It was this room that sold us the house – partly because I’m an avid gardener and from the hall you could see the garden was special, but also because it’s such a splendid room: frescoed, vaulted ceiling, warm stone walls and with the original, weathered, diagonally laid flagstone floor.
My wife Suzanne is Maltese, so we have a strong connection with the island – we lived here for five years when our children were younger. We bought Casa Bonavita six years ago and have been slowly restoring it. The hallway is the room we’ve done the least to – you couldn’t make it better. The house was built in 1760 and has an interesting history. In 1799, when the French were here, the house was owned by Francophiles, and after the French were driven out by the British, the Maltese stormed the house in retaliation. It fell into disrepair and for a while this extraordinary room was a butcher’s shop.
The hallway is the main entrance to the house. As you go through the front door – leaving a narrow village street – you have no idea what to expect. That’s the amazing thing about Maltese houses: you wonder what’s behind the doors. It could be nothing or it could be fabulous. Even in the blistering heat of midsummer the street is shaded, and the expectation here is that you will be entering a dark space. In fact, the hall is flooded with light as large doors at the opposite end of the building open out to the garden, drawing the eye down the orange-tree-flanked path. At the end of the path is a fountain and beyond that a niche carved into the wall.
The room isn’t just an entrance hall – it’s the family’s entertaining space. It really came alive when we had a party for 300 people for our daughter’s wedding last year. It’s also the quiet place where Suzanne and I sit with our morning coffee. Our little two-seater sofa has a carved back in the shape of two flowers and in a less spacious room could look fussy. We picked it up in a local auction and covered it in green moiré fabric, bought in Rome.
The hall is furnished with few pieces and all of them complement the architecture. In the centre is a chandelier made of wrought iron and glass that we bought from Charles Edwards on the King’s Road, which is similar in colour to the frescoed ceilings. Hanging opposite the staircase is an English gilded mirror that belonged to Suzanne’s family and was given to us when we moved into the house. The light floods through the large windows at the top of the staircase and reflects in the mirror.
We bring the outdoors in with a pair of 1.5m-high marble fluted urns planted with areca palms, plus a variety of stone pillars and old stone pots, all collected from local auctions. We also have terracotta planters with Zamioculcas zamiifolia and Ficus pandurata, both plants that require very little maintenance and have lush, dark-green leaves. In the summer, when it’s dry and hot, it’s helpful not to have to water them too often.
In Malta, the decor changes with the seasons and the custom is to put rugs down in the winter. We have one of Suzanne’s rugs in shades of blue and black on the flagstones. It’s named Bonavita after the house, and she designed it with this room in mind. Unsurprisingly, it works.