Inside van Gogh’s House

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend time in a room that was once inhabited by a famous artist? I’m not talking about a museum or a stately home, but about a private family home not normally open to the public. How atmospheric would it be? Would you feel the presence of that past inhabitant?

Vincent van Gogh aged around eighteen

Ramsgate was home to Vincent van Gogh in 1876, he was twenty-three and taught at a boys school located in Spencer Square. He, another master and four boys boarded at a house further round the square and it is his room, in this house that I was given the opportunity to style.

Vincent was a prolific letter writer – the letters were published some years ago – so the homeowner could pinpoint very easily from his own words which room had been his and I had a hunch that if we opened the room as a fundraiser and part of a wider event celebrating van Gogh being held in the square, people would be interested enough to want to see it.

The homeowner was really enthusiastic about bringing Vincent’s room to life and we spent quite a bit of time analysing his letters to decide what we needed to highlight and what we could downplay. As the room no longer has a fireplace and has modern fitted carpet, there were certain aspects of the bedroom that were definitely not true to period, so we had to work with those and create something that would enable people to see past the current family use and back to a time when the property was a boarding house for a boys school. There would have been no electricity, possibly gas lighting and possibly running water to the scullery in the lower ground floor. Each room would have been heated by a wood/coal fire. Other than the views described by Vincent in his letters from his window “looking over the rooftops,” that would have been it for creature comforts. His bed would probably have been narrow and the mattress thin. As he was a young man when he resided here, perhaps this didn’t matter and was just part of the experience. We know from his letters that, “these are happy times, these days in Ramsgate,” it’s nice to think that for someone so troubled by mental illness in his later life, for this time at least, he enjoyed where he was and what he was doing.

This is the first time this house has been open to the public and as I spent time quietly in Vincent’s old room, dusting picture frames and polishing glass, I felt a real sense of sadness that this great artist is remembered more for his turbulent life and ‘cutting off his ear,’ than for the relationships he had with those he held dear – and for the skill and knowledge he had of his medium.

Being in this room, Vincent’s personal space when he was just starting out; there are only two pen and wash drawings from his time in Ramsgate, made me feel that we’re doing him a huge disservice. As we all become so much more aware of the invisible pain of mental illness, I think it’s important to remember that van Gogh, like all suffers, was more complex and diverse than just the fragility of his mental state. His use of colour and the landscape around him was joyful and intense, he created what he saw from the inside of it, it wasn’t just a casual observation. He wanted to express the way those things – colour and subject – made him feel. The body of work he left behind is not just the product of a troubled mind, but of an analytical, technically gifted paint experimentalist.

To call him and the other modernist, impressionist and post-impressionist painters artists doesn’t acknowledge the way they pushed their medium to its limits. Only a couple of decades earlier, painting was about faithful representation; the skill of the artist was in creating the accurate likeness of the subject. That changed in the mid nineteenth century when artists wanted to express what they thought about the subject matter by making the texture of the paint part of the visual honesty of the painting. It was challenging to the viewer and it wasn’t immediately popular – but it opened people’s minds to the idea that paint is a component of art; it is not invisible and the way it is manipulated is a skill that should be celebrated in its own right.

Van Gogh more than celebrated his paint, he revelled in it. We can feel in his work the heat of the sun, the sparseness of the bedroom, the shade from the brim of his hat. It is this translation of feeling to canvas, the directional movement of his brushstrokes and the quality of his paint colour that makes his work universally recognisable and for that courage of purpose, we should remember him.

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The Make-Do Kitchen Makeover

As you know getting refurbishments done in a house that you live in takes time. And in my case with having to re-wire the house as part of that process, there is an order to the schedule that I can’t do much about. The kitchen, which is the last piece in the puzzle – and a space that annoys me intensely – is all about being patient. Which of course just adds to my annoyance!

So to refresh your memories, the kitchen is a melange of textured fake plaster on the walls, fake terracotta tiles on the floor, pale blue mosaic splash back, (which has the potential to be nice but because they’ve been really badly fitted, just isn’t) maple effect shaker style cabinets and fake black granite work surfaces. It’s a dated and challenging space because there is very little natural light, no heating and things are just falling apart a bit. Funnily enough this kitchen is the same one as I have at the flat in London – there, I ripped out the work surface, the flooring, the splash back and repainted the cabinets, which just goes to show you how quickly things age (it was only fitted ten years ago.)


