As I may have mentioned several thousand times, I used to work at House & Garden. I think a therapist would say I mention it so much to try and give Tat some legitimacy (is it working?). Apart from that, the other reason is - I adore the place and have huge admiration for those who work there. One of the said people is the Decoration Editor, Ruth Sleightholme, who I spent most of my time sitting across from, either laughing or being blown away by her encyclopedic knowledge and effortless style. With those two things at the ready, how could I not ask her to roll up her sleeves and let us in what inspires and delights her?
Being mostly in possession of exhibition posters and jolly prints - for financial reasons - the only pieces of ‘proper’ art I own are three white moths, scaled up and etched out in feathery, translucent detail on inky grounds. These are mezzotints by the artist Sarah Gillespie, whose work I first saw at an exhibition on Maddox Street. The exhibition I saw then was all barely-lit scenes of winter trees and swan silhouettes reflected into water. They look a bit like Norman Ackroyd prints. What sealed the deal for me is being told about the mezzotint process - every minute detail being hand-carved into a copper sheet, working in reverse of the print that will eventually come out. It’s a process so delicate that only about 20 editions can be made before the detail on the original copper plate wears out, and the reproductions have to cease. This series on moths is an ode to the dozens of species of the British moth - in their amazing variety - that are currently experiencing a depopulation catastrophe.
The Unsophisticated Arts by Barbara Jones
One of my favourite books, to which I return with regular joy, is The Unsophisticated Arts by Barbara Jones. Written in the 1940s, at a time when British artists were particularly interested in folk traditions, Jones travelled the country looking for visual traditions which, whilst largely unnoticed, formed our everyday decorative backcloth. She talks about the wealth of imagery in tattoo parlours, the jingling displays of plates crammed inside of painted barges, and even the presentation of meat in butcher’s shop. Her illustrations are gorgeous - I particularly love a compare-and-contrast between a fine and a crude fairground horse. One thing I love is where the book sits in history: Jones describes certain visual traditions from her parent’s generation - calligraphic funeral invitations on elaborately pierced card, or parades of black horses with feather plumes - which seem to us so distinctly Victorian. They were fast disappearing by the 1940s, and so were sought out for posterity by artists like Jones.
A few years ago, at London Design Fair, an exhibitor called Ilex Studio kindly gave me a little bud vase with a very narrow neck to take home. This is an Acorn vase, including within it steps as how to grow your own acorn. It took me a few years to remember to pick up some acorns at the right time (September is a particularly busy month for me!) but this year I finally did. I gathered the little guys - I had to get them from where they had fallen onto a wall as anything on the ground had quickly been gobbled by anything on four legs - from under one of the two big oak trees that grow on my Dad’s farm. I took the bag of acorns home with me and now have a teeny tiny oak seedling growing in my London kitchen. There is something so romantic about growing an oak. The leaves look so beautiful and everyone is amazed to see a little acorn growing on an East London terrace. They grow so slowly that I won't have to worry about their size for years, but when I do, I am thinking about returning it to the farm to live out its long days there. With any luck (and with some improvements to my ministrations!) it will long outlive me.
Someone once told me that they try their best to look anywhere else for inspiration, except in their line of work. This person is a furniture designer and said they look at artists, architects, single-cell organisms - but not furniture designers contemporary to them. You only end up worrying whether you ought to be doing what they are doing; or if you already are, you worry that maybe you shouldn’t. I followed their advice, and now actively try not to look at the work of other interior stylists working now. So one of my favourite Instagram accounts to be inspired by, and an example of such cross-pollination is - a hairdressing magazine! Infringe magazine, whose small-run, super thick and pricey, a physical magazine I have never actually seen IRL, has an amazing Instagram account. It is full of rich, energetic imagery that is so diverse and clever I can explore their feed for hours. And I honestly don’t think I have ever said that about an Instagram feed, present blog excepted!!
