WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
PHOTOGRAPHS – RORY CARNEGIE
Sitting on the green edges of the picturesque north Norfolk town of Holt, Voewood is a magical Arts & Crafts house and easily one of the most beautiful buildings in the county. It is also a place that combines the three dominant passions of its guardian, Simon Finch, for great architecture, books and art. Voewood has been Finch's country home for the past twelve years, lovingly and patiently restored, and here he can indulge his interests in art and music, while keeping an eye on his Holt bookshop, a satellite of a London based rare books business.
Voewood – or Home Place as it was called for a time – is an enticing retreat, surrounded by woodland and graced by a dramatic sunken garden set below terraces that gently project from the front of the house. It was designed by leading Arts & Crafts architect E.S. Prior for his client Percy Lloyd and completed in 1905. Arranged in a butterfly floor plan, with a double height great hall at its centre, this was one of the first concrete framed houses in Britain, coated in a crafted layer of brick, flint and terracotta tiles and topped with sculpted chimneys.
Yet it seems that Lloyd's wife was not taken with Voewood and soon after completion Voewood was turned into a boy's school and later became a care home. Finch, then, was the first to adopt the house as a private residence in a hundred years after Voewood came up for sale.
'When I first saw the house it had become very institutionalized and that was a bit depressing,' says Finch. 'But I instantly reacted to it and thought, "what a house". Rooms had been divided up all over the place and there were lots of nasty bathroom suites, but the fireplaces were all here and a lot of the built in furniture, like the cupboards, which preserve the lines of the rooms. And structurally it is a very sound house.'
It took Finch around six years to bring Voewood and its gardens back to life, bringing in help from designer Annabel Grey, who created bespoke fabrics, paint effects and mosaics for the house. While he took a sensitive and considered approach to the restoration, Finch adopted a more eclectic line with the interiors. Mixing period furniture, mid-century modern pieces and treasures brought back from South Africa, where Finch also has a home, the spaces are welcoming and full of character.
'I like to have things going on in the house, like weddings or literary events, because people do really appreciate the house and it responds well to having a lot of people in it,' says Finch, who has known Norfolk ever since childhood. 'It does have a very warm atmosphere and it's not at all precious.'
Voewood is somewhere to spend time with his son Jack, who takes up a place at drama school this Autumn, and with Finch's neighbour, artist Roger Ackling, who lives in a cottage alongside and has become one of his closest friends. It is a place to play his guitar, learn more of the art of gardening and work on his own art pieces.
Yet Finch spends much of his working week in London, where he has a pied a terre, and tending his rare books business. Finch recently co-founded a new company called WoodFinch with partner Oliver Wood – a specialist in photographic, art and Twentieth Century books – to sit alongside Simon Finch Rare Books. Together, Wood and Finch have just set up shop in a new office and gallery in Brook Street, with space enough for small exhibitions as well as displaying books.
For Finch, trading in rare books has been a lifelong passion, which first took off when he was studying at Bristol. 'I was really self-taught and funded myself through university with book dealing,' says Finch. 'I had a reasonable car and my own flat and was relatively prosperous for a student. But it was the passion for books rather than the thought of making money that drove me.
'I started off with things that I knew: first editions of Byron, Shelley and 18th century novels. There were several libraries at the time plugging gaps in their collections and that's what I cut my teeth on.'
For Finch, highlights have included a first edition of Macchiavelli's The Prince, which sold for $415,000, Shakespeare's First Folio and Copernicus' De Revolutionibus from 1543. Wood and Finch's latest catalogue runs from Johannes Gerson's curiosity De Pollutione Nocturna from 1480 through to Ian McEwan's first book.
Now Finch is developing a new collaboration with Lady Elena Foster – the wife of architect Norman Foster – who has her own specialist publishing company, Ivory Press. Limited edition books in conjunction with artists such as Richard Long and Anthony Caro have been the mainstay of Ivory Press. Now Elena Foster and Finch plan to work together on developing new opportunities in the rare books market.
'It's a thrill for me to be part of a collaboration and to see how it progresses,' says Finch. 'Elena Foster is a creative powerhouse so it's a very exciting prospect.'
The Norfolk bookshop has an all together different feel to Finch's London base, but is still a beloved part of his books business. 'The bookshop up in Holt is really an anachronism but people love it,' says Finch of the Norfolk outpost, set back from the main street and crammed with delights. 'We have regulars and others who come back once a year, because it is affordable.'
Voewood, of course, is graced with many books within its library, study and elsewhere. But Finch does not consider himself a serious collector; that interest is satisfied by the books he gathers for the business. But books of one kind or another will inevitably be an integral part of Finch's home.
'I have always liked the visual appeal of libraries,' Finch says. 'Many modern homes don't really give much space to libraries but I don't like a house without some area for books. I have just always loved buying books. People may get used to reading some books digitally but books that are sensual, tactile, rare and interesting will always remain.'