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Required Reading: An Artist Couple’s Hauntingly Beautiful Quarters, Courtesy of ‘Perfect English Townhouse’

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Required Reading: An Artist Couple’s Hauntingly Beautiful Quarters, Courtesy of ‘Perfect English Townhouse’

October 23, 2018

To create his moody, nature-inspired paintings, David Campbell uses a witch’s cauldron of materials, including wood ash, beeswax, iron oxide, and rabbit skin glue. So it makes sense that he would care—a lot—about the surfaces in his own house. He and his wife, Anita Evagora, a hat designer-turned-ceramic artist (the two met as students at London’s Royal College of Art), live in a Victorian townhouse in York stripped down to its bare and scarred plaster walls. They moved to the northern English city from London when their two now-grown children were young. The 1850s townhouse happened to be close to their kids’ Quaker school, so when the owner surprised them by accepting their unrealistically low offer—”the vendor turned out to be in a hurry to sell”—they bought themselves a live-in project, one that continues even now, 16 years on.

Last spring, I was in the area visiting my friend Laura Jones—see Kitchen of the Week: A ‘Dreamiest Dream Kitchen’—when she mentioned having just taken part in York’s annual Open Studios event and discovered a house I had to see. That afternoon, David and Anita greeted us in their front parlor, which is used as David’s studio. The fact that the most public room is the workshop seemed surprising until we saw that the whole place has become an enchanting extension of David’s art and his collaborations with Anita. Laura and I aren’t the only ones transfixed: the house has a starring role in Ros Byam Shaw’s latest book, Perfect English Townhouse, and she and photographer Jan Baldwin kindly agreed to share their images of it. Join us for a look around.

Photography by Jan Baldwin from Perfect English Townhouse, courtesy of Ryland Peters & Small Inc. See our feature on Baldwin’s own house from the book here.

One of David’s paintings and a whitewashed branch hang against bare plaster walls in the entry stairwell. David and Anita live several months a year on the Mani Peninsula of Southern Greece, and David says his work is inspired by the area’s natural landscape and its church wall paintings “richly patinated in their various states of decay.”
Above: One of David’s paintings and a whitewashed branch hang against bare plaster walls in the entry stairwell. David and Anita live several months a year on the Mani Peninsula of Southern Greece, and David says his work is inspired by the area’s natural landscape and its church wall paintings “richly patinated in their various states of decay.”

The couple slowly tackled the renovation of the house themselves, room by room: “It took some twelve years to get close to where we are now,” says Anita. “The house’s former single occupant had bizarre taste in decor,” adds David. “The reception room was pink and green wallpaper, the kitchen was painted pale orange, and most of the rest was papered with wood chip, a sandwich of regular paper with pieces of wood chip between, creating an unpleasant bumpy surface like porridge. It took some removing.” They discovered the original lime and sand plasterwork was mostly in good condition, and though the plan had been to paint the walls, they fell in love with the warm buff/gray color, and decided to leave it as is.

 The kitchen’s cabinets were salvaged from the science department at the Camden School for Girls back when the family were living in London.
Above: The kitchen’s cabinets were salvaged from the science department at the Camden School for Girls back when the family were living in London.

David and Anita happened upon the castoffs while picking up their son from a Saturday morning orchestra practice: “We arrived to witness the lab being stripped out and its contents being hurled from a window into a skip. We pleaded with the contractors to wait, and in three trips, we saved as much as we could. We stored it in our back garden, wrapped in heavy-duty polythene, dreaming that someday it would come into its own.”

The couple’s tableware of choice is antique blue-and-white china gathered over many years from car boot sales and charity shops.
Above: The couple’s tableware of choice is antique blue-and-white china gathered over many years from car boot sales and charity shops.
Thanks to a tip-off from a salvage dealer, the couple collected more lab castoffs from the horticultural department of St John’s University in York.
Above: Thanks to a tip-off from a salvage dealer, the couple collected more lab castoffs from the horticultural department of St John’s University in York.

“Repairing the floors was another lengthy project and a real labor of love (one more room to go!),” says David. He explains that when the house was originally built, it had no electricity, and the installation of wiring, heating pipes, and radiators over the years damaged a lot of the boards. He’s been making patches with “timber of the right age for the house and filling in narrow gaps with slivers of pine planed and sanded flush by hand.” As for the color, Anita says: “Many Victorian houses have floors stained a warm black with a product made from walnut shells; we decided to go with this color; coincidently it’s a shade that David uses a lot in his painting, Van Dyke brown.” The couple also use raw pigments to tint patches on the walls. They painted the baseboards a gray they mixed to work with the plaster: “we found the color had to be modified on the north-facing side of the house where the light is bluer.”

