Monday, 30 November -0001

The fabric of life

Vanessa Arbuthnott’s cheerful designs from a bygone age reflect her love of the countryside and the values of the local artistic community. The Lady drops in

Written by Hugh St Clair

The furnishing fabrics of Vanessa Arbuthnott evoke a country idyll, where decorative hens peck the ground outside a medieval Cotswold barn, sheep graze peacefully across a wild-flower meadow and a cheeky dairymaid sits on her stool milking a cow. Vanessa’s images of cow parsley, dandelions, butterflies, acorns and chickens printed on linen, oilcloth and wallpaper, in colours described as Duck Egg, Damson and Rabbit, have been a huge success.

But Vanessa, who is now in her 50s with four adult children, came to fabric design rather late. As a child she says she was quite good at making things but that, as a girl, she never harboured a desire to be an artist or a textile designer.

Having trained as a nurse, she first became a teacher in West London but, in 1984, while she was flicking through Country Life magazine, she saw a dilapidated Victorian house in the Cotswolds that was coming up for auction – and her life changed.

House-Jun29-02-590Clockwise from left: the pumpkin tone mixed with duck-egg blue adds warmth to the kitchen; Vanessa Arbuthnott; nature is a key theme in her designs

‘We were curious,’ Vanessa says, ‘and my architect husband Nick borrowed a suit to attend the auction and told me – I was still scruffily attired in denim and expecting our first child – to pretend we weren’t together. We bought the place, decamped to this wreck and started work.’

Nick commuted to London for the next eight years while Vanessa took a part-time course at Stroud Art College. But in 1992, the family sold the house and moved to their present barn and outbuildings. ‘We renovated that too and, in order to pay our debt, we wrote to location scouts to see if they were interested in the project,’ Vanessa continues.

‘We were lucky as lots of magazines wanted to use our house for photo shoots. Then one day, a magazine stylist saw my little folder of fabrics I had hand-coloured and hand-printed on the children’s ping-pong table and said they would write about them. I was therefore forced to get a fabric collection together in three months before the article was published, working at it after the children were in bed.’

House-Jun29-03-590The fabric for the blind is Ground Spinach; the chairs, Life and Eternity Ground Spinach

Today, the business is no longer run from a games table – in fact, Vanessa has eight sta„ and nine fabric and wallpaper collections. ‘The latest designs are in stronger colours than I’ve used previously, as I was in… uenced by Lucienne Day, the 1950s designer.’

The barn has now become her oŠffice and is …flanked by converted animal byres. Vanessa and her family live in one side while the other is accommodation for six artists and a studio. Outside, ducks waddle around keeping out of the way of two cats and a whippet. ‘Because of limited funds, most of the furnishings came from salvage yards and local auction houses,’ says Vanessa.

‘The bathrooms, with their tongue-and-groove panelling, all have vintage basins and taps. And the painted shelving used downstairs came from the Ministry of Defence when it was having its oŠ ces completely refurbished.’

During a trip to France, the couple saw some huge windows in an out-of-town DIY centre, and brought them back to the UK in the back of the family estate. Many of the other pieces were bought from Gloucestershire auction houses.

House-Jun29-04-590Headboard fabric: Botanical Trellis. Armchair fabric: Cockerel and Spot

The artists who now live in the converted accommodation, get free studio space and housing in return for giving four teaching sessions a week to adults with learning diŠ culties; children excluded from school, and recovering adult addicts – all from the local area. They are also required to make one meal a week each, which they eat communally in Vanessa’s beautiful kitchen. This is painted a soft cream with Roman blinds made in one of Vanessa’s fabrics – a red check and a chicken-patterned design. There’s an Aga of course, but it is an electric model. The worktops are made in marble from a stonemason, and in slate rescued from an old billiard table.

‘I am really grateful the fabrics have been a success but I have never liked working in isolation,’ says Vanessa. ‘Now, having the artists, living here and helping me in the studio, I’ve š nally got what I really love – an artistic community.’ 

From the Swedish Collection by Vanessa Arbuthnott, The Tallet, Calmsden, Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 5ET: 01285-831437,

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