This kitchen is in marginally better nick but it needs to last until I redo this area – which is the major part of the refurbs because it involves realigning floor levels, flattening the poxy little porch, excavating the ground to the rear to create the foundations and extending across the whole of the rear elevation to create a studio space for me to work in that will give a better connection to the garden and double as a spare bedroom. It will bring in more light and give the house a much more flexible lower ground floor. When we’re all at home we often have visitors and it’s the living space that gets hammered. Reconfiguring the kitchen/dining area will also create a space for an additional relaxation area. At the moment there is nowhere to play music (and as my son owns seven guitars, two synthesisers, a mandolin, a zither, a ukulele and a zazz (not sure of the spelling!) the lower ground floor would really be fantastic for that. But that is down the road a bit, not least because I’m studying right now.

The first part of the process was the messiest and I still have a bit more to do – stripping off the horrid textured fake plaster, you can see it above on the opening around the cooker… In some areas it was just a wallpaper but in others it was a plaster effect, so the stripping was pretty slow going, but oh my, the walls look so much better without their rough texture.

There was a lot of filling and sanding to do afterwards, which is really worth taking the time over because a smooth, flat wall updates a space so much. I have the contrast right now of walls that are smooth in the kitchen and walls that are still textured in the dining area and it is incredible to see how much more considered and calm the smooth walls look in comparison to the textured. They also bounce light around now which is much needed in this space.

It would be easy to assume that the texture would reflect light, especially because it is coated in a shiny paint finish, but it does the reverse. It draws attention to each ridge of plaster so the affect is one of shadow and imperfection – not of a surface that acts as a reflector. The walls have been painted Slaked Lime Mid, by Little Greene which is a soft dove grey. It’s a warm but fresh off white and in any other space I’d probably love it. In my wretched kitchen the lighting plays a big part. Grrr.

Next up was painting the cabinets and I went all around the houses with what colour I was going to go for. To unify the splash back with the rest of the scheme I initially thought I would go for a pale grey-blue. But then the floor would still be a complete contrast – and I did not want to draw attention to that! So I opted for a grey-white.

I also experimented with how I prepped the surfaces.

Rubbing alcohol! Who knew!

So easy, it removes all the airborne cooking grease immediately, no hard rubbing and no horrid fumes. This is the same stuff as used for massage and clinical tests (to clean the skin) so as I had some in the cupboard, I thought I’d give it a try. It worked a treat, what a revelation!

And I also experimented with spraying the unit doors and would say that you really need to put time into getting the consistency of the paint right. My mix was too thin. It went on beautifully and then slid straight off! The finish would have been lovely but in the end I opted for brush painting because I didn’t want to waste paint in experimenting with how much I needed to dilute it by.


It’s not been the quickest of jobs and to all my friends who have seen the kitchen without drawer frontals and in its two toned state, thanks for bearing with me, but I have to say it’s transformed the look of the room.



It’s certainly lifted the space and created a much lighter room, but with the very harsh lighting I have in the kitchen, the cabinets, painted in a colour that I usually love, (Strong White by Farrow and Ball) look flat and a bit clinical. Obviously when the end wall is finished this will give a different look to the overall room, but the two colours which on paper swatches (big A4 sized swatches) looked great together, don’t quite hold hands the way I thought they would. On the cabinets I used the acrylic eggshell finish and found it really nice to work with. It is a water soluble paint which actually has an oil base; the oil is water dispersible like bath oils, which makes it a little bit more robust. I’m hoping in a kitchen this will last the distance.

All I need to do now is get rid of that horrid fake crystal drop pendant fitting and update the light bulbs in a bid to make this space go the distance. Other wise I’ll end up repainting the walls and the cabinets in a never ending quest to find colours that work in the room when it’s the space that’s the problem and I just have to be patient until I can change it!

A Quick Cloakroom Update

The bathrooms and cloakrooms in this house clearly never got the love they should have done. Another small area that I haven’t photographed is the lower ground floor cloakroom. It didn’t even have a sink! I was shown the ‘room’ when I viewed the property but it was used for storage, so the fact that there was no sink wasn’t obvious until I got the keys. I assumed they’d taken it with them, bizarre – but if people can take light fittings and fridges, why not sinks? When my solicitor asked them to provide a replacement, they said that it had always been like that! So, no pictures of that room and for several months it has been the receptacle of step ladders and paint tins, but no more!

