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From Homes & Gardens

Arabella Johnsen: portrait of an artist

Applying layer upon layer of paint to a six-foot square canvas is not a job for the faint-hearted. Nor, says Arabella Johnsen is the challenge purely one of scale. It is a task that requires her to think on her feet, guiding the paint over the length and breadth of the canvas, working and reworking until she is happy with what appears before her. In some cases it means starting again from scratch. “It is extremely unpredictable. You are mixing colours on the canvas rather than on the palette, and quite often they don’t end up the shade you want them to be”, says Arabella, as she works away in her studio, a converted dairy adjacent to her Hampshire farmhouse. It is also a very tactile process; she applies paint with hands sheathed in surgical gloves. “It’s almost impossible to do this type of work with brushes” she says.

When Arabella’s children, Isabella, eight, and Jack, seven, are at school, the studio is where you’ll find her. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1992, she has worked almost non-stop, creating large striking canvasses depicting flowers, landscapes and, after a trip to America in the early 1990s, scenes consisting of cartoon characters. Her paintings are now in collections all over the world and sell from around £14,000 each.

Arabella’s studio is tucked beside the 18th-century house where she lives with her family and four dogs; outside, half a dozen sheep and a few chickens roam. She and her husband Nick bought the house in 1996, when Jack was just two months old. Since then Arabella has put her very personal stamp on its interior. The painstaking designs in the sitting room and the murals on the study walls were inspired by Charleston, the boldly painted house in East Sussex where various members of the Bloomsbury group lived.

Some of the decorating schemes involved rather quicker solutions. The downstairs, for example, is covered in reproduction Redoute prints taken from a book. Much of the furniture is from junk shops or improvised. The couple’s seven-foot wide mattress rests on a frame that Arabella constructed from rough-hewn timber found at their last home.

But it isn’t just the inside of the house that has received Arabella’s attention; in summer the garden bursts with an aromatic riot of fennel, lamb’s ears, scented nicotania and wisteria blