"The house is full of rich colours, painted Eastern European antique furniture, and lots of layers of textiles and folk art." During the lockdown, we spoke to Countess Alexandra Tolstoy about her cottage in Oxfordshire, home-schooling, and how she reflects her Russian roots in her interiors.
Q: How are you finding home-schooling your children? Have you got any tips or tricks?
A: I can’t say I love it! My children go to French schools, but my French is only GCSE standard, so it’s a huge struggle helping my older son to read Rabelais and Moliere- not to mention binary long division! We never seem to get everything done but I often read out loud to my children. Recently it’s been King Solomon's Mines, The Arabian Nights, and the Narnia series. I hope this is giving them another layer of education that can’t be found at school. I also make sure they go outside every day. We are lucky to be in lockdown in our cottage so they can whizz around on their bikes or go up into the woods and make camps.
Q: You grew up in the Somerset countryside but spent long periods in Moscow and London. Do you feel most at home in the city or the countryside?
A: I love both equally. People often assume I prefer the countryside but I adore the city- both London and Moscow- and couldn’t live without it. I need the inspiration and creativity that I find from being with others and I’m not a solitary person!
As our cottage is early 18th Century, I took it back to its roots by lime plastering all the walls. This gives it a simple white background for all the Staffordshire, lustreware and oak furniture that I love collecting.
Q: Your cottage in Oxfordshire is the definition of Cotswolds charm. How do you go about decorating a smaller space?
A: I think, contrary to common belief, small spaces can (and for me should!) be full of layers and details. I always try and be authentic and respectful to the building I’m decorating. As our cottage is early 18th Century, I took it back to its roots by lime plastering all the walls. This gives it a simple white background for all the Staffordshire, lustreware and oak furniture that I love collecting. All the children sleep in one room- I just found extra narrow Victorian brass beds on Ebay!
A: It’s amazing, rather like a tardis! I have an outside office that my son has made into his classroom. The younger two don't have many live lessons, so I work with them at the kitchen table a lot whilst cooking and trying to do my own work. I love the feeling of spilling from inside to outside and they run in and out all day long (bringing far too much mud in!). We brought minimal clothes so I’m constantly washing, but we don’t have a problem with storage. The children are very good about playing with their Lego in a small space in front of the fire.
It’s lovely that we’ve been able to spend so much time here, it's usually a holiday rental and we spend a maximum of two weeks here at a time. I’ve loved watching the winter months go by and having fires every day.
Q: How are your Russian roots reflected in your interiors?
A: I think they are reflected most in our London home. The house is full of rich colours, painted Eastern European antique furniture, and lots of layers of textiles and folk art. We have icons, of course, and lots of touches of gilt that probably reflect Russian churches. I love embroidery and have collected beautiful silk Uzbek chopans (coats) on my travels that hang in my bedroom. I suppose it’s an eclectic mix of all my life- Russian, English and Central Asian.
Q: Your style has a folkloric feel which we love, where does this stem from?
A: I suppose from my travels. I spent many months riding through remote Russian villages in Siberia and southern Russia. I was enchanted by the colourful, whimsical wooden houses with their huge stoves and intricately carved windows. They were like something straight out of the pages of Pushkin’s fairytales. But I also think my English family has influenced me. My mother is one of seven children, and they were brought up to do everything by hand- knitting, sewing, smocking, embroidery, painting etc. They all grow their own vegetables and are great cooks, with a love of the land and traditions. I experienced this from early childhood and it has definitely been a great influence.
I encourage my children to read above everything else because that was the greatest gift my father gave me.
Q: You have faced many challenges in recent years, where do you turn to for comfort and joy?
A: I am Russian Orthodox and my faith has given me a lot of strength. I think I also built resilience through travelling. I had to be so independent and overcome many obstacles alone, which has served me in good stead. From an early age, I also read and read romantic 19th Century European literature, which I believe gave me the imagination and scope to see past my own experiences. I encourage my children to read above everything else because that was the greatest gift my father gave me.
A: I was very sad to lose a wooden model of the Sergiev Posad Monastery, the oldest monastery in Russia, as this was a personal belonging. But overall I wasn’t sad at all- these are only things and it was liberating to realise I could let go and our lives have only moved onwards and upwards.
Q: Are you a minimalist or a maximalist at heart?
A: A maximalist for sure!!!!!
Q: You have a distinctive sense of style, and The Tolstoy Edit is a hive of inspiration. Do you consider yourself a trend-setter?
A: Oh no! I don’t like trends and don’t follow them myself. I think if you like something, you like it- irrespective of the era. Fortunately, I know exactly what I like and these days I don’t feel like I make huge mistakes, but that took many years to hone!
Q: Your love of horse-riding is well-known, has this been a passion since childhood?
A: I did love ponies in my childhood but my passion is more about travelling in these wild places- horses are the most wonderful way to see unspoilt corners of the world.
Q: What is your favourite room in the home? Why?
A: I think it has to be the kitchen. I adore entertaining and baking and everything seems to happen there. I’m a sociable person so the pandemic has been testing. I adore having people over for dinner and making an occasion of anything and everything!
Q: What is your ultimate comfort food dish?
A: Hmm, it probably has to be my freshly baked carrot and walnut cake!
Read all of our Q&As on L-Shaped.