But arts and crafts houses are a distinctive part of Scotland’s architectural landscape and, thanks to architects such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and William Leiper, there are some real gems hidden among the Victorian villas.
They are eccentric 19th-century properties with romantic decorations borrowed from medieval and folk traditions that have always been appreciated by arts and crafts enthusiasts.
“I’m a big fan of these houses,” says Andrew Perratt of upmarket estate agents Savills, who lives in an arts and crafts conversion in Helensburgh. “They were a reaction against the more ostentatious Victorian style, so quite often they were not as big as other 19th-century houses, which is part of their attraction. Arts and crafts style is softer and the houses can be quite cottagey.
“The attention to craftsmanship is wonderful – the windows, details and nooks and crannies. You couldn’t afford to build a house like that today. They are rare as it was a tight period. And they are extremely expensive because they were built for wealthy people in the best locations.”
The arts and crafts movement evolved between the 1860s and 1910 as a reaction to mass-produced and mediocre design. Inspired by the writings of English art critic, social thinker and polymath John Ruskin, it advocated traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often medieval, romantic and folk styles.
Its chief proponent was artist and writer William Morris, whose mantra was: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
“Morris had been horrified by The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London where he saw the machines of industrialisation showcased. He was a Luddite who wanted to go back to medieval techniques of craftsmanship and turn his back on mechanisation,” says Anne Ellis, art historian and former curator of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House in Helensburgh.
In Scotland, Morris’s ideas were enthusiastically taken up by architects such as Mackintosh, Robert Wemyss, AN Paterson and Leiper. Many of their houses are in the Helensburgh area, where wealthy merchants retreated from the smoke of Glasgow and vied with each other to keep up with the new fashion.
Leiper, whose designs include the Templeton Carpet Factory at Glasgow Green, Partick Burgh Hall, Dowanhill Church and the Banqueting Hall of Glasgow City Chambers, lived in Helensburgh from the early 1870s. The Victorian seaside town was something of an artistic hotbed at the time, and was home to Glasgow Boy Sir James Guthrie and Glasgow Girl Norah Neilson Gray.
While arts and crafts houses certainly look individual, the attention to craftsmanship and intricate detail means they can be hard to live with, so any owner needs to be something of a purist to put up with their idiosyncrasies.
“Leiper’s houses can be heavy and dark with small, medieval windows that don’t let in much light,” says Ellis, “and I find much of the ‘Glasgow style’ furniture of the period too chunky and heavy.”
Former Taggart actor James MacPherson owned an arts and crafts house in the style of German designer Charles Voysey. He sold the property, in Bearsden, five years ago after falling out of love with it.
“At first my wife Jacqueline and I were taken by the period features,” he says. “The wood panelling and original inglenook fireplaces were stunning and there was beautiful stained glass everywhere.
“The house had leaded windows and slit windows, like you would find in a castle, so it was quite dark. The windows let in the cold but we didn’t want to put in secondary glazing as it would have looked horrible. The house was A-listed, which meant we couldn’t do anything to modernise it and make it more comfortable. There was a bathroom that was highly tiled with every inch decorated with birds. It was hard to live with – and it took about five hours to fill the bath.
“We didn’t have any children when we moved in, but once our three kids came along we were always telling them not to touch anything. It was a nightmare.”
So, is it possible for someone from the 21st century to live happily and comfortably in one of these quirkily designed houses? We spoke to the owners of three arts and crafts houses to find out.
Retired schoolteacher Mavis Henderson, 65, bought the William Leiper A-listed house six years ago for £900,000 with her son, David, 44.
“Finding arts and crafts period pieces to fill Brantwoode has become my life’s project,” says Mavis Henderson. “I scour antique shops and the internet for rugs, furniture, mirrors, paintings and ornaments.”
Piles of books on the arts and crafts movement are testament to Mavis’s dedication to preserving the heritage of her house. Every inch of her home is covered in rugs and wallpaper in Morris and Voysey designs. A copper chandelier by WAS Benson hangs in the hall.
