Paula Sutton is the latest luminary of cottagecore, a corner of the internet immersed in transcendent scenes of rural life. On Instagram, where she posts as @hillhousevintage, the 50-year-old influencer chronicles the pleasures of entertaining, decorating and gardening from her home in rural Norfolk, England.
Now, with many people stuck in less-photogenic surroundings and glued to their screens, her lifestyle has become the stuff of quarantine fantasy.
Speaking by phone earlier this month, Ms. Sutton talked about her newfound fame, the challenges of leaving a city for the country and finding joy in trying times.
As the rest of the world adapts to a new normal, something tells me you’re not exactly new to social distancing.
Absolutely. I’ve always been very happy in my own company and have never been hugely sociable. I’m chatty and engaged during certain occasions, but otherwise I’m almost a sociable recluse. I’m very happy in my own company. It’s not that unusual for me to spend time in the garden, on my own alone for the day.
You’ve become this kind of accidental star in a way that’s very characteristic of social media: One moment you’re living your quiet life, the next your phone is going crazy with notifications. When did you realize something was afoot?
Before this all started, I already had a bit of a following on Instagram; I’d been liked and shared by people before. But about a week ago, it seemed that every time I looked at my phone, there were another hundred followers on my Instagram page. I thought, obviously someone with a big following had shared a photo from my page. I was thinking, oh my goodness, is it Oprah?
In the beginning, it was quite lovely — oh, all these followers, I thought — but then it became a bit stressful. I was gaining followers too quickly, and I knew it wasn’t normal. Someone sent me a direct message, saying, “If you’re wondering why you’re getting all these followers, it’s because you’re the center of a Twitter war.”
Many speculate that this online backlash was because you aren’t white. Cottagecore is dominated by influencers who are. Any thoughts about this?
When I started in this community, it genuinely did not occur to me that it was not a place for me. My mother was into country houses and country living. I didn’t think it was out of the norm.
My parents arrived to England from Grenada without a penny to their names but were able to eventually build a lovely life for themselves. They instilled in us that we could achieve anything. So I didn’t think that a lovely lifestyle and a nice house couldn’t be mine. But at the same time, making it sound easy would be unfair. I know life isn’t as simple as wishing.
The situation last week has opened my eyes a lot. But I also believe that people should live their dreams and be unafraid of what other people think.
On your page, you insist that your life is very ordinary and mundane. What would we be surprised to know about you?
People always ask if I have gardeners or cleaners, but it’s me scrubbing my floors and ironing all the clothes, and picking up all the dog mess. The only bit of me that is glamour is the snapshot I take because I enjoy creating an image — for myself and for other people.
How did you get into cottagecore?
We moved from London to Norfolk 10 years ago. At the time, I was burned out. We had three young children. I had gone back to work when my youngest two were months old. I’d always worked in media, and at times I’d be at the office until 9 p.m. I’d miss bath time with the babies and I quickly realized that if I wasn’t careful, I was going to miss them growing up.
Our first few years here in Norfolk, I was exhausted. It was all about making sure the children were happy. I wouldn’t even take a photograph because I was so tired. I called those years the invisible years.
I’d been posting casually about our new life on Instagram, but I hadn’t been posting much of me. I would pop up maybe once a year on my birthday, to say, “Hello, this is who I am,” and I’d disappear for another year. But whenever I did post a picture of myself, people would say, “Oh, I want to see more. We want to see who you are.” So things got a little more personal, and that’s when I discovered there was a joy in writing captions.
I started dressing up and doing my makeup like I used to when I would go to work in London, and it started making me happier. When I put my red lipstick on — and I’m never without my red lipstick now — I felt happier.
I had stayed hidden for so many years and used to hide my smile, so I wasn’t a massive fan of being in front of the camera. But as you start to get older, you start caring less and less. Now it was such a beautiful feeling to just grin, to just show my teeth. But it’s all about the creation of an image. It was something that gave me joy.
Finding joy seems to be a theme you live by, but how are you able to sustain it, especially during a pandemic?
In February, I lost my mother to leukemia. She and my father were the most positive people ever. My mother’s answer to things was always: “It will be fine.”
I think about her words often. It’s not about taking the pandemic lightly or not being sympathetic to the things happening to the people around us. Sometimes it’s about finding the strength to fight your way through the misery. I’m still grieving but actively seeking beauty and joy has helped me.
Take me through your home. What’s your favorite thing inside or outside the manor?
Well, first, the truth is that I don’t live in a manor. That’s a misconception. It’s a big house, certainly, but I’m not living in Downton Abbey. It’s a Georgian house that sits very nicely in the center of this land, so I think that makes it look bigger than it is. I’m not going to pretend — it’s not a small house. It’s just a nice house.
Well, I live in Brooklyn, where almost everything is tiny. What’s your favorite part of your home?
My favorite room is the one most seen on Instagram, the formal sitting room. It’s full of color and symmetry; Georgian architecture tends to be very symmetrical. It’s warm and cozy and homey. The high window and ceilings, the wooden shutters. It’s my calming, happy room.
What advice do you have for those looking for joy and beauty in an otherwise uninspiring space?
Personalizing things can bring you joy. I have this Victorian button-back chair that I reupholstered that has moved with us from house to house. I chose the fabric because it brought me joy. Every time I see it, it makes me happy.
Pick something — it can be anything — and make it yours. It can be the simplest thing. A bunch of fresh flowers in a space does wonders, too.