The art of restoration

A historic 100-year old house designed by a St Ives artist has become a decade-long labour of love for the owners to save it from demolition


It is a sad truth that it is often easier to raze a property to the ground and begin again, than to undertake the painstaking job of renovating something that has become dilapidated. Add into the mix the spectre of housing developers looking to cram profit-making properties into a large plot overlooking one of the country’s most sought after holiday spots, and you have Sheila Scholes and Gunter Schmidt’s project, Ty Bryn.

Ty Bryn – which means Hill House – is an Arts and Crafts-era house overlooking the iconic harbour of St Ives in Cornwall. It was grasped from the jaws of redevelopment thanks to an artist’s determination to recognise the building’s importance, both as an architectural curiosity, and its place in the story of this famous artistic colony.

The house was built in 1928 by renowned artist Borlase Smart, who was a pioneer of the modern British Art movement in St Ives. For more than a hundred years this ancient fishing harbour has attracted artists drawn by its incredible natural light, and the unspoilt, often extreme landscape. Demand for holiday homes is high in this part of the world, which has put many of its most interesting architectural gems in jeopardy.

This unique home was built in a modernist style, and was in much need of a major but sympathetic renovation when it came to the attention of artist and designer Sheila and husband, Gunter, a scientist.

Among its other more unusual charms, the shape of the building means there are seven external walls. All of this makes for an unusual and sometimes difficult to navigate home, which was crying out for a creative touch. But being an experienced renovator, Sheila was excited by the challenge. Much of the promise of Ty Bryn could be seen in its unique exterior, says Sheila. Inside many of the rooms were basic and run down and at the very least needed to be stripped back to their original state.

Plans were already underway to demolish the house and replace it with five houses when Sheila and her husband bought it and began their restoration 10 years ago. Meanwhile the homes surrounding it have been replaced by modern houses – mostly obscured from their view by mature trees. The new buildings are a reminder of how fragile Cornwall’s architecture can be, in the midst of the race for space to build on. The developer’s deal “was just about done,” says Sheila, when the couple came along and bought it from under their noses.


Ty Bryn was an immediate draw for Sheila, who was fascinated by its history. “I have always wanted to be an artist, my dream was to be a painter, but I always got sidetracked,” says Sheila, who had her own successful textile printing business in the US, and now exhibits at galleries in St Ives. “We have always renovated houses, and I have always taken on hopeless cases,” she admits. “I enjoy bringing them back to life; rescuing them. It’s what we have always done, but I didn’t know what I would do with this house.”

“In 1928 it would have been very modern,” continues Sheila. However, she has managed to modernise it to 21st century standards, while keeping the best of the house’s original design intact. “It was run down and in a terrible state, but it had historic importance. I had never heard of its original owner Borlase Smart; It was only after we bought it that I found out who he was.”

Smart was a painter, writer and founding member of the artistic collective the ‘St Ives School,’ after World War I, who worked as an art critic and taught a number of important St Ives artists – including Peter Lanyon, whose work today sells for six figure sums. With Smart having enthusiastically promoted other artists, it seems only fitting that the house has been brought back to life by a fellow artist.

“He was a real conservationist,” says Sheila; “if it wasn’t for him the old town wouldn’t exist anymore.” She adds: “It was a real irony that now his own house was almost gone. It’s a part of history and once gone, it would be gone forever.”


The house had been untouched for many years by the previous owner who had lived there for more than three decades. While this created a challenge in the renovation, it also meant there were many valuable elements and features that had been left intact.

“In the first year, we initially intended to camp outside for the first phase of the refurb but the weather was so bad that we camped inside instead,” says Sheila. “All our furniture was in storage. It was all open fires and candlelight, very romantic. But I found living in the build helped me to understand the layout.”

Part of the skill of renovation is knowing what to keep and what to replace. “We kept everything that we could and that was worth keeping. And we got things locally if we could.” For Sheila, keeping the original crittall windows was non-negotiable, despite advice from a builder to rip them out and replace them. The steel framed windows formed part of the Art Deco and Modernist architectural movements of the 1920s and 1930s and were designed with slim frames to cause minimum disruption to the view. Sheila admits the numerous windows were hard work and incredibly time consuming to restore, while also meeting building safety regulations. The work involved stripping, resetting and repainting them, and took more than two years to complete.

