Design & Décor, Living with Style


A Winter Tale: Imagining a 19th Century Garret

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This is a post that I wrote months ago but neither the season nor the opportunity ever presented itself for adding it to the website. Slipping into this New Year, with its welcome lull between the December holidays and the opening of the garden in early spring, seemed just right for the intimate mood of this post. Cozy up by the fire, with a cup of tea, and please join me.

There was a book that I particularly treasured as a little girl, even before I discovered Charlotte’s Web, and then the Nancy Drew series. A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett) was probably one of the inspirations for the play “Annie”… an innocent child, shunted off to a boarding school, becomes a pauper after her father’s death and is relegated to the attic. The ultimately happy ending sees her united with her uncle (i.e. Daddy Warbucks).

No, blessedly, this is not my personal story. But I did find myself fascinated with how she dealt with this adversity –stoicly —  and the lessons to be drawn from using one’s imagination. Actually, if truth be told, the true magic for me was in the charm of the book’s nineteenth century watercolors, capturing a picturesque collection of whimsical vignettes that were surely far from a true life experience. This is my interpretation of the magic I found within the book’s pages.

When first reviewing the blueprints for our new home in 1998, I just dismissed an odd space behind our bedroom as a closet. Later on, I realized it was actually 15′ x 19,’ perfect for a  studio. With The Little Princess in mind, I created a romanticized version of a nineteenth-century English garret — intentionally spartan but still charming. The sloped ceilings and dormer windows contribute greatly to this mood.

The practical, working part of the space is around a corner, with a long work table and curtained under-area for storage (the room also includes a closet for all gift wrapping needs). This small garret is my little secret go-to spot that few outside my family have ever seen. Just as with the Parterre Bench that was mine alone until I was “called” to share it, I trust that this might recall a secret childhood memory or inspiration for you and for that reason I am choosing to open the door to my retreat.

When you enter the first sight is of the bed, playing up the fact that this was the room where the young child slept and resided.  The smallish daybed was created from the gilded foot boards and side rails of twin French beds now in a main guest room; whitewashed pine floors continue the simple, understated nature of the concept.

Having a particular fondness for fireplaces, the two pieces that truly set the stage for this scheme were enhanced by their Newport provenance — one, an antique  wood mantle embellished with applied Adams motifs, purchased at a church fair; the other, a coal grate (from a good friend’s gorgeous house featured in Private Newport: At Home and in the Garden) — so authentic to the period theme (I purposefully haven’t filled the frame as I don’t want to ever have the sense that this specific space is finished ).

With a nod to the art of trompe l’oeil, and the fun tongue-in-cheek spirit of replicating the real with paint techniques, the tile surrounds as well as the marble hearth itself are created with a paintbrush.

I was bemused by a “Newport lady’s” admonishment for putting such a handsome mantle in an out of the way, never-to-be-seen space. In its own ironic way this was an endorsement of my scheme.

The eighteenth century painted armoire, formerly in my late mother’s guest room, was just waiting for its star turn to round out the antique offerings that bring so much visual pleasure and authentic character to my little garret. On the soft robin’s egg blue walls, I painted scrolls and decorative flourishes throughout the room that appear almost as shadows so intentionally subtle are the brushstrokes.

Within are collections and vignettes that capture the range of painterly and craft projects that I always hope to have more time to pursue (from needlepoint to knitting to drawing to decoupage).

The rug in front of the daybed is just such a project, created many years ago at my needlepoint shop in Atlanta. The geometric design was not painted but rather was counted out stitch by stitch and carries through the blue and white color scheme of the garret.

Covered in a soft blue silk damask discovered in the souk in Marrakesch, the four panel screen conceals file cabinets and years and years worth of decorating magazines, book projects and fabric samples.

As with any project, there are always items that need tending to, like determining the perfect spot for this carved wood panel…but then as I said earlier, I never wish for this reincarnation to  ever be “finished.”

Enjoy your winter retreat, wherever it may be…

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

5 thoughts on “A Winter Tale: Imagining a 19th Century Garret

  1. What you have is a boudoir! In English, the term tends to be linked with sexy clothes, but in fact, it comes from the French word “bouder,” which means “to pout” or “to sulk.” It’s a very small, private room, by definition elegantly appointed, where the lady of the house could go when she didn’t feel like seeing anybody, and, in a time when women had few rights, where she could do as she pleased and lock everybody out, or where she could have private conversations with close friends.

    1. Thank you for enlightening me!! Yes indeed, a boudoir is exactly what I have…and such a prettier word than garret or studio (it’s also a nursery for new kittens, but I didn’t want to confuse readers). May your New Year be filled with intriguing experiences in a country for which I have great affection. Please continue to contribute your insights to my blog! Best, Bettie

  2. What a wonderful room!! I don’t blame you at all for keeping it to yourself!! I love spaces that are ” off the beaten track”!!

  3. Oh my goodness! I think this is my very favorite post of yours, Bettie! A Little Princess, along with The Secret Garden, are two of my favorite childhood books. Thanks for sharing this intimate little space with us. It brought back sweet memories for me.

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