I bought a wall hung vanity and hand basin online and a tap to go with them for the princely sum of £93 and yesterday it was connected up! I wonder how long it’s been since that room was plumbed? If it’s never had a sink, then this means it’s the first time it’s actually been a proper cloakroom. In a house that is 152 years old (or thereabouts) it’s quite funny to think this is a first! I’m chuffed.

As with my ensuite this is essentially a temporary measure – but this will be in place for much longer as I won’t be doing the lower ground extension for another couple of years. It will be a complete reconfiguration involving both the kitchen and my studio, so I’m not able to take that on yet. I don’t have the funds right now and I’m also studying so my workspace is doing a double duty.
Because I do spend a lot of time at my desk, I want to enjoy being in the space – even if it’s a short term fix – so the walls in the kitchen and dining area are being stripped and this cloakroom update is a part of that process – getting things the way I want for right now.

Let’s be honest, I did not want to spend any money on it at all! But I didn’t have a mirror I could move from somewhere else in the house and with no sink or tap, there were things that had to be considered, so the online research was all about size, cost and style – the least offensive, the best price and the right size for a room that is 610mm x 1650mm. The lighting is harsh and as it is off the utility area, it isn’t what you’d call welcoming, but it is close to the kitchen and my desk – and the closest WC to the garden – so I wanted it to be functional. Another thing, because the pipework was capped off with gaffer tape, there were a few nasty niffs from that area which I didn’t care for! So, spending even a tiny amount to get rid of stench had to be considered a good thing.

The paint colours went through several incarnations. I had some pink that I’d bought for a different property and then *chickened out* decided not to use, so that was first put on the walls, I mean I had 2.5 litres. But, I didn’t like it here either, I think this colour just needs more natural light and both areas I’d tried to use it were lacking in that. Then in the process of finding a vanity I found one that was supposed to be black (of course it isn’t, it’s a dark wenge effect) so decided to embrace the idea of high contrast and realised I had, as always, several dozen tester posts in various off whites and earth tones. The tongue and grove paneling became an off black and the wenge effect vanity and oak mirror add a little warmth to the deep tone. I got out the spirit level and measured a random grid on the walls and then just brushed each patch on in a different colour. The lines aren’t completely straight but nothing in this house is, so I decided to embrace that too.

What I’ve ended up with is a cloakroom with character, that I managed to pull together for about £150. It won’t look anything like this when the reconfiguration is done, but spending a small amount to make a space functional over the next two years or so, is money that has improved an area that wasn’t usable before. I could have ignored it completely but the idea of nasty smells just wafting out from time to time didn’t thrill me either. On balance it’s one small improvement that actually pleases me a lot.

A Small Room Reveal

On the top floor of my house there are three bedrooms; the two belonging to the children and a tiny single room that I thought they could use as a study – the room with the mango custard floor. It was relined at the same time as the children’s rooms were redecorated and rewired, so technically it is finished.

lined and rewired

preparing the walls

Except that I couldn’t decide how I wanted to decorate it. Other than painting the walls an off white, I hand’t given it much thought! Except for getting rid of the mango custard floor, of course. You will have heard designers say this before “it’s really hard being the client,” there’s so much choice and I can be decisive for my clients in a way that I can’t be for myself. So the decision making process has been slow for this little room. That and the fact that I didn’t really want to spend any real money on it. Then we had a string of guests and needed an extra bed, so a sofa chair was purchased to be housed in the little room. The desk that had been in my daughters room at the previous house also needed a home, so that too is in the little room. Then we needed some shelving (thank heavens for the summer sales) and all of a sudden this little space was getting dangerously close to becoming the unwanted objects corner.

A decision had to be made because the more stuff going in there meant the less space to manoeuvre when the decorating was finally planned. So while the children were on holiday I moved everything out into their bedrooms and got cracking.

My guilty pleasure over the summer of house moving and unpacking has been a programme called ‘Escape to the Chateau.’ Oh how I love Angel’s decorative style – and it got me thinking, I’d thought of doing something very similar to one of her schemes, but had never had the right space to do it in…

Enter the box of wallpaper samples.

