Aynhoe Park may have hosted Jade Jagger’s wedding and Noel Gallagher’s 50th, but it is also a family home. Now, thanks to its own line of furnishings, you can take a piece of that home – and the party – away with you.
A flick through the inch-thick guest book in the entrance hall at Aynhoe Park makes for interesting reading. Scrawled words leap off the pages: "Amazing!", "Wonderful!" and, intriguingly, "Sorry about the room." The mind boggles. What have these walls borne witness to? Owner and ever the perfect host James Perkins gives nothing away. Instead, he talks about why celebrities are drawn to the party haven. "Despite the façade, artists and actors are normal people and they come here to escape the public eye," he says. "Add a slight whimsy to keep the eye interested, blend with comfort, and it’s the perfect environment to relax in."
'Slight whimsy' is an understatement. There isn’t a corner of the house that doesn’t fill the eyes with wonder – from the stuffed unicorn atop a grand piano in the entrance hall, to the much-photographed taxidermy giraffe suspended from glass balloons in the orangery, to the giant Hercules statue in the stairwell. Then there’s the huge triceratops skull in the library, the zebra rocking horse, the various lions wearing crowns, and enough 18th-century furniture to fulfil an antiquarian’s wildest dreams. "The house is a giant canvas that reflects my personality and my travels," Perkins says. "It’s a mausoleum of all the things I like." Almost everything is bought at auctions around the world and restored under his watchful eye by local craftsmen.
The portraits on the wall are a collection he calls 'eccentric ancestors'. Every now and then, an in-house artist adds quirky details – a monkey on the shoulder of a mustachioed gentleman, a Cognac glass, a brushstroke of eyeliner. "They’re beautifully painted pieces, but people don’t want them, so I decided I’d take them and give them a playful element," Perkins says. "I’ve also turned the Lord Mayor of Liverpool into Batman – have you seen that one?" Sure enough, the once-austere painting sits in the loos of the property’s nightclub, bearing Batman’s trademark black mask. "Sometimes you go to a National Trust house and they are a capsule of someone’s life, stuck in time," he says. "I want people to enjoy the house for its wit, but you have to be careful not to turn it into a fun pub."
"The house is a giant canvas that reflects my personality and my travels."James Perkins
Entrepreneurial from a young age, Perkins used to deliver pieces for his antiques-dealer mother. He went on to work in the music industry, where he launched Fantazia, which was the epicentre of the 1990s rave scene, holding some of the largest events in the country. "I think that’s why so many people in music have a connection with this house, because I’ve come from a similar background," he says. He recalls with fondness artist Grayson Perry’s first visit to the house. "'It’s not at all what I was expecting, you being from the rave world,'" he told me. "To which I replied, 'What were you expecting? Fluorescent wallpaper and whistles? Naff pop art? That’s why you don’t judge a book by its cover – like you dressing as a woman.'" The interview can be heard playing on a loop in Aynhoe’s plush loos.
Following his career in music, Perkins moved into developing properties in Notting Hill, but it was with his purchase of Aynhoe Park in 2006 that he realised his vocation of playing host to memorable events. "Dance music never involved dinner parties or sitting down, and that was missing from my life – getting to know people and having proper conversations," he says. "I’m more of an armchair clubber now," he concludes happily.
Perkins and his wife Sophie are still in the process of returning the property to its historic grandeur, restoring its Georgian features and the neoclassical embellishments installed by architect Sir John Soane in 1798. Perkins is also mixing in his own bold tastes through contemporary signs, taxidermy and a huge collection of plaster casts. And while the plan was to renovate and move on, he and Sophie love Aynhoe so much they’ve now made it their family home, living in the west wing with their children, Beau, 11, Lyon, six, and Luna, three. "I like a fusion of contemporary and classic – it’s what makes this house livable," Perkins says. "As my taste evolves, so does the house. And, of course, things move to suit the celebrations held here."
His latest venture is a furniture line – A Modern Grand Tour, referring to the Grand Tours of the 18th century. The range is a mixture of curios, one-off antiques and vintage-inspired items, including console tables, wingback chairs and the signature ostrich-feather lamp. "We test-drive everything here. Do we want to be known just for a feather lamp? No. Let’s try and build a range of pieces we can use ourselves, that have a bit of theatre, then let people who love Aynhoe take them home with them."
Above all, what people take away from Aynhoe are memories. So what’s the best party Perkins has hosted? "After doing the Wilderness festival, we came back here at 7am and did an afterparty, with dinner on the lawn and two or three of my favourite DJs. It was brilliant. You don’t own a house like this if you intend to have a quiet time."
By Amy Broomfield
- Photographer Charlie Gray
- Hair Daniel Dyer @ David Artists
- Make-Up Amy Wright @ Caren
- Fashion Stylist Christophe Ruiz
- Prop Stylist Casey Carey
- Fashion Intern Phoebe Hanna
- Photographer’s Assistant Philip Banks