In Dorset, Jasper Conran’s Backyard Runs Wild

In Dorset, Jasper Conran’s Garden Runs Wild

One of JASPER CONRAN's most valuable possessions is a signet ring that his mother gave him. Engraved with the Conran crest – a dove on two crossed snakes – it bears the motto "In peace lies wisdom." A nice feeling to be sure, but given the savage and notoriously unpeaceful family of the polymathic British designer, it's easy to include a bit of classic English irony in the gift.

Jasper's father, who died in September at the age of 88, was Terence Conran, who introduced wacky British post-war design to the UK's main street in the 1960s with his realm of Habitat stores that introduced minimalist homeware and Scandinavian style flat furniture to main street turned his head. In 1973 he opened the upscale Conran shop on Fulham Road in Chelsea and moved the shop down the street in the late 1980s to the old Michelin house, an Art Nouveau gem where it still stands today. There he redesigned the retail landscape and staged modern furniture by Charles and Ray Eames and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as well as traditional French cookware and global handicrafts. (There are now Conran stores in Paris, Tokyo, Fukuoka and Seoul, as well as other London locations in Selfridges and Marylebone.) During his career, he also founded the London Design Museum, a tribute to graphic, fashion and industrial design. and opened more than 50 restaurants, including the still popular Bibendum on the ground floor of the Michelin building, which opened in 1987 and ushered in the era of modern cuisine and high-ceilinged brasseries.

Jasper, 61, is the second of Terence's five children. His mother is Shirley Conran, a bestselling author of steamy blockbusters, including the 1982 "Lace". (Shirley was the second of Terence's four wives; they divorced in 1962 when Conran was 2 years old and his brother Sebastian was 5 years old.) When Jasper was out of boarding school, Jasper was caught between his mother's London apartments and the 145- switched. Acres of the Barton Court family property in Berkshire bought by his father in the early 1970s. There was also a farmhouse in Provence.

It was a complex and stormy childhood, but also a creatively fruitful one; Jasper, Sebastian and their younger half-sister Sophie became designers. After completing his O level, Conran came to New York to study at the Parsons School of Design and debuted his first collection at the age of 19, a 10-piece line of wedding dresses for the now-defunct Henri Bendel department store in Manhattan. In the years that followed, his output approached that of his father. In addition to his women's label of the same name and J by Jasper, a diffusion line, he has designed Bone China for Wedgwood and costumes for more than a dozen ballets, operas and theater productions, including the production of Christopher Wheeldon's "Within the Golden Hour." In 2011, appointed him The board became the creative director of Conran Shop and several years later, after his father stepped down, he was named chairman of Conran Holdings, and he worked to restore the shops to their original splendor until he stepped down to stand up in 2015 The Conran Shop was sold in 2020 to UK entrepreneur Javad Marandi who has a large portfolio of real estate in the UK including the 100 acre property that houses Soho Farmhouse, the Soho House chain's retreat in Oxfordshire, is located.

HIS FATHER often wielded his brilliance like a blade (in his 2001 book "Q&A: A Kind of Autobiography" he described himself as "ambitious, mean, friendly, greedy, frustrated, emotional, tiring, intolerant, shy, fat" ). But Conran is known for balancing the same kind of aesthetic energy with a generosity of spirit. Even so, he has experienced some inherited turmoil over the years that has led him to buy and sell a number of residences in the UK and abroad, each becoming a canvas for his signature style: a mix of English antique furniture and 16th, 17th and 18th century art with an almost strict neutral color palette, which is balanced by skillful strokes of color. "It's no secret that I've owned a lot of old houses," he says, somewhat embarrassed. "I've dreamed of them since I was a kid when my mom used to show me around to see all the run-down big ones. I've always wondered," What happened here? What are the stories? "

He has owned at least six, all of which are historically remarkable. Perhaps the most spectacular was Ven House, a Grade I listed 18th-century mansion in Somerset that he bought in 2007 and sold in 2015, and a 23,000-square-foot apartment that makes up much of New Wardour Castle, a limestone Palladian mansion in Wiltshire with a 60 foot rotunda. He also has an apartment near London's Hyde Park and a residence made up of two ship's captains' houses on the Greek island of Rhodes.

