was very lucky. I was dealing using my decorator’s eye, so knew which way the trends were going and managed to find a niche in the market.’
It’s this balancing act between traditional polished furniture and more relaxed painted pieces that characterises Birdie’s late-Georgian house near the north Norfolk coast, an area that resonates with memories of her childhood holidays.
For six years, it had been a holiday home when Birdie, her husband, Frank, and their two children were living in Suffolk. Then, it was decorated in an informal, beach-house style, but when the couple decided they wanted a more rural lifestyle, they moved full-time to Norfolk and plenty of brown furniture came with them. ‘It seemed a pity to take the beachy and airy look away entirely, so we chose our favourite pieces from Suffolk and mixed them in.’
The seven-bedroom house had been renovated by the previous owner, so there was little structural work to be done. The large, eat-in kitchen had been created by connecting two adjoining farm buildings with a glass atrium to make a light-filled space. Today, it’s where the family spends most of its time.
Adjoining the kitchen and dining area is a comfortable space filled with French antiques, contemporary works and painted items. Throughout the house, alongside beautiful pieces of furniture, colour plays an important role. A palette of pink and blue dominates all the main rooms downstairs with an undercurrent of green — on chairs, bar stools or the walls — to sew it all together.
When the family moved into the house, they took the ceiling out of the drawing room—a 1960s addition—and raised it to the eaves. In lieu of wallpaper, Chinese silk panels found in a flea market in Paris created a discreetly decorative look.
After moving to Norfolk full-time and with children at school, Birdie was tempted to get involved in the antiques trade again and looked for a shop with the right proportions to accommodate her burgeoning stock.
A warehouse in the nearby coastal town of Burnham Market was available, but it was much larger than she had intended. ‘To fill the space, I began sourcing homeware, focusing initially on Scandinavian pieces that weren’t easily found in the UK, before creating my own designs.’
The collection swelled to include block-printed fabrics, table linen, cushions, lamps and lampshades, together with antiques — particularly painted pieces that complement the relaxed feel.
In September 2018, the company moved to its current premises in Fakenham, since when Birdie has focused on selling a broader collection of Continental antiques, including some late-18th- and early-19th-century polished pieces through to mid-20th-century furnishings, alongside the work of artists whose work sits well with her style.
She also takes on decorating projects — only ever three on the go at the same time — and travels widely throughout India, Africa and the Far East searching for further inspiration.
Norfolk has proved to be the perfect location for her business, thanks, according to Birdie, to its artistic community. ‘It’s a wonderful place to be based: it’s rural, off the beaten track and full of creative people.’
Birdie Fortescue — 01328 851651; www.birdiefortescue.co.uk
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