15 JULY 1995, Page 40

Long life

Sorry about the bed

Nigel Nicolson

Most of us know when we enter a drawing- room whether it is a pretty room or not; but how few of us know how to make a drawing- room pretty.

Thus Anthony Trollope in Can You For- give Her? His interrogative title makes co- conspirators of us all. He draws us into his plots, shares with us his opinions. Yes, of course he was right about drawing-rooms, though his idea of what was pretty in 1864 was certainly not emulated by any subse- quent generation. But those of us who lack a natural taste are at a loss to know how to replace whatever it was that Trollope admired.

We play safe. I have played safe. I remain stud( in the Colefax & Fowler tradition, with a hint of Laura Ashley, 'rural but not rustic', as I advised my advis- er, but when left alone to my decorative devices, my touch is not just uncertain; it is invariably wrong. I had my bookshelves painted bottle-green, hoping for a Monet effect: they had to be repainted maroon brown. I recently bought for the spare bed- room a great bed framed in cane and pale ashwood. I now realise that it is far too light for the room, which needs mahogany. When shown into it, guests remark, 'Yes, this will do nicely'. What they do not say, as I hoped they would, is, 'Oh what a lovely room!' The proximity of a bathroom, the cosmetics of flowers, books, pictures and a heart-warming view do not make up for its lack of charm.

I am very fortunate and happy in the place where I live, but I sometimes imagine myself the tenant of a bedsit in Peckham dreaming of an ideal home for my old age. It would not be the relics of a Tudor castle in Kent. It would be a small Georgian house in a cathedral close, near to shops and doctors, but quiet and dignified, facing a lawn from which rises a splendid medieval church — something like Mom- pesson House in Salisbury Close, but that is stone, and I need brick. It would have four bedrooms and three bathrooms, a small library with a fireplace, a modern kitchen, and a walled garden. The decor would be books, rugs and low lamps. It would be kept very tidy. Normally I would feed myself, but among my neighbours there would be an excellent cook whom I could hire for special occasions.

Although it is not in a cathedral close, I know of just such a house which I could transplant there. It is called Ibthorpe, and it lies at Hurstbourne Tarrant near Andover. It has all the qualities that I like, but in addition it was once occupied by two women whom I much admire. One was Jane Austen, who was a frequent guest there, and the other was Dora Carrington, whose parents rented the house when she was young. In character it is certainly more Austen than Carrington, but a few miles away is Ham Spray where she lived with Lytton Strachey until both died.

In her day it was a truly charming house, more Omega than Ashley, and decorated by Carrington as a mini-Charleston with painted walls, painted furniture and a verandah running the whole breadth of the house where great minds talked. Today it is quite different. Half the verandah has gone, a bow-window has been extruded from the drawing-room, the interior sanitised, and all Carrington's wall-paintings obliterated except for one small owl. It is not in the least ugly, but it has lost her imprint. As I stood in the room where she shot herself after Lytton's death, and lived for six hours before she died, I found little in the scene to remind me of her. Brick and timber can- not retain memories of joy and pain. Trol- lope was right. It is individual taste that counts, and it dies with its possessor.