But the place he considers home these days is refreshingly (and relatively) humble: Bettiscombe Manor, an intact early 17th-century brick house on 70 acres in Dorset, a corner of the south-west English countryside that forms part of the unobstructed wilderness preserved that was immortalized by the USA 19th century writer Thomas Hardy. Until he bought it four years ago, the house belonged to his stepmother, Caroline Conran, a food writer who was married to his father from 1963 to 1996 and was instrumental in creating Habitat. She bought the house for herself in 1986 as a weekend residence. While Jasper and his own mother have had a troubled relationship over the years, he is said to have not spoken to Shirley for more than a decade until shortly before his wedding to the Irish in 2015 – he and Caroline were part of artist Oisin Byrne have always fostered a deep and lasting bond. "She was probably the biggest influence on me," he says. He's visited her in Bettiscombe many times over the years – "I've always thought it was an incredibly magical place" – but until she told him she wanted to downsize in 2015, he never thought it could be.

"I haven't looked for another house, but this is not just another house," he says. The mansion has been virtually unchanged for over 400 years and is far more humane than the projects for which it is known. Creaky, cozy and atmospheric, it has wide plank floors covered with rush mats, a scullery with a linen-rimmed sink in Belfast, and a closet that once held wig powder. The last full renovation was during the reigns of William and Mary, and there was no central heating when his stepmother bought it from a tenant.

Conran has reimagined it with his usual restrained panache. In front of a fireplace without a mantelpiece sit two white, linen-upholstered George II armchairs with mahogany legs the color of burnt molasses. A needlepoint of a Welsh mansion in a carved gilded frame – bought for his 21st birthday – hangs alone on a pale wall above a comfy white sofa dotted with purple cushions from Morocco. (He opened the Riad Inn L’Hôtel Marrakech in 2016.) But it is the garden that perhaps best expresses how Conran – as the family crests suggest – finally found wisdom in peace. In contrast to the formal gardens at Ven House, with their all-green symmetry and the 17th century-style stone fountains, Bettiscombe's grounds tend to be natural and plentiful. They seem to reflect the no-frills rural character of the region – and Conran's growing disinterest in anything too palatial. There are chickens. A shepherd brings his flock of sheep to graze every day. Conran only employs one full time gardener as opposed to the sturdy staff it took to keep his great traits in order. "This is a different time in my life," he says, recalling the party in his younger years carefully documented by the British tabloids. "And I feel so good and full of joy."

In contrast to the interiors, which show his willingness to recklessly work in order to give good pieces room to breathe ("I don't do shifts," he remarks), the garden here borders on turmoil. "It's my ID to run away with me," he says. During the pandemic, his desire to be surrounded by bright hues, the sweet scent of blooming flowers and organic shapes has increased: “It's so exciting to be in the middle of it every day to see what happens overnight when you go out is. ”

The feeling of intentional imperfection begins when you walk down a stone path through the front door: heaps of erigeron – fleabane – with tiny daisy-like flowers hissing between old stones. The ornamental beds, halved by grassy promenades, are densely planted, the colors melted. In late spring, parrot tulips are everywhere, and the bell-stalks of purple digitalis burst through flowers of yellow euphorbia. As the season gets milder, the dahlias emerge, their nodding heads sometimes the size of Frisbees. The garden still bears flowers in December: Helleborus niger – Christmas roses – with their blistered flowers in faded Victorian lavender and sage tones. There is a tailor's garden, a vegetable garden and a greenhouse. Conran pulls fresh peppers, leafy greens, and peas from the vines to serve with poached chicken drizzled with aioli. His guests drink chilled Meursault while they sit at the graceful, aged iron tables that he has arranged in clearings.

About 100 meters away, near the orchard, 37-year-old Byrne set up his studio in the 1830s structure that houses the cider press, which is still used to make cider every fall. His work at Bettiscombe last year, mostly large-format plants with a lush, luscious touch, just got bigger and more alive. Conran cuts lavish bouquets of flowers for him to paint, a gesture of silent intimacy. "I had my drama and my houses," says the designer. "Now I feel like I've landed."


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