In the morning room there’s a circular table and set of high-backed dining chairs commissioned from local craftsman Bruce Hamilton and inspired by George Walton, the brother of EA Walton, the architect and designer of the first of Miss Cranston’s Glasgow tearooms.
Dating from 1895, the A-listed house is one of the finest examples of Scottish arts and crafts villas. It was built for oil merchant James Alexander, who was a great admirer of John Ruskin and named his new home after Ruskin’s home Brantwood at Coniston in the Lake District.
As soon as you walk into the panelled hall you are plunged into a time capsule, from the motto carved above the red sandstone fireplace – “In the world a home, in the home my world” – to the mellow kauri pine panelling and leaded windows with their exposed stone mullions.
The house was designed so the public rooms would follow the progression of the sun in the sky, starting with the morning room and ending with the living room, a “parade” of rooms cleverly designed so people are naturally led around the house through rooms that open into each other.
Estate agent Andrew Perratt, who sold the house to the Hendersons, says, “The parade of rooms is similar to Mackintosh’s Hill House. Leiper provides first a formal drawing room, then a living room with a projecting bay with garden entrance and finally a parlour.”
Arches – a typically Leiperian feature – are everywhere and the drawing room, sitting room and dining room all have fine carved stone chimneypieces. The sitting room has an inglenook fireplace with original gold and blue William Morris wallpaper above the chimneypiece.
Henderson is continuing the work of the previous owner, who spent £150,000 on a garden based on a design by Gertrude Jekyll, who was one half of the most influential arts and crafts partnership with English architect Sir Edward Lutyens.
“We were looking for an arts and crafts house and first came to the area to have a look at a Lutyens house,” says Henderson, “but when we saw Brantwoode we just fell in love with it. Six years later I’m still researching the arts and crafts movement and sourcing bits and pieces from all over the world.
“It’s a privilege to live here, but I do feel responsible for keeping it up as part of our architectural heritage. It’s become something of a project for my retirement.”
The living room has a French window in lead, cleverly set to the side of the bay so you can walk into the garden. In the parlour, the fireplace is set in a large inglenook with a coved top and the tiles are by Thomas Jeckyll. The room catches the evening sun and is decorated in an 1895 wallpaper designed by Voysey, its tulip design chosen to echo the shape of the flowers in the leaded windows.
“My favourite room is the morning room with its circular bay window,” says Henderson. “I love the peace and tranquillity, sitting at the round table I had made for this space, overlooking the garden. It’s a wonderful place for contemplation.”
Lynn and Fraser McCathie have lived in the William Leiper house for 24 years and brought up their two daughters there. They are now selling the house.
William Leiper’s signature is all over this B-listed house: a profusion of arches, mock half-timbered gables, New Zealand kauri pine panelling, timber-beamed ceilings, exquisitely crafted doors, exposed stone mullions, leaded windows with copper latches and rooms on different levels connected by stairs.
The house was built in 1908 for Major Duncan, a former provost of Helensburgh, who wanted a fine house to rival Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House, which Lynton backs on to.
The owners, Lynn McCathie, 55, and Fraser, 57, have lived here for more than two decades. “It’s been a wonderful place to bring up a family because it’s so well designed,” says Lynn, who worked as a PA to her insurance executive husband before they retired.
“We lived in England for a few years, which is why we were attracted to this house, which looks more like an English Tudor-style home than the classic Victorian villas you find elsewhere in Helensburgh.”
The couple have become so enamoured with Leiper’s style that they have bought a smaller Leiper house in the nearby village of Rhu, which they are restoring.
“It’s more rustic in style but it has the same stone mullions, archways and leaded windows,” says Lynn. “I’ve visited a few Leiper houses and I feel at home as soon as I walk through the door.
“Although the house is beautifully designed with carved stone inglenook fireplaces, nothing is too fussy. Leiper’s attention to detail was incredible.
“Before we bought Lynton, we had been living in a modern house but had often walked past Lynton and wondered what it looked like inside. When we heard it was for sale we shook hands on it and bought it for £125,000 in 1986. We stretched ourselves to buy it but it was in pristine condition – it’s only had five owners and they’ve all looked after it.
