Barn to be wild: a Wiltshire farm building reimagined as a joyful, contemporary home

To see Lucy Kent and her husband John Gilbey in their Wiltshire barn with their two small children you could believe that they had lived and worked there for years – but this ambitious, bold and joyful home was created from scratch after many weekends spent peering over fences in search of a plot.

The legwork finally paid off when John found a piece of land with an existing agriculture building sitting at the head of the plot and tracked down the farmer. Fates collided as the farmer was in the market for selling the building and adjoining meadows. Yet it was still a leap of faith because there was no precedent for building a residential property on the agricultural plot, but with determination and patience the couple finally got planning permission two years later.

John is the founder of digital message curation site Kindeo, but he used to work in property and construction so came to this project with a fair amount of experience. He was fully involved in every aspect of the project from start to finish – he even taught himself the CAD system SketchUp, so he could design each facet of the building.

The extraordinary external aesthetic was inspired by a pool house by Michaelis Boyd. He also had help from his friend, the local architect Christian Fleming. The Cotswold stone gables give a vernacular nod to its setting while the vertical timber fins bring a startling strength to the design. “Each timber piece was hand-burnt on site using a Japanese technique called Shou Sugi Ban,” says John.

The existing portal frame and footprint of the barn had to be retained so the layout was somewhat dictated from the off, but John’s clever design has given them the impressive double-height vaulted living space, gallery landing and a succession of more intimate spaces on different levels – up to the snug and down to the playroom.

Lucy acknowledges John’s role in making the project come to life and dealing with the “hard, mucky, construction side of things”, but the look and feel of the interior was down to her. “John would probably have chosen a monochrome palette with some brutalist-style light fittings,” she says, but one look at Lucy’s paintings and you know colour is going to play a part in the decorating.

There is a series of rooms leading off the main neutrally decorated living and dining space where Lucy has chosen bold, jewel-like colours to lead and entice the eye – a striking tangerine entrance hall leads into the kitchen where the units are a delicious teal colour, while the utility room beyond packs a punch with terracotta walls and red units. In the bathrooms, joyous use of coloured tiles and painted units create eye-catching spaces to be enjoyed equally with the living areas.

Gallery-style displays of art adorn the walls of the barn – a delightful and confident mix of Lucy’s landscapes, some inherited, traditional art from John’s family home and pieces championing friends’ work – often procured in a bartering process of swapping art for art. Two large-scale framed photographs by Oliver Blackwell – depicting the vast expanse of Saunton Sands, a favourite spot for John to surf and Lucy to paint – hold the space on one wall.

Having trained in classical portraiture in Italy where the style of the Old Masters and their restrained colour palette ruled, Lucy “came home with an urge to break free and experiment with bolder colours and subject matter”. Predominantly self-taught in landscape and oils, she paints en plein air and takes three or four painting trips a year to Devon and Cornwall. “The spontaneity of working from real life ensures the magic of starting a painting and not really knowing how it will end up.” She paints thickly and quickly with a brush and palette knife, giving her landscapes a wonderfully loose expression of the scene in front of her.

The pandemic forced Lucy to take a fresh look at the scenery outside her door and reinvigorated her sense of place as she took to depicting the large skies, rolling clouds and kaleidoscope of colours as the seasons changed – helped by the vast floor-to-ceiling glass windows framing her own Wiltshire scene. This renewed vigour also saw her setting up the Art for Charity Collective – a group of artists who all donate a percentage of their profits to charity. They have raised more than £100,000 to date, while connecting fellow artists with a broader audience who couldn’t visit live exhibitions. Her considerable contribution has been recognised with an award given by Boris Johnson to those who have enhanced lives during the pandemic.

As John and Lucy stand in front of the impressive front door of their house, they explain that they designed it together, inspired by primitive star motifs found on ancient barns that were said to bring good luck. The couple seem to be making their own good fortune through hard work and creativity – having built a home, workspace and gallery as well as a lasting legacy for their family.

Lucy Kent’s solo exhibition This Land will be held at her home from 15 to 19 September (lucy-kent.com; @lucykentart);

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