Over the years I’ve amassed hundreds of wallpaper samples for clients and the rejected ones all ended up back in my studio. In the moving process I had gotten rid of quite a few samples that I knew I would never use (dated, not to my taste and probably discontinued by now anyway) but none-the-less there was a sizeable collection of many different colours and patterns. I started sifting through and found that I could gather a collection of blue/grey samples that was a good start to a feature wall. I calculated that the wall was twelve samples wide and seven samples high, but here’s the annoying thing, they’re not all the same size, even a standard A4 varies from one supplier to another. Was I going to cut each one so it was exact? Groan.

As I pondered this I realised that the walls weren’t in any way regular; neither the ceiling nor the floor were level, so I decided I would just go with it… and cover up any messy joins if I needed to.

The tools I used were a cutting mat and Stanley knife, wallpaper paste and a brush, a damp sponge and a printing roller to smooth out any air bubbles. I also used a spirit level to set my plumb line and I did this one column into the wall. I decided not to start in the middle because of the varying sizes of the samples and felt that there was enough going on for it not to look anything other than a part of the design to have a narrower column at the window end. This will also be covered by a curtain in time, so I really didn’t focus on that the way a professional decorator would have done.

I pasted each sample individually and worked two at a time so that one was softening while the other was being put up. The paste allows for quite a bit of repositioning and straightening, so any real unevenness could be moved gently. I then sponged each piece to get it smooth and rollered from the centre out to remove air bubbles. There were some joins that were really off which I could do nothing about, so I cut out flowers from other scraps I had kept and used those to cover the gaps.

It’s a very bold wall. But now this tiny room has an identity and is the patchwork room, it’s a bit of a time capsule too because papers that we’ve used in other homes are also on this wall and various childhood books and some toys have also found their way in there. The colours have been the unifying link and that’s fun as well, because I’ve popped in to find that the children have added a few things to the space. The curtain will finish it in the same faded blues and greys – but I have to get out the sewing machine yet!

Glass – The Great Divider

Ask anyone about what they think of glass used as a material or finish and you will get very divided opinions – traditionalists consider it too modern; modernists too minimal and up-cyclers too clean. It’s never going to tick every box but I think we can agree that one thing glass does fantastically is let light in. Earlier in the year I mentioned clients who I had ‘talked into’ putting a wall back in their downstairs living space, which had been carved up by an architect some 17 years ago and was now not meeting the family needs.

I persuaded them that a glass wall would allow the space to have an element of privacy as well as maintaining a connection throughout – it would allow the space to function as three independent areas while still being linked visually by the wall itself. Happily they loved the idea and we reconfigured the entire downstairs – moving the kitchen to the rear and creating two reception areas to the middle and front which the glass wall would enclose. The tv snug is the central space which takes advantage of the lower light levels and it is this area that is formed by the glass wall – but it the front room into the bay window that has really been transformed. Previously the kitchen, this space is now a grown up and relaxed place to sit and read or chat. It’s taken back a sense of the grandeur of the architecture (very high ceilings) without any of the stuffiness that some Victorian buildings seem to possess.

What it’s also done is allow us to re introduce the stairs – which had been consigned to a ‘coal chute’ by the architect in favour of over sized doors. It was so interesting to see how they used the space before the wall went back in – the middle area was the dining room and the furniture was against the wall, the kitchen was to the front with the units against the walls. The space was incredibly limited in what it could do and the architect had only added to this; the ‘space’ was only used for movement. And here’s the thing, if a building is already tall emphasising this will make the rooms feel narrow; when people walk through a space like this they follow pathways – even if there isn’t one – they don’t venture into the space because the height is telling them that it’s not generous enough for them to walk wherever they want.

People don’t trust space that they don’t understand. Weird but true – I’ve put walls back in before because the space (another downstairs) had been opened up completely and no-one ever used the middle of the room (the junction point between the original rooms) – ever. Just putting back in the piers where the walls ended and creating an opening with a column effect gave the entire downstairs a sense of structure and all of a sudden the space became more relaxed; it felt like it could breathe again.

With putting the glass wall in, the rooms now get walked into and around because the furniture is arranged across the space and not just along the walls. This makes the space more visually interesting and also more flexible – there are now two seating areas as well as the kitchen-diner. Nothing feels cramped but there is definitely more furniture in the space than there was before.

