Nina Campbell is a goddess of interior design. When I told a friend I had interviewed her about her sterling work renovating the gorgeous Ellenborough Park hotel, she screamed, went "My mum and I are OBSESSED with her wallpaper!" and then said she'd already advised a friend to stay at the hotel based purely on the miraculous interiors I photographed in my review.
I spoke to Nina about wall paintings vs murals ("a Muriel - too frightful for words"), where to buy a truly awesome peacock lamp, stretching a budget to breaking point and got her tips on thunderbox loos and how to bring Ellenborough Park's jewelled, Indian influences to our own homes.
What’s your first step when faced with a new project?
The most important thing is to discover how the people, or the hotel, are going to live. Are they young? Children? Dogs? How is life lived in their house? I believe designing a house is all about making life for someone super comfortable and practical. You’ll get irritated by not having somewhere to put everything.
How did you start Ellenborough Park?
I was taken to see it, and it was so unbelievably ghastly. The building was potentially beautiful, but it had some additions which were pulled down. I knew the person who had bought it so I knew he would allow the most fantastic job. There was one room repainted and the person had gone all round the outside of the furniture with the colour. Your heart was bleeding for this beautiful building in this diabolical state.
Shortly after that the teams moved in and took out what was allowed. It was a big restoration job, and reorganizational, so that everyone had bedrooms and bathrooms, and then two new wings. The wonderful thing about the Cotswolds is the stone is fantastic. There’s one room which had been small little attic bedrooms but which is now a massive room. We put in a four poster, so you walk behind it and go into the bathroom behind it. It’s slightly whacky and modern, but then it’s got little windows, a tiny fire place and all these beams.
The house has the most wonderfully scandalous past. How much did you draw on that?
I was rather obsessed with Jane Digby running off with all those men, living in the Bedouin and in the 19th century too! We have easyJet now, but then she’d have been on a camel. I used plenty of Indian references in the great hall, from [the Duke of Ellenborough’s] Viceroy times. So much has happened to that room over the years, there was a strange bit off centre to the fireplace, so I decided to have a mirror made to go completely above the fireplace.
We took a rather wide brush and used a lot from a shop called Mr Blowie, in Morocco. We painted the small room in gold leaf, then put oriental rug pictures on the walls and a huge banquette. It’s a lovely place if there are six of you.
The peacock lights were from Maeve Watts in Burnham Market, she lives half the time in India. I saw these peacocks and thought, “We’ve got to have those.”
What was your biggest challenge?
We thought whatever we did here would be 1000% better. The challenge was the time. We had to get it ready by Cheltenham (the racecourse is next to the hotel). It was a massive work. I had to make it warm, I’m not a natural countrygoer, so if you go, you want to be as warm and dry as possible, an oxymoron in Gloucestershire! I want to feel so invited, so cosy, my bedroom’s got to be so comfortable that if I want to spend all day in bed watching telly, I can. It’s air conditioned because you can’t sell a room to an American without it. One always slightly giggles, but it’s there.
What’s your favourite part of the new interiors?
I like the minstrel’s gallery above the great hall. I love the Moroccan part with the gold leaf and peacocks. The owner had wanted to take it down. I said I could imagine having my own getaway place. Sitting in a room, all groups of people is one thing, but if you can sneak away... Then there’s a little private room in the dining room which has green walls with brasses. A friend wanted to sell them so I put them all on the wall which is marvellous.
How long did the refurb take from start to finish?
Eighteen months. I thought, I’m going to restore it as a country house, or better than. Really good beds are vital. We took about eight colour schemes. The balance was trying to not let it be too old fashioned but at the same time, it’s a building from the 16th to 19th century. I didn’t want it to be too fuddy duddy, so I used aquas, yellows, some rooms had wallpapers, some had plain walls and printed curtains. We always have this idea that foreigners who come to England expect four posters and panels – so some of the rooms in the new wings do.
For me the real scream was finding the thunderbox loo in our bathroom – where did you find those?
The soil pipe was listed! We couldn’t put a built in loo. I’d seen this thunderbox in the back pages of House and Garden and thought this is exactly how we’re going to get round it. You couldn’t believe you could list a soil pipe!
The painting on the main staircase is glorious. Is there a failsafe way to doing a mural, or is it trial, error and paint over?
I think the word mural reminds me of the 50s when people live in tiny flats and do a mural of people waving, called a Muriel and too frightful for words.
Ha! A wall painting then?
They’ve got to be slightly non-specific, slightly wishy washy. That’s what I loved about Flora Roberts’s (the artist) work, she’s a young girl and relatively new in her career. The staircase was very boring and had curtains which looked like tragic remnants because they were too long and not wide enough. It’s quite a difficult staircase to find, so it was important to make it the main staircase and she did it really well. It’s a loose, magical forest, bit of whimsy, Arcadian.
Then there's the ceiling in the great hall. The brick walls were stone, I didn’t want to have three walls in a vibrant colour and then a brick wall, so did all the colour of the bricks. I found that collection of rather Hogarth heads. We decided to do a dark colour in the ceiling to bring it down and make it more understandable. Mark Done did the ceiling with blue and a tracery of gold in each box to make it more fun and more glamorous.
Could you give us some tips on how to add a jewelled effect on the cheap?
If you knew the budget and how far it stretched you’d think we were magicians! If you have a plainish sofa, put the cushions on in mixed colours. We might have a blue piped in red, a yellow piped in blue and then mix them all up so they become less paired. Also, get a lamp in a wonderful colour. You can certainly find them in antique places: in my own house I bought some wonderful glass jars from a glassmaker in lime green, purple and aquamarine. If you go to craft shows, there’s quite a lot of people working with interesting materials.
Find out more about Nina Campbell and Ellenborough Park