Shabby shabby

“I remembered our shared delight in architecture and nature
As bicycling we went
By saffron-spotted palings to crumbling box-pewed churches
Down hazel lanes in Kent.”

John Betjeman, ‘The Commander’

My husband insists I’d have got on with John Betjeman, and it’s not because of a shared despair of Slough (though I sympathise). I guess it’s in part his often-justified hatred of myopic town planners, and perhaps a sense that often we ‘improve’ things that don’t really need improving! Betjeman wasn’t particularly sentimental or even nostalgic about the past – he just recognised good design. I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable about design, but some things just seem so obvious: there’s a brilliant short video of Betjeman talking about Georgian/Victorian Bath on youtube. Fast forward to about 4.55 and watch the next 25 seconds or so, taking particular note of 5.05-5.16. Is he wrong? He isn’t, is he? Now look around you, at the numbers of houses that have been ‘improved’ in the same way.

This is a borderline rant, isn’t it! I set out to write a post about our house, actually. It’s a very modest (some might say ugly) semi-detached house built to no particular architectural agenda in 1922. It has the virtue of being one of the first pebble-dashed houses in Deal. Mmm, pebble-dash. It has a nice set of asbestos cement rooftiles too. Yum. I used to drive past this house before we bought it. It was empty and clearly deteriorating and I knew, just knew, that because it still had its original windows, doors (and roof, as worrying as it is) it would be perfect inside – and for me, the interior quality is every bit as important as that outward proportion. When it came on the market I persuaded my husband to go and look at it with me. He can be an immovable object, so by the time I’d convinced him, it was under offer. That sale fell through, and when it came back on I was down there like a shot, dragging D by his beard. It had been owned by an elderly lady (only the second owner) – a very eccentric elderly lady, as it turned out – and had been derelict for the four years after her death. I knew it would be untampered with, you see, and that is a real rarity. I know that people will always want to make their mark, but it upsets me that so many people do so much stuff to so many old houses (why don’t they buy new ones?!). And so much of it in the name of (cue estate agent speak) ‘adding value’. It really really depends how you look at it, doesn’t it?

Anyway. As the estate agent followed me around the house… erm, I mean showed me around the house, insistently telling me that the 1920s tiles in the living room fireplace weren’t, in fact, 1920s tiles, I couldn’t help myself. With my husband’s warning to ‘play it cool’ ringing in my ears, I started squealing at every little thing that spelt ‘unsaleable’ to the EA and ‘heaven’ to me. That included the bakelite door handles (somebody, alas, had already removed the bakelite doorplates – don’t worry, though, we’re replacing them one by one!); the original hardwood sash windows (only one coat of paint in 90 years and, to date, only one of them has had to have any work done on rot – they’re painting up a treat); original fireplaces in every room (barring one very sweet ’50s replacement); original fitted cupboards in most rooms (real wood!); a utilitarian fitted dresser in an otherwise unfurnished kitchen; and – the proverbial cherry – the original 1920s wallpaper in the dining room. It was in the bathroom that I knew we were going to buy the house. It was when the EA looked at my husband and suggested that one could rip out the wall-to-wall ceiling-to-floor built-in cupboards and relocate the bathroom to the box-room, making this a bigger third bedroom. Apparently one could add value. D got a look in his eye that I read as ‘over my dead body’…

So here we are. A little curious scratching and we found the original 20s wallpaper in one of the bedrooms too. Sure, there was damp – we had to pull out and completely rebuild the rotten staircase, for instance – but once the roof was mended and we put in central heating (yes, there’s always a compromise – but we were able to avoid those nasty modern white radiators. Why is white the default colour of modern appliances?) the house dried out nicely. It wasn’t all there, of course. Most of the original wallpaper had been painted over, but we are gradually replacing it with reproduction papers (we’ve tried sourcing the real thing, but someone with £ signs in their eyes beat us to it). There were these horrible white plastic boxes everywhere that switched on horrible white plastic lights all over the show. We’d been collecting porcelain light fittings for years, though, and it’s amazing how much bakelite you can find on ebay… there’s a fine line, of course, between liking old stuff (as I keep telling my father in law, it’s an aesthetic thing, a tactile thing, an emotional thing) and fetishizing the past. But I think we’re treading it – not in any refined way – and certainly not expensively – but with genuine, bona fide OLD stuff. We concede that we’re totally mad – my father in law, who grew up with grotty wallpaper, few mod cons, and bakelite undershirts, will never understand – but there was just something about this house that made us want to let it dictate how we would live in it, not the other way around. So, no fuss, no finesse, and certainly no shabby chic: we’re settling for shabby shabby! Somehow, I think we’ve gone one step further than JB…

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Where to begin?

Well, since this is intended as a way to help me think in more structured terms about my practise as a painter and printmaker (rather than just wandering in to my studio and forgetting the world), I’m going to start this blog with an introduction to my studio and its environs. I’ve always been drawn to artists who paint the way they see the world — with honesty and faithfulness to their own vision (in every sense). For that process to work, for me, my environment is paramount. In the second year of my degree my cohort was moved into a city-centre studio space – a great studio, but a long way from the countryside that has always been the source of my work: I paint organic things, forms, shapes, objects: I can’t live without green! I spent a miserable year weaving and knitting wooly hats – anything but painting; it made me realise one thing – that wherever I am, the space I work in, and the space around it will always be reflected in my work. In fact, in my ability to work.

So first, my studio.

I studied fine art at Bretton Hall (before it became part of the University of Leeds, who seem to have milked the beautiful Yorkshire Sculpture Park site for all they could get). Straight after leaving I acquired a very functional studio in Bingley, North Yorkshire. We lived on a narrowboat at the time and my husband was studying at the University of Leeds, so this suited us – it was big, cheap, and very very industrial. A far cry from YSP! After about a year, though, we were enticed to Holmfirth by the fabulous Debbie George, whose beautiful gallery Sanderson George and Peach was still open. We bought a place (literally) under the gallery and I rented a big, gorgeous studio from Bee. My husband’s job, though, brought us to Kent in 2004. In our first house we built a shed at the end of the garden, but then we moved to a ’20s house, virtually untouched by the modern predeliction for plastic (or central heating or fitted kitchens for that matter), and we built a wooden lean-to on the back of the house. After 18 months of squish, I finally booted hubbie out this year (he has a cubby-hole desk on the landing now, what more can he want?) and there you have it – this is ‘home’!

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I’ve always been a gardener and am deeply affected by what’s around me, so although the house is falling down around our ears (literally in some cases – our first meal here we sat listening as panes of glass fell out of the porch!) we have concentrated on the garden. I tend to grow things I like to paint and paint things I like to grow. Don’t be surprised if there are a number of future posts about the garden… and the house – they’ve both been such major projects!

So this is where we are: a village-like appendage to Deal, a seaside town in East Kent, with one foot still in the past. Those that know me know that I’ve been keeping a low profile in recent years due to ill health, but that’s changing now (hence this blog). I’m back painting, and am also making collage pieces and prints. I’ve started a little printing business called Pod Press with my friend Ruby Green and we’re making badges, lino-cut prints and cards, and are printing on fabric. There’ll be more posts about Pod Press in the future, but to see more of my recent work, visit my website: www.joaylward.co.uk

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