The interesting thing for me as a designer is how this space will look in 10-15 years time. Might they feel then that a solid wall would be more practical? It’s possible – and because of the way it’s been constructed, they could certainly do that, if they wanted. But think about glass internal walls in office spaces or hotels. It’s that element of curiosity that makes them interesting, the fact that you can glimpse what is happening 5 or 10 metres away adds a drama to an otherwise blank canvas. And so it is here, because the wall is also a window it both contains and disappears. Best of all, with the lights on, the furniture glows and the space looks a bit like a jewel box – or a glass bauble. Your every day solid wall doesn’t do that. So I’m willing to bet that because the wall is glass, it’ll still be looking good.

From This – To This

After much hard work I can finally reveal the transformation that has undergone the flat I purchased in June. I’m thrilled – but it wasn’t without its stresses – I have learned many lessons as ‘the client!’

If anything progress was made more difficult by not having a buffer between client (me) and contractor. Reflecting on the process has given me a totally different understanding of my role as designer. I find it quite straightforward to be decisive for clients; for myself, not so much; the agony of not having quite finalised something and knowing that my indecision could potentially hold up the workforce. I never do that for a client!

When I viewed the flat and decided to buy it, it was a bland and ‘generic’ space; lots of cream and beige, very inoffensive (such a damning word!) What that really means is whoever did the initial design for the space sucked all of the individuality out of it and turned each flat in the block into an identikit replica. I genuinely believe that it is possible to create a space with personality without a high price tag, so this mass-produced look is one that feels like the designer has lost interest and isn’t actually invested in giving the end users an interior that a) looks good and b) functions well. All of the finishes were low cost – and after ten years looked a bit rough around the edges. It was light and spacious though and that was the element that sold it to me – as well as the location very close to the river and the sense of tranquility in an area that is quite heavily trafficked.

looking toward the front room

What I wanted for the flat was a look that had personality and warmth, I wanted to add more individuality and to create a space that related to a more design led aesthetic. I earmarked the ‘big ticket’ items (flooring, appliances, carpet and work surface) and decided to use finishes that would age well, I want to see if in ten years time the place still has a more considered feel to it. I don’t mind if the floor is a little scuffed and the carpet a little scruffy … in some spaces it is this lived in feel that adds to the success of the design. And this is my challenge to myself, how will the flat look when it’s been used for ten years?

So, what’s been the biggest lesson? A bespoke finish isn’t going to be quick, so I was unrealistic to think it would be achieved on a short refurb schedule.

I specced a herringbone wood floor – it took two weeks to fit. I specced hexagonal tiles for the bathroom – it took six days to tile two walls ( a space 1.70cm x 1.90cm!) Each straight edge (into the corners and trim) had to be cut, that was 200 cuts which took almost a full day. I specced black tap-ware for the bathroom and kitchen and due to changing specs I couldn’t get them without ordering from Italy and waiting for their summer hols to end, so no plumbing until the beginning of September. Needless to say the tap-ware isn’t black.

I got really frustrated with myself at having to have fall back options for the fall back options (the work surface is plan d!) and that meant the work force were critical of my choices – not that it was any of their business, but it dented my confidence – for a client they would never have questioned it. I discovered that the bedrooms were longer than the largest size of carpet (a 5 metre width) and so had to order nearly double the amount to finish them. I looked at ordering more wood herringbone but in terms of cost there was no saving and that would have added another ten days to the fitting dates (so additional labour costs) – the carpet went down in an hour and a half.

The most stressful part of the process was doing a job I don’t normally do and measuring the space for the tiles. Needless to say I miscalculated (in the teeny tiny bathroom) and ended up short – the handbasin wall short to be precise. I went back to the supplier to find that the whole shipment had gone to a developer and they weren’t getting more stock until September. ARGH. NO No no. The suppliers were amazing and tried to track down an alternative (which wasn’t quite the same colour white) and we had about a square metre to finish on one wall that would stand out like a sore thumb. I sent them a photo and effectively begged them to check the warehouse…THEN miraculously they found enough to finish our job just lurking somewhere in the back of their football stadium sized warehouse. What? The week before they had nothing left. How does that happen?? That was an awful week.

The thing I have learned from this as a designer is that it’s the build process that absorbs the lead times of the order schedule. We weren’t doing any building works, so there was no buffer between ordering and delivery. They guys needed everything on site immediately and for the most part we had an easy time with the delivery process, but some things we just didn’t allow for. The work surface for example. I was going to use a quartz (plan a) but the cost was way more than I expected (and I spec this for clients frequently) so we looked at Corian (plan b) and the colours weren’t what I wanted, so I looked at an acrylic surface (plan c) and found that as supply only it was more than the quartz when we factored in the labour costs. So I ended up settling – very halfheartedly – for a laminate. I have never specced laminate in my entire career as an interior designer. Who knew what a steep learning curve that would be! The width we needed wasn’t standard and it had to be ordered in. It took two weeks, which meant that the kitchen was the last room to be done; we had no running water for about four weeks, just a bucket under a stopcock. Joyous!