“It was really hard work,” she says. “Stripping them down alone took six months. It was painstaking to get the paint off.” But she has no regrets. These huge windows are a major feature in every room of the house and all look out onto a fairly priceless view.

While much of the outside remains unchanged – inside, the house has been gutted and the living spaces redesigned. Windows have been added to previously solid walls, and plumbing and wiring was completely replaced. Three bathrooms were added to create ensuite bedrooms, and meet the expectations of luxury modern living.


The kitchen was the hardest part of the project, admits Sheila. Both the floor and the ceiling had to be completely replaced, and they had to track down salvaged crittall windows to add to a previously solid wall. “There wasn’t a view from the kitchen before,” she explains. Now a dining area by the new windows looks out onto St Ives harbour, and the alteration is seamless from both outside and in.

Sheila has used the low-tech kitchen she inherited to inspire the layout and design to reflect a slower pace of life in the kitchen, where antique pieces mingle with industrial accessories from the 1950s. It’s a reminder of the age of the house, which was the home of a geologist for 35 years before the couple bought the property. The kitchen is functional and beautiful, with white stained wooden walls and a hint of 1950s industrial chic that reflects the era of some of the original retained features, including the cooker. A woodburner has replaced a cavernous hole left by the boiler, and in front sit two welcoming sheepskin-draped chairs. The work surface is largely unmarred by the modern gadgets of 21st century life. This is intentional, says Sheila, whose décor aesthetic is more akin to that of the 1920s.

The interiors reflect Sheila’s taste for natural and organic colours and textures. Nothing has been wasted; furniture and accessories have been kept or repurposed. During the work, the couple uncovered original valuable features, including impressive tiled fireplaces.

Her approach is to reuse or repurpose furniture and features where possible. “Each house that we have renovated, we put in the same furniture or recycled it,” says Sheila. Even turf that was removed from the garden was reused on the roof of her new design studio, created in 2017. Its shape mirrors part of the house – a hexagonal tower that juts out from the main building: “I wanted to make the studio contemporary by incorporating a grass roof to the design.”

Sheila has added a library in the tower, replacing what was a dark, uninspiring sitting room. The bare and dilapidated curved walls are now covered in well-stocked bookshelves that still follow the curved walls. She created the room for her scientist husband Gunter – even adding display cases holding assorted curiosities.

But this A small open plan orangery off the living room is used to showcase art St cosy room has become a favourite of the couple, where they often relax in front of the fire. This was another find uncovered during the work on the house, which also has wooden floors throughout. But it is in the living room that the house fully reveals itself. A giant fireplace sits at one end of the room, while the opposite end hosts a curiously shaped glass house that has been cut into the corner of the room – where plinths display sculpture and tables are filled with the familiar accoutrements of an artist.

‘We think the fireplace in the living room is by Bernard Leach,” she says proudly. “When we bought the house, it was all blocked in. There was a tiny space but the proportions looked odd.” Exploring further they found a large fireplace filled with rubble. “We noticed the tiles went right back,” she explains. And, so they continued to excavate the hole until the century-old tiles and original fireplace revealed itself. It has now become the centrepiece of the room, which has been designed as a social space to be enjoyed by the couple and their extended family, including their four grandchildren.

Upstairs a light filled hallway acts as a link between the two wings of the house. At one end sits a guest suite for her daughter and grandchildren, while the other end houses a master suite that boasts a monochrome design and period furniture reflecting its 1920s origins. The long hallway between has become an overspill to Sheila’s studio where she can work while taking in the incredible views of the famous harbour and the light that surrounds it.


Ty Bryn is her sixth project, but she thinks it will definitely be her last. But her experiences have left her ideally placed to offer advice. For her it has been about following her own style, and reusing as much as possible.

“It’s tricky,” she says of updating such a classic and important house. “You need to keep the feel of the house, but you have to be able to live in it now.”

Looking back a decade since she started the project, Sheila is still reticent about it being finished. “We are still renovating it,” she admits. “Seeing all the before photos makes me realise what we’ve actually achieved and it makes me so grateful to have this amazing house with such iconic views of St Ives. I can’t imagine what would have become of it if it hadn’t been rescued.”