Posts Tagged ‘house portraits’

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.


Memories in clay

March 14, 2019


There’s a lovely article by Mark Palmer in this week’s Country Life about my work making small-scale house portraits in clay, and my aim to capture the spirit of the place –  the heart of a house – by means of a meticulously detailed likeness. The whole edition is devoted to ‘Smaller country houses’, so my miniatures fit charmingly. I’ve been making these little sculptures for 30-odd years now – I made my first in 1986 – and I’ve been lucky to have hundreds of fascinating commissions, each one for a portrait of a place that’s individual, interesting, and loved. And not just people’s homes: I’ve also made portraits of churches, theatres, log-cabins, pubs, shops, schools, hospitals, banks, restaurants, town halls, Greek temples, a library, a fire-station, and (only once) a dry-cleaners – all special for one reason or another – oh, and some grand National Trust houses too. As for beloved homes, I’ve done a gypsy caravan, one or two log-cabins, terraced town-houses and Elizabethan manor houses, some thatched cottages and the odd castle, and always it’s the detail that I love – the quirkiness and the unique characteristics that each subject brings. I haven’t yet done a lighthouse or a windmill – but I do enjoy a challenge, so who knows…



I’ve often exhibited these little sculptures – I showed a dozen or so in my first ever exhibition about a hundred years ago it seems, all portraits of houses and buildings local to the show in the Wisbech and Fenland Museum – including one of the museum itself – and I’ll be continuing the tradition in an exhibition next year (2020) in Hampstead’s beautiful Burgh House. There I’ll be showing a collection of portraits of London’s small historic houses – among them, of course, Burgh House itself, celebrating again the beauties of the vernacular. But for now, I’m looking forward to my next commissions – and who knows, maybe even that windmill.



There’s a gallery of some of my favourite commissions on my website Potters’ Yard House Portraits – as well as information about commissioning. And you can read more here on Daughters of Earth, on the page called Architectural reliefs and house portraits.

House portraits from Potters’ Yard

July 23, 2016

The Limes (house portrait by Liz Mathews)

I made my first house portrait in 1986 – 30 years ago, and I’m still doing it so it must be an addiction.  I’ve always thought of these architectural studies in miniature as a kind of visual pun – an intimate portrait made from the very same material as its subject – which gives a curiously tangible feel to the likeness.

Braehead ceramic

I recently had the pleasure of making this portrait of a house built in the characteristic Moffat stonework of its area in Scotland – one man’s childhood home. The commission was to make the portrait ‘as it was one summer in the 60’s’ and I aimed to capture the telling detail that makes a good likeness, but also somehow to catch an atmosphere from memories of happy days. I worked from photographs and descriptions – and very much enjoyed hearing the stories and finding out the details that gave me a strong idea of the house’s feeling. When it was done, he said:

I am very pleased indeed… It is perfect. You caught the grey stone brilliantly, and I love the honeysuckle and the rest… – how well you caught the colour and detail. 

About this photograph, he wrote:

I think the portrait looks even better in real life. I am so glad I asked you to do it.  I love the colours and tones, and the way it looks welcoming and occupied.

and that the portrait is ‘now on show in a room that contains many of the things it once contained’, which I think shows how a portrait can become very closely identified with its subject. The success of a commission for me depends on this identification, where the portrait becomes a palimpsest, taking on qualities and characteristics of the house itself, and containing within its material form much more than appears on the surface.

Version 2

I also heard recently about this portrait of a traditional Hebridean blackhouse that I made years ago:

Many many years ago I commissioned you to do a little replica of my parents-in-law’s house. The result was exquisite and to this day it remains one of my mother-in-law’s most favourite possessions.

This lasting quality, how the portrait gives lasting pleasure and contains such significance is one of the real joys of the work to me. I’ve just set up a new website, to show a portfolio of some of my favourite past commissions and also to show how the commissioning process works. As one-off original signed artworks, these architectural portraits in miniature are surprisingly affordable; they start at £300. If you have a beloved building you think might make a good subject, send me a photo and I’ll give you a quote.

For more information, see Architectural reliefs & house portraits

Potters’ Yard house portraits is at

Waiting for the swallows

April 1, 2011

Now that Spring is really here, and in John Clare’s happy words

The trees still deepen in their bloom

Grass greens the meadowlands

And flowers with every morning come

we can really start looking forward to the arrival of the swallows and swifts, since the daffodils have already dared. I love the changing lengthening light of Spring, and the suddenness of the long-awaited transformation, when everything charges out at once.

I’m continuing work on my series of Books of Hours, or contemporary illuminated manuscripts, on the theme of the passing year, working with different forms of the book. Some of them are very large, but The turning year is made from a single sheet of handmade ‘elephant’ paper (70cm x 50cm), torn and folded not into my usual cyclic sequence of pages, but this time as a continuous flow, starting at one end and following a fluid timeline which pours off the other end. The full sheet, before tearing and folding looked like this:

and the sequence of pages like this:

This was a lovely sheet of paper to work with, as it had beautiful irregular deckle edges, with even a few tags of paper floating at the corners. I particularly like the lively uniqueness of each handmade sheet, and enjoy including its quirks into the book’s character. The torn and folded sequence of pages looks like this:

My preoccupation with rivers, seas and watery places is reaching flood level as I prepare for Watermark, my exhibition in the Ice House gallery in Holland Park, which is open daily from 7th to 22nd May, 11am to 7pm.

I’ll be showing waterfalls in clay, driftwood signposts, several kingfishers, fountains and storms, tall ships and circling seas, as well as Van Gogh’s clouds and swallows on the Thames – and during May I’ll be showing some of the works in the exhibition here in my May post.

Meanwhile, I have been doing some other work, including a very enjoyable commission for a portrait of a thatched cottage, in my ongoing series of architectural low-relief sculptures.

I’ve been making these for 25 years now (my first was in 1986), and I must have made many hundreds by now – I love the individuality of each subject, and really enjoy how a likeness develops through the process, so that the finished portrait becomes a very tangible image of the house. I made this one in terracotta – the same clay as the bricks – but I use stoneware for a stone-built house. I have made a portrait of a Swiss log cabin, but I did it in clay, rather than matchsticks. Some more examples can be seen on the Architectural reliefs page, and commissions start at £200. I welcome enquiries about commissions – you can leave me a note in the comments box below, or if you prefer, click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.