But it’s all over now and the place is being marketed for tenants. I’m also going to list it on Airbnb – let me know if you’d like to stay sometime!

Simple Structures

There’s something so charming about miniatures and scaled down versions of everyday domestic products. I can’t say why I’m drawn to them but even something as simple as a miniature bottle will have me cooing, so I’ve got a bit of a confession, I have a thing for cottages.

While I recognise that I would quickly run out of space in a traditional farmhouse cottage, I just love that simple pentagon shape that kids draw when they’re asked what their house looks like. Of course, most houses don’t look remotely like that especially in the UK where much of the built environment is terraced and long rows of residential properties share walls with their neighbours. Nonetheless, we all know what that square with the triangle on top means – home – shelter and privacy; a refuge, a haven.

It is this same simple shape that gives agricultural buildings their reference point, pared back and stripped of any detail they make quite a statement of their silhouette. Picture the skyline with a stark building rising above it, projected against the setting sun. See what I mean? These simple shapes are powerful.

While on holiday recently in New Zealand I was really smitten with a number of homes that have taken their design references from their agricultural neighbours. The scale was modest and the rooflines key to the overall impact, but what these buildings achieved was the relationship between the surrounding countryside and the simple proportions of a cottage. I was charmed. And I took lots of pictures.

Set within an orcharding area in Hawkes Bay, this is a permanent residence and the building has more solidity with its pebble dashed walls than the other images. What they all have in common though is the honestly of the architecture; uncluttered shapes, simply expressed.

This is the only two storey example, but what I like so much about this one is the relationship between the roof lines and the way the materials chosen create areas of contrast.

These are both waterfront properties on the edge of Lake Taupo (and available for rent through bookabach.co.nz) I’ve walked past these properties so many times and have either not had a camera with me or been pushed for time, so it’s actually the first time I’ve ever seen the second place with its front gate open. To have so much privacy on what is often a very busy walk way – and then to reveal the view when they open it – the best of both worlds.

The modernity of these two is what appeals; the colour and the choice of materials is a very conscious expression of the architecture, considering steel and concrete are more often in the supporting role; (literally) here they take on a feature element.

Again a waterfront property in Lake Taupo, this cottage is built up to a retaining wall. From the other side, you have no idea that a building is tucked in below.

Where the view is undeniably the key ingredient, what I see with these homes is a connection between the past and the type of buildings that were used on a lakefront – boat sheds – the sister of agricultural buildings. They sit happily on the shoreline and ‘mind their own business.’ They don’t try and compete or relate to the landscape, what they do is offer the view as the focal point – they are there because of the location. Even more, they serve the age old purpose of providing shelter in a way that connects the past activities of buildings along the shoreline with moderns needs. Timeless.

Creepy Crawlies

Happy All Hallows Day! I was ready to post yesterday and the trick and treating started earlier than I thought!

halloween decs

With the day falling on a Monday this year, it seems that the weekend has been full of ghosts and ghouls – I certainly spotted plenty of great costumes and makeup in town on Saturday night. Last year we had a party and managed to make Halloween last for a number of days, this year I’m content to just open the door to trick or treaters. Our pumpkins are carved and the decorations have just been flung about, the sweets have been purchased and the bowl is waiting to be filled. All set!

halloween

We even have some truly marvellous cobwebs hanging in the hall – and not the manmade kind. In this house the ceilings are so high that removing them involves a ladder and long handled duster. Does that even seem like something I want to do on a regular basis?? No it does not. But of course after the decorations come down, I’ll have the excuse of ‘clearing up after Halloween…’ So why are there so many spiders in the house at this time the year, anyway?

Apparently it’s spider breeding season.

