Alan Dodd's tiny 17th-century folly in Suffolk, High House, is a mellow Dutch Carolean pepper-pot of a house, like something out of an old English folktale, discovers Cosmo Brockway. Join Cosmo for a tour.

 

BY COSMO BROCKWAY | CABANA N17

 

Driving across the wide Roman roads of Suffolk, the skies become larger and the light distills with a tingling clarity. Past the “Cathedral of the Marshes” in Blythburgh, East Suffolk, its cavernous flint roof holding Cromwellian angels, and down a grassy track you reach the tiny 17th-century folly, High Hall. The retreat of decorative painter and muralist Alan Dodd, this “eyecatcher on the bluff” is a mellow Dutch Carolean pepper-pot of a house, like something out of an old English folktale. 

Dodd appears in a large straw hat and shows me his greatest garden treasure, a mound of Tudor bricks, which will be pressed into service to rebuild the towering chimney rising from the diminutive building alongside a rusticated Oriel window. Nothing is rushed here, the bricks have lain for so long that they have become part of the mise-en-scène, with their faint echoes of Hatfield House and herds of white deer.

Walking through the front door - a geometric design by Wyatt rescued from Heveningham Hall - the rooms cavort with decorative tricks; the Abbotsford corridor hall is lined with remnants of Gothic revival fabric from the House of Lords, which stretches up to a faux Jacobethan ceiling. Much of the sleight of hand magic was created by Dodd on a stepladder, one imagines partly by candlelight. The original block of the house was built as a fanciful summer house for nearby Weston Hall, “a small but curious edifice of red brick, built in a style prevalent at the time of Charles I.” 

An Edwardian author observed the delight of what was now “a laborer’s cottage having molded cornices and wrought paneled ceilings”. Victorian nicknames for the unusual house included Mustard-Pot Hall and The Old Smugglers House, alluding to the shadowy coastal activities in this part of the country. The wispy remnants of miniature grandeur remain preserved as a romantic backdrop to Dodd’s collection of chinoiserie cabinets - they “came from Charlecote Park, connections to Lord Byron” - surrealist paintings of Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, Napoleon III-gilded cutlery, Georgian gothic silver and Chinese hats, all tumbling together in Stephen Tennant-esque drifts.

 

 

Architect Ben Pentreath on visiting the upstairs drawing-room, reached by narrow stairs and with its original baroque plasterwork stained by woodsmoke and Venetian frames filled with panels of Spitalfields silk, memorably described it as a Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. Having acquired the renaissance building in 1985 for what he calls “a song due to a disastrous fire by local youths,” Dodd set about visiting the excellent antiques dealers of East Anglia, including Richard and Miranda Goodbrey at Framlingham and Tore Schotte in Southwold. The early 19th-century “sparrow’s wing” encompasses the two bedrooms and bathroom which Dodd has decorated with neo-classical restraint in contrast to the hurdy-gurdy of the rest of the interiors. 

One bedroom is tented in mattress ticking hung by the artist with windows draped in Toile de Nantes curtains and a wall lined in Napoleonic bookcases inspired by Château Malmaison. Dodd’s own bookpiled bedroom is dominated by a four-poster bed, its hangings fringed with creamy braid found in Padua. “I want to die in it,” he says. The bathroom ceiling has been given gentlemanly vim with Soane-style ball cornicing and a painted Mendlesham chair placed over the loo.

 

 

Dodd’s aesthetic education began, after an escape from the Kent suburbs to study at the Royal Academy, with his meeting of ’60s bohemian jeunesse. His easy charm ensured invitations to stay at their family homes and Bloomsbury manor houses, often peopled by artistic Edwardian remnant grandparents, with tales and objects from pre-war Biarritz and Damascus. “My first influence was staying at Charlecote Park with my fellow art student, Edmund Fairfax-Lucy. 

We hitchhiked to his family seat together and it became a sort of Brideshead for me, with its vast pietra dura tables from Rome’s Villa Borghese and bookcases lined with Etruscan urns and original Shakespeare folios,” Dodd recalls as we sit at his kitchen table on painted Friesland chairs surrounded by stuffed birds in glass cases. “Another influence was the Balfour family with their Paddington townhouse lined six-deep in Persian carpets and piles of Oriental snuff boxes, untouched since the days of visits from Virginia Woolf.” 

Now content to watch the roses around the folly bloom each spring and walking among the old oaks of his secret part of the world, Dodd is perhaps one of the last of the true English eccentrics, a collector of curiosities and Tudor bricks.

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A version of this article first appeared in Cabana Magazine Issue 17

 

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