I really like a nice cinema experience and for me the smaller, quieter, and geekier the better. I basically like a cinema where you can buy your ticket, sit down with a glass of red wine, and then when the film is about to start, the usher can mere say to the room, ‘the film is about to start’, and off you trot - not thinking about which screen (or much less, floor) you have to track down.
I think the Regent Street Cinema is one of central London’s best kept secrets. It is just by Oxford Circus, originally part of the Royal Polytechnical Institution and now The University of Westminster, and was reopened only a few years ago after a fundraising campaign. It has a good bar, and shows good films: usually one mainstream blockbuster amongst the indies and reissues. My East London cinema vote goes to The Castle Cinema in Homerton for the same reasons of comfort, booze, friendliness and charm.
I really like the knowledge that I have a few favourite ‘things’ scattered around London that visit from time to time, or point to companions as I am passing. A friend of mine pointed out to me a drain-pipe in the shape of a dragon on Grafton Street, which I sometimes take a slight detour to say ‘hello’ to. If ever I have friends staying who want to visit the British Museum, I see it as an opportunity to go and pay my dues to the Gut-skin Parka on the ground floor. It is a waterproof coat, almost entirely see-through, made by Arctic peoples out of the prepared guts of a seal. I love the ingenuity of that, and like to imagine the effectiveness of the coat. But also, its translucency means that you can see every delicately turned and stitched hem, many of which are decorated with little tags of red leather - and there are a lot of hems on a coat made of guts!
Alexis Hartman of Lake August has to be one of my favourite pattern designers practicing now. I love her fabrics and wallpapers (sold through Fabric Collective) for a few reasons: the confident, modern gutsiness of her floral designs - I particularly like her sunflowers, daisies and nasturtiums, and the joyful, cool, and never fey or saccharin colourways she goes for. But of all I love the way in which designs like her already-a-classic Nasturtium pattern rambles across the wall, leaving plenty of space so that you can fill a room with it without feeling as if you are hemmed in by a relentlessly repeating pattern.
The best, best thing about our national museums is the fact that - with free entry and permanent collections - there is no pressure to make a big deal out of it. With half an hour to kill you can just roam in, enjoy the general atmosphere without paying much attention. I am always drawn to ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ by Joseph Wright of Derby. I sort of know it isn’t the greatest painting in the world, but feel immensely familiar with it for some reason - I think we must have had a postcard of it in the house when I was little. I love it for its light, glowing onto the faces of the viewers, with all their mixed reactions. And I love how it captures a moment in time, the moment where people started to understand the oxygen that we breathe. The symbolism of the light in the darkness is fairly obvious, but I love its atmosphere, much as I like comparing the reactions on the faces of the audience, all gripped by the agonised figure of the bird at the centre.
Penkridge Ceramics make amazingly realistic fruit and vegetable sculptures, which are also totally charming. They are two British ceramicists based in Walsall, and I think they fly under the radar somewhat, despite being the best in the business when it comes to lifelike finishes. Their ceramic ornamental gourds and squashes are gorgeous, but the crowning glory is their collection of horse chestnuts, which look like they have just burst open, revealing shiny, removable ceramic seeds. If your tastes are too classy and minimal to enjoy this level of realism, their ‘monochrome’ collection of black and white ceramic fruit and vegetables are most chic, too.
Full disclosure on the plug here: Sarah Venus is my step-mum! But she is definitely more of an artist than a saleswoman and her talents are chronically undersold. So, when the momentous news that my boss and mentor, Gabby Deeming, was leaving House & Garden and needed a properly good leaving present, I was fairly stumped. But I knew that her favourite ceramicist was John Julian, and I wondered whether we could commission a special set of ceramics for her. Sarah is a linocut artist and a print maker with a particularly decorative feel, and a talent for quiet observation. I introduced them and asked whether they would both consider a special commission. They did consider it, and what was born was not only a one-off set for Gabby but a small collection of exquisite ceramics, featuring Sarah’s linocut illustrations on John’s elegant ceramic shapes. I am usually too shy for such introduction-alchemy (and I envy it in others), so I am so proud that I linked this pair of artists together to create such a lovely thing.