I did not know this, but it certainly explains why there is always a sudden increase of spydies (so called in my house) at this time of the year. It seems that the influx of late summer flies (and we had a few of those this year) entice the spiders to come indoors – nice rich food supply just waiting for their attention. And that of course is the perfect situation for breeding. Hmm, I’m starting to feel that my inattention to house work might even be contributing to this situation – they must love it here! And yes, one of the ways that the spider population can be controlled is by removing dead insects quickly. Oh dear, that’s me at the bottom of the class then.

aragog

I’m consoling myself with the fact that I don’t hate spiders, so cleaning up their food source isn’t such an obsession as cleaning up crumbs and foods that might attract mice – which I really do hate! In fact, aren’t spiders supposed to be good for the house?? Isn’t a house with spiders in residence supposed to be a healthy house? I’m sure that spiders are considered to be good luck too and so it seems – in European folklore seeing a spider in the afternoon is a good omen and you are supposed to receive a gift soon. The superstitions seem even more fitting at this time of year because the ancient Greeks and Norsemen believed that spiders connected the past with the future and at Halloween the division between the physical and spirit planes feels very slight. Does this make us more susceptible to superstition? It’s possible, especially when you come across an old English nursery rhyme that states, “If you want to live and thrive, let a spider run alive.” Hey, I even fish them out of the bathtub!

luminous spider

The interesting thing is that at Halloween we use siders webs to create a barrier; they’re the embodiment of our ideas of the spooky, undisturbed house. Something that is more the realm of the spirit than the living, which is a very literal interpretation of what a web does – traps its prey and immobilises it. Folklore is kinder, focusing on luck and fortune and the transition from one plane to another.

lanterns

There is also a group of spiders (Linyphiidae) called money spiders. They are tiny in size and it is said if one climbs over you, it is spinning you a new set of clothes that will introduce you to a more wealthy lifestyle! I remember my grandmother talking about money spiders when I was small, but I guess their magic takes quite some time to work – I’m still waiting for this new wealthier lifestyle.

cobwebs

The Search Continues

I did what you all said you would do. I walked away. There was no point where the sellers and I seemed to be able to agree – they really didn’t understand that they would no longer be the landlords of the shops and as such that their concerns were not the priority. And I had to concede that I just didn’t have the experience to take on a property with complicated commercial leases. Anyway, all gone now. The place is back on the market, wonder what will happen next time round? I guess that’s not my problem! Time to start looking again…

lordship lane

When you walk around your neighbourhood, what do you see? Do you notice front gardens; front doors; gates; trees? Colours? A friend of mine really loves street art. She regularly posts pictures on Pinterest or Facebook and as she’s a secondary school art teacher, I’m guessing this search becomes resource material for her students. Street Art is a controversial thing. There are still people who prefer a wall to be a wall and because its a wall, it should be well, blank. But here’s the thing, you adorn your walls inside your home, don’t you? And when you see a blank page, its almost irresistible to not make a mark on it. Same with blank walls – and they’re cheaper than buying canvas or artist’s paper. People have been doing it for quite some time…

sign writing

Yes, I agree, there’s nothing that pretty about squiggles of black spray paint but when someone has taken the time to plan a mural and has executed it with style – well the sheer scale takes it from being a picture to something monumental. At the very least it becomes a landmark – and we all still use them regardless of how often the mapping on our phones comes out. I’d rather navigate by art than by supermarkets or service stations!

queenie

My new area has a lot of good art. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that there’s an Art Gallery in the neighbouring village, or it could simply be that this area has a bit of a vibe anyway – it’s the louder, younger sibling to the genteel village; smaller, punchier, livelier. Lots of pubs and cafes serving good food and three big (in size and in league table standing) independent schools all judging each other by the cut of their uniform.

north cross road

Maybe people are too busy to notice the walls they walk by, but I defy you not to smile when you look at HRH ‘walking’ the corgis. Regardless of whether you like it or not, it inspires a response. And that is what artists over the centuries have been wanting to achieve with their work. A Street Artist is no less interested in the viewer just because the work is outside. And it’s quite likely that their work will have a much shorter lifespan than something in a frame and hung indoors, so their choice of subject matter is a point of curiosity, but funnily enough the rest of the local street art doesn’t appear to be topical, there is no theme; it crosses generations in content and execution. There is a mix of colour and monochrome. Some are on shops, others on hoardings. Their only commonality is their location – and my sense of joy at having spotted them.

frogley road

goodrich road

And that I think is important, in spotting something unexpected the viewer experiences a shift in focus; a distraction, is diverted. You may simply be going about your business and bam a whacking great piece of art is right in front of you. Yes, you could be too immersed in your phone to notice but if you weren’t, that surprise discovery would take you out of yourself for a moment. It would give you pause and direct your focus away from whatever was preoccupying you. You would be in the moment, connected to something unexpected in exactly the same place as you. And that focus outside of your problems and concerns – for just a moment – is like drawing air deep into your lungs, reviving and realigning your body and soul.

