In 2013, when Grant and Amanda Morrison first made the trip to Devon to see Penhill House, a majestic 1920s Art Deco building, they had no plans to move to the area full time. Nor were they looking to take on a three-year-long restoration project.
Grant, a managing director, and Amanda, a teacher, lived in Little Chalfont, near Amersham, and were house hunting for a small second home in Dartmouth. But things don’t always go to plan.
“The estate agent, who was doing his job very well, said: ‘Come up the river, come up the hill and have a look at this lovely Art Deco house for sale,” says Grant. “It was in pretty poor condition, but surrounding the house is a 270-degree view of the National Trust land, fields and the sea. We were mesmerised by the view – and we could see the possibilities of what we could do to what was a fairly neglected house.”
Close to the coastal town of Brixham, the white, Grade II-listed house stands on a hilltop facing the sea. Situated at the end of a private driveway, it is surrounded by 3.5 acres of gardens and grounds, with four bedrooms, a wraparound terrace and a tennis court.
Built in the 1920s, it once belonged to Agatha Christie’s accountant, and was frequented by the detective writer herself, who was said to have enjoyed sitting by one of the curved bay windows. The accountant’s daughter, Sylvia, and her husband, Jim, built and lived in a four-bedroom cottage next door.
By 2014, Grant and Amanda had not only bought Penhill House but also the neighbouring property, at Sylvia and Jim’s encouragement. They had permanently relocated to Devon, moving into the cottage while work on Penhill House was underway.
“It had plastic Georgian windows, pink shagpile carpets – it was very 80s. It was in a pretty bad state,” says Grant, who aimed to modernise the house while preserving its period charm. “We wanted to bring the Art Deco character back into it.”
“We had done [renovation projects] before, but this was by far the biggest,” adds Amanda. “In some ways it was easier that there was an Art Deco theme, because it made decision making much easier. It was a limited palette, shaping and ratios. I wanted all of that to be accurate to the era.”
The nearby National Trust property, Coleton Fishacre, formed a useful source of inspiration. Built and furnished in the 1920s by impresario Rupert D’Oyly Carte and his wife Dorothy, it provided an example of a “relaxed, homely, understated Art Deco,” as Amanda puts it.
Grant and Amanda began by gutting the 4,413 sq ft Penhill House and slowly reinstating its original features. They reworked the rounded turrets and bay windows, adding Crittal windows, solid oak doors, period door handles and parquet flooring, as well as modern finishes like underfloor heating and double-glazing.
“A lot of the stuff was authentic, so it took a long time to try to get that Art Deco feel,” explains Grant. The house’s detailing was meticulously sourced: the Crittal windows were custom made by a specialist company, much like the skirting and architraves. The light fittings were imported from America, while some of their period tables were obtained from the Glasgow School of Art. Inspired by the doormat at Coleton Fishacre, which reads cave canem [beware of the dog], Amanda located her own version.
Yet, while some features had to be carefully tracked down, others were already in the house. Grant and Amanda reconnected the original butler’s bell in some of the main rooms, while in the dining room, they restored the original panelling and coving, as well as the fireplace surrounded by Delft tiles. “That room was completely untouched,” says Grant. “The rest of it we had to remodel a little bit to bring it up to 21st century living.”
The couple even found a time capsule, laid in the wall by a previous builder. “We’ve still got it – it’s a little glass jar with an aluminium lid and a piece of paper written: ‘This was laid here in 1935.’ It was signed by two builders,” says Amanda.
“I love things like that. That’s the thing about this house – it has a sense that other people have lived their lives here before us.”
Now, however, Penhill House is looking for a new owner to continue its rich history. Grant and Amanda plan to move to be closer to their family, and have put their house on the market for £2.5 million with Savills. The four-bedroom cottage is also available by separate negotiation.
“Without a doubt [we’ll miss] the views; the sea; the tranquillity,” says Grant. “And obviously the fact that it’s lovely, one-off house…We’re very proud of it.”
“We had our daughter’s wedding here a couple of weeks ago…It was lovely using the property,” says Amanda. “We’ve always said that when we leave here, look back over our shoulders and think: ‘this is the last time we’ll be visiting’, it will be a very strange day.”
The couple hope that the house will appeal to an Art Deco enthusiast. “It’s a modern house in a traditional shell,” says Grant. “We would like somebody to come here who appreciates Art Deco architecture and the amount of work and detail that has gone into producing what Penhill House is today.”