Clare Howarth and husband Carlos ditched the bustle of Paris for Impressionists’ favourite, Picardy, 20 years ago. Today they run a thriving guesthouse. Greg Cook finds out how they created their rustic idyll in this peaceful spot
On arriving at the charming 19th-century home of Clare Howarth and her husband Carlos, the first words people tend to utter are: “You really wouldn’t know you’re 30 miles from Paris.”
A medley of mellow red-brick and soft biscuit-coloured stone, set in lush surroundings, it’s love at first sight. Several acres of mature, immaculately tended garden surround the property, bursting with wildflowers and heady with the scent of herbs – and, beyond, lie the banks of the River Oise and forest of Chantilly. Yes, this is certainly a far cry from Paris.
Not only is this landscape unburdened with 21st-century trappings, but it’s so familiar and quintessentially French that it evokes a perplexing sense of déjà vu. Until, that is, you realise that many of the vistas in this extraordinary area form the subject of some of the world’s most famous paintings; Impressionist works by the likes of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, depicting the same gentle meander of tree-lined banks. And it’s easy to imagine any of these giants of the 19th century’s most important art movement happily setting up an easel in the grounds of Clare and Carlos’s beautiful French guesthouse, which they made their home in 1999.
Before then, the couple were happily ensconced at the glamorous epicentre of Paris. Clare enjoyed a fruitful career in the fashion industry, working for iconic names such as Vivienne Westwood and Chloé. It was the couple’s shared love of another glamorous pursuit that initially lured them away from the capital. Clare has a lifelong passion for horses while Carlos, a native of Chile, has an abiding love of polo.
“Not only is this area of Picardy a beautiful part of the French countryside, it’s also the equivalent to Newmarket and Windsor back in England, with a concentration of racehorse stables, stud farms and polo yards,” explains Clare. “By the time we had two young children, our Paris apartment was getting a little cramped. We ended up coming to this part of the countryside for a much-needed breath of fresh air, as much as the equine facilities, more frequently.
“In fact, we bought this property from a polo-playing friend of Carlos’s, which meant every acre of the accompanying grounds was devoted to paddocks and stabling. So, as you can imagine, landscaping the gardens has been a real labour of love.”
So, too, was the transformation of the building itself. Built in the 19th century and extended during the early 20th, this warm and welcoming property still enjoys a unique melange of styles. Previous owners have made their own marks over the decades – features that Clare has been absolutely adamant about embracing.
“We were certainly never interested in doing that type of earnest, back-to-the-barebones, authentic 18th-century restoration!” she chuckles. “Some of the things I love most about this house are the additions and layers of contrasting décor, so from the outset it was always our intention to work with what we had and leave it proudly on display.”
There are ample examples of this ethos, from the attention-grabbing mid-century corner fireplace and pink-hued marbled floor in the salon, to the century-old geometric cement floor tiles in the hallway – copies of which can be found in a flurry of high-end interiors shops.
The property has been furnished by the couple with confidence and sensitivity. It’s ironic that someone who honed her creative eye at the heart of the Paris fashion industry has created such an elegantly individual rural home by refusing to be tempted by passing trends. “The decorative style here has been variously described as understated eclectic, creative country and French mid-century classic,” laughs Clare, “but the one thing that holds true is that most of it is vintage or made to measure, and I do believe that objects need space to exist in, so I’m not a great accumulator… except maybe the gallery wall in the kitchen.”
Nowhere has Clare been more rigorously selective than in the accumulation of the original artworks collected over the years, including bold abstract paintings by Erin Lawlor and Maibritt Ulvedal Bjelke, and photographic prints by Alexandra Meurant – artists who, over time, have also become personal friends.
“I’m kind of an anti-consumer at heart,” admits Clare, “so I never rush into making a purchase until it’s something I’m certain I’m going to love forever.”
However, when Clare has made up her mind, she’s singular in her pursuit of the item she’s set her heart on. A perfect example of this being the pair of classic Falcon chairs by mid-century Norwegian designer Sigurd Ressell that now grace the living area. She acquired them after tracking them all the way to Margate in the UK.
Much of the rest of the furniture in the couple’s home is bespoke designed by Carlos, a craftsman with a passion and a gift for woodworking. The striking table that runs through the centre of the modern rustic kitchen – beautiful in its simplicity – was created by Carlos from a single length of tropical hardwood to accentuate its wonderful grain and tone.
“Carlos also made the wooden kitchen units,” says Clare, “so there’s a definite celebration of wood going on in here, and its warm neutrality lets me indulge in repainting the walls every couple of years. This I do by taking an accent colour from one of the works we have hanging here by one of my favourite artists, Erin Lawlor.”
There’s no doubt that meticulous attention to detail has come into play in the creation of this home. Yet nothing ever appears contrived; possibly because it has evolved organically over many years while functioning, first and foremost, as a family home for the couple and their two children Hippolyte and India.
“Everyone said this would make a great guesthouse, but it’s only recently – now the kids are grown up and living elsewhere – that we felt confident about having the space and time to do it properly,” explains Clare. “This is why we’ve started by offering just two rooms with en-suite facilities.”
Their guests’ reactions, since the couple opened their doors in September 2015, have been so overwhelmingly positive that Carlos is currently embarking on the creation of a new self-contained studio apartment above the workshop area. By pooling their shared talents, Clare and Carlos also plan to offer forthcoming guests onsite workshops on cooking, wine appreciation, woodworking and painting.
Without a doubt, these varied activities will be executed with the same seamless finesse that Carlos and Clare have already brought to their home décor and their enchanting gardens. They have created an aesthetic experience in this charming part of Picardy that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.
Not too far from the fringes of Paris, stretching roughly from Oise to Somme, the historical province of Picardy is a rural escape in the truest sense. Here you’ll find swathes of open fields, forests and châteaux, quaint cottages and old farmhouses – not to mention delicious local fare and some of the finest champagne around.
Tip – “Picardy is rural, so there are plenty of farmhouses available with land. If you prefer a townhouse, head to Amiens or Saint-Quentin, which are also good buy-to-let options.”
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IMAGES © ALEXANDRA MEURANT, CLARE HOWARTH