“I fell in love with it instantly and have grown to love it more and more over the years. Even though it’s a large house with plenty of rooms, it flows well and has a cosy feel.
“It’s ideal for family living because there are lots of different levels so you can have your own space, but it’s easy to gather together when you want.
“It’s a fantastic house for parties and I always used to host a Christmas Eve party for friends and family.”
Lynn admits that keeping the large period house in top condition has been hard work over the years.
“It’s like painting the Forth Bridge – it’s a work in progress,” she says. “I have it painted every year and the painters oil all the wood panelling.
“We wanted to retain its original features but also live in modern comfort, so we put in a new kitchen and new bathrooms over the years.
“It is an important arts and crafts house, but primarily it’s a lovely family home that needs to be filled with children.”
Lynton is for sale, at offers over £1.35m. Contact Savills on 0141 222 5875.
MAPLEHURST near Galashiels
In 2008 Linda and Derek Chapman moved from a modernised 100-year-old farmhouse in Aberdeenshire to a £700,000 arts and crafts villa designed by J&J Hall in the Borders, which they run as a boutique bed and breakfast.
Derek Chapman admits he knew very little about arts and crafts homes until his wife Linda discovered Maplehurst.
“I’d sold my farm to my brother and had always wanted to run a small hotel or guest house, so we were on the look out for a house that was different. When Linda found Maplehurst I didn’t know what to make of it at first. I knew nothing about arts and crafts houses at the time but when we saw Maplehurst we fell in love with it,” says Derek, 58.
The couple set about decorating in muted Farrow & Ball colours and choosing furniture and pictures for the house.
“It’s a beautiful house and we wanted to enhance it to bring it back to what it once had been,” says Linda, 60. “We were lucky because we didn’t have to do any structural work or major restoration. All the original features were intact.”
The reception hall has an arts and crafts fireplace with green inset tiles and a copper hood. There are also original fireplaces in the drawing and morning rooms and the house is filled with oak panelling.
Arches are one of the hallmarks of an arts and crafts house and there are arched windows over the reception hall fireplace. Stained-glass windows are also typical and Maplehurst has a stained-glass window featuring a woman carrying fruit. A romantic yearning for the Middle Ages can be seen in the drawing room, which has a turret.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in auction houses and with antique dealers,” says Linda. “We’ve put reproduction Morris wallpaper in a couple of the bedrooms and the walls are decorated in Farrow & Ball, which I feel has the right tone.
“It’s a responsibility having an arts and crafts house but I enjoyed researching the period and decorating it.”
The house was commissioned in 1906 by mill owner Andrew Fairgreaves, who had married a Canadian woman.
“You can see the Canadian influence in the name,” says Linda, “and there is an original tapestry in the entrance hall with a moose hunting scene. There are also maple leaves in the stained-glass windows, and the windows are high off the ground as they would be in Canada, where they get a lot of snow.
“I understand the Fairgreaves were in New York and went to an arts and crafts exhibition and fell in love with the style.
“It’s built to last with great attention to detail and craftsmanship. It’s stood the test of time, partly because it’s only had five owners.”
While Linda has been careful to source arts and crafts furniture such as a small grandfather clock called a Sessions Clock from the United States, she also bought a Chinese cabinet, a buddha and a 200-year-old rocking horse, besides modern pieces such as a mirrored occasional table.
don’t want people to feel they have just walked into an arts and crafts treasure trove or a dusty antique shop. I want touches of modern comfort, so we’ve kept the carpets neutral and hung original modern oil paintings as well as Gustav Klimt prints.
“The light fittings are contemporary and we have some art deco touches in one of the bedrooms. Some arts and crafts furniture and lights can be rather ugly and heavy for modern tastes. It’s important to strike the right balance so you preserve the spirit of the house but don’t feel you are in a museum.”
www.maplehurstguesthouse.co.uk or call 01896 754050.