Mrs Robinson

For the artist this work has probably taken thought, planning, preparation maybe even research. But for the viewer, it is just there same as you. I saw something on Facebook recently about meditation techniques, in our busy world even slowing our breathing for 20 seconds reduces stress levels, so taking the time to notice the little things and to put aside our concerns for the smallest amount of time can have a positive impact. If just looking around and noticing your environment changes your focus for a moment, then the artists are achieving something great in modern day reality – and that would give street art as much relevance as the works of the Great Masters.

the lordship

We Need to Put Some Love In

For those of you who get my Facebook feed, you’ll know I had a holiday in Italy earlier this summer. Verona, to be precise and it was wonderful – I already want to go again. We visited Venice too and although I posted a few pictures I didn’t tell you the whole story – about how shocked I was to see how run down the city is, about how heartbroken I felt to see this gem crumbling before my eyes. I was last there 25 years ago and it has held a special place in my heart ever since. So much so that I wanted to go there for my birthday last year – I’m so pleased I didn’t, it would have ruined my day.

We’ve all heard the stories about ‘how Venice is sinking’ and yes it is, a couple of millimetres per year. But that isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the buildings crumbling from the rooftops down.

Campo San Polo

Plaster falling off walls, lintels cracking and exposed brickwork being left to the punishment of the elements. We all know how harsh sea air can be – salt water carried at high speed by gale force winds will have the same effect as a jet wash or a water canon. This is a city at risk from the elements but rising tides aren’t the only story, the neglect in areas that don’t face the sea is almost more pronounced.

Venice pathway

Venetian piazza

And where are the people? Where are the homeowners, the live blood of the city? Is it all just for tourists? My heart breaks; how can this wonderful, charming, seductive city have become a ghost town? Our hosts in Verona asked how we had enjoyed our day in Venice and I blurted out how shocked I was. Their reply, though understandable, doesn’t make it right: the taxes are so high no-one can afford to live there, the people who do buy homes there only come for holidays and do nothing to maintain the building the rest of the year, the politicians can’t agree on which action to take and because they want to be popular with the voters, they choose to do nothing, the city is so full of tourists that to get any work done is difficult because everything has to come in and out by barge – and it costs too much, so it becomes mired in apathy. And the clincher, Italy has so many World Heritage Sites that all need to be maintained, how can you choose which ones get the money? Oh my God. There was nothing I could say.

Venice canal

I spoke to another Italian friend who lives in England and he was of the opinion that in true Italian fashion, the minute it looks like Venice will fall into to the sea, it will be saved. A bit of drama and a bit of attention, whipped up to a frenzy and it’ll all be fixed. But why does it have to get to that stage before anything will be done? The tourist areas in Venice are hell, congestion has a totally different meaning there, the alleys leading to the main Piazzas are so crowded, you’re literally queuing to get into the squares, there are bins of overflowing rubbish and the canals can be smelly, drainage is obviously an issue. And don’t even try to use the mapping on your phone – too many people, too many buildings. But these areas – San Marco, La Fenice do get funding and have been restored beautifully. At the moment the Rialto Bridge is undergoing a facelift of the most comprehensive kind. But it’s not enough, for a city to have a soul – and to be cared for – people need to live there. Their identity and lifestyle need to resonate with the tempo of their community. Without that neglect happens, decay sets in, apathy becomes a state of mind and history is allowed to crumble – just fall into the sea.

Venice canal 2

I’ve done a bit of reading since I got home and there have been huge building programmes to create sea defences that will control the winter tides following the same principles as the Thames barriers. It was all supposed to go live last year – but then the Chief Executive was found to have his fingers in the pot and was prosecuted. The programme came to a halt and I don’t know if it was ever finished. As the article says, at a cost of 5.4bn Euros, it has to be finished!

Grand Canal

But what about the architecture? If the foundations can be saved with the sea defences – when they actually do get finished – who is going to give the residential buildings of the city a second chance? Who is going to encourage inhabitants to come back and make their homes in Venice once again? It isn’t a theme park but unless the tides turn, Venice runs the risk of being shut permanently and not just for the winter.

Grand Canal 2