One house, six portraits

February 5, 2021

I had a really exciting commission recently for a collection of portraits of an Arts & Crafts house in Ireland; six portraits, four on paper and two in clay. It’s a glorious house with many lovely A&C features and details, from the irregular ground plan to the decorative articulation of each aspect, and studying it brought me many happy hours in lockdown London. But of course, it’s not without its challenges: it has one of the most complicated roofscapes I’ve encountered in a single building, and getting the chimneys in the right alignment from each angle took some doing. Luckily my client got really involved and supplied me with a stream of images, as we examined the house together, discovering ever more delights in each aspect.

I started with working drawings of each side, looking at line, proportion and detail, as well as assessing technical aspects in preparation for hand-building the two portraits in clay. Equipped with the finalised working drawings, I handbuilt the two clay portraits first:

Each portrait took three or four days to make to this stage – where as you can see, they’re still wet, very delicate, easily damaged and needing careful handling during the drying process. Both clay portraits had their special vulnerable points: the veranda side needed very careful drying because of the free-standing posts, which (of course) tend to dry much quicker than the thick areas of clay, leading to disastrous cracks if one’s not careful; and the front elevation, with its extended wall out to the right, has a potential weakness at that point where the thin mass of clay meets the thicker section. So I turned the covers several times daily and watched them like a lynx for three weeks until they were bone dry and ready to decorate for the first firing.

Meanwhile, turning covers wasn’t all I did. While the clay portraits were drying, I started work on the paper portraits, one by one, using much the same process (as with the clay portraits) of incising the working drawing into the surface of the material first – this time, into the thickness of the handmade paper, and then working top to bottom, left to right with the pencil and colour to complete the drawing, one passage at a time. I drew the same two aspects first, fresh from studying the photos very closely for the clay portraits, beginning with the South, veranda side:

and then the East, entrance side:

And then I moved on to the angled view of the front, from the North-East, a diagonal viewpoint giving a glimpse of the front door, and emphasising the recession of planes and play of roof-line which made the clay portrait something of a challenge:

Then I drew the last paper portrait, of the West, garden aspect. This side of the house, with its lovely complex roofscape, paved and planted garden terrace, and the light-filled garden room, has another character again; old and new in an informal harmony entirely in keeping with the Arts & Crafts style of the house:

By the time these four drawings were completed, the clay portraits were fully dried and ready for decorating for their first firing. I aim not to put too much colour on at this point, as I don’t want to wet the carefully dried-out clay  too much, so I paint only the areas that will be under the glaze in the finished portrait: that is all the windows and window-frames, the views inside the windows, any gloss paintwork and any shiny metals. On the veranda side I had fun painting a trompe l’oeille for the inside of the garden room – but the white doors inside the veranda were tricky to reach without damaging the delicate posts of the veranda. On the entrance front, I enjoyed painting intriguing little views inside the windows. At last everything was ready for the first firing, the portraits dried again and packed in the kiln on a bed of sand to help them move about during the shrinkage caused by the firing.

The first (bisque) firing took all day (about ten hours), and then it was a nerve-wracking wait of two more days’ cooling until I could safely unpack the kiln — to find all well, and the portraits looking good, ready for their second decoration and glazing. This took another week: the rest of the decoration included all the brickwork and pointing, the roof and wall tiles, the stonework, panelling, and of course the greenery and foliage, the plant pots and the water butts. Then I glazed the portraits, brushing on the glaze to the windows and paintwork, and taking care not to spill onto the freshly decorated brickwork, as the newly-fired porous clay is very absorbent and makes any accidents of this kind difficult to remove. This is how the veranda side looked with the glaze freshly applied – you can see all the window areas and paintwork are covered with the creamy white glaze, and it’s still quite wet on the bay window:

When the glaze had dried, I packed the portraits back into the kiln for their second firing, and after another ten hour firing and two day wait, I was able to unpack the kiln and find the portraits fully formed and almost ready:

I was happy to find the glaze beautifully glossy and transparent, and the colours bright and fully matured, with lots of detail in the brick and tile and stonework, and all of the trompe l’oeille interiors clearly shown.

All six portraits were now ready for the final touches: inscriptions and framing. I lettered inscriptions with a brush on the flat back of the clay portraits, and attached their integral brass fixings to allow them to be hung on the wall. Then I lettered a single line inscription in graphite beneath each drawing, and framed and sealed them in pale oak frames, ready for the journey to their home.

For more views of these and many of my favourite commissions for portraits on paper and in clay, please see the Gallery page and the Portraits on paper page on my website Potters’ Yard House Portraits and see also my page here on Daughters of Earth for my architectural studies and house portraits. I’m always happy to consider a subject for a commissioned portrait — for any special place from cottage to castle — and can give an estimate from a snap of your special building. Prices start at £300 for an A4 portrait on paper, £400 for an A3 portrait on paper, and £500 for a portrait in clay – this is for a quite straightforward subject, as the price is determined by the complexity of the work.


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