The kitchen has an industrial cooker. On close inspection the dining table is inset with two coins: David discovered that a Queen Victoria one penny and Queen Elizabeth sixpenny was a perfect fit, to plug the Bunsen burner holes.
Above: The kitchen has an industrial cooker. On close inspection the dining table is inset with two coins: David discovered that a Queen Victoria one penny and Queen Elizabeth sixpenny was a perfect fit, to plug the Bunsen burner holes.

There’s also graffiti scratched onto the surfaces: Anita’s sister, who had been a student at the Camden School for Girls, spotted on the tabletop: “Jean’s last biology lesson July 1977,” and said, “I know that girl; she was in my class.” And eerily, on the day David Bowie died, David tells us he was cleaning a high shelf when he spotted “a graffito I hadn’t seen before: ‘Bowie Lives On.'”

David’s studio is in the former reception room in the front of the house. Sawhorse tables serve as work and display surfaces. The photos pinned to the wall are of favorite artworks and glimpses of Greece, including the house they’re bringing back to life.
Above: David’s studio is in the former reception room in the front of the house. Sawhorse tables serve as work and display surfaces. The photos pinned to the wall are of favorite artworks and glimpses of Greece, including the house they’re bringing back to life.

“The complex surface textures of my large paintings have the quality of frescoes that survived years of candle wax and incense smoke. I trained as a sculptor and have always had a rather experimental approach to painting, incorporating my own palette of unconventional materials.”

There are countless places for the eye to land in David’s studio. The mantel is layered with dried leaves and stems, and the top drawers of his flat file are divided into compartments for his Thames mudlarking finds, sorted by color: white clay pipes, shells, and bleached bones; clear glass bottles; and iron relics, among other things.
Above: There are countless places for the eye to land in David’s studio. The mantel is layered with dried leaves and stems, and the top drawers of his flat file are divided into compartments for his Thames mudlarking finds, sorted by color: white clay pipes, shells, and bleached bones; clear glass bottles; and iron relics, among other things.
The couple completely overhauled the garden-level basement and turned it into a vacation rental: it’s available as The Atelier, York via Sawday’s for £130 a night. The front sitting room is divided from the bedroom by 18th-century  château doors that came from a local antiques dealer friend and allow sunlight to travel through the space.
Above: The couple completely overhauled the garden-level basement and turned it into a vacation rental: it’s available as The Atelier, York via Sawday’s for £130 a night. The front sitting room is divided from the bedroom by 18th-century  château doors that came from a local antiques dealer friend and allow sunlight to travel through the space.
There’s a grand living room on the second floor; its three tall windows are what sold Anita on the house.
Above: There’s a grand living room on the second floor; its three tall windows are what sold Anita on the house.

She made the curtains out of mismatched antique velvet from London’s Greenwich Market. The mohair velvet armchair is part of a set bought at a local auction: “None of the dealers were interested. The fabric was originally a deep moss green but the areas exposed to sunlight have faded to a bronze,” says David. “A friend of Anita’s helped her replace the horsehair, webbing, and springs while leaving the velvet intact.” The marble fireplace, he adds, had been “rather unsympathetically altered in the Seventies with a modern marble and steel insert. We decided to just paint over it and arrived at a good color by mixing gray undercoat with graphite powder.” His over-the-mantel painting is called Helleborus I, and incorporates “pigment and silver metallic powder on a gesso ground.”

In Perfect English Townhouse, Ros Byam Shaw notes that the lines of filler on the stripped wall above the piano “mark out where the pipes for the gas lighting once ran.” She goes on to explain: “The chandelier is one of David’s creations, and incorporates a metal pineapple found at a car boot/yard sale. The painting of cows on the far wall is a study by David’s great-grandfather, the celebrated Swiss artist Eugène Burnand.”
Above: In Perfect English Townhouse, Ros Byam Shaw notes that the lines of filler on the stripped wall above the piano “mark out where the pipes for the gas lighting once ran.” She goes on to explain: “The chandelier is one of David’s creations, and incorporates a metal pineapple found at a car boot/yard sale. The painting of cows on the far wall is a study by David’s great-grandfather, the celebrated Swiss artist Eugène Burnand.”
In the master bedroom, the couple inserted an antique wardrobe into a niche, and leaned a mantel mirror against the wall.
Above: In the master bedroom, the couple inserted an antique wardrobe into a niche, and leaned a mantel mirror against the wall.
Still a work in progress, the master bath has new windows and is completely painted white.
Above: Still a work in progress, the master bath has new windows and is completely painted white.
David and Anita’s daughter described the wallpaper she had in mind for her room, and when they couldn’t find it, David painted it himself. See more of his work at David Campbell and in Perfect English Townhouse.
Above: David and Anita’s daughter described the wallpaper she had in mind for her room, and when they couldn’t find it, David painted it himself. See more of his work at David Campbell and in Perfect English Townhouse.

Three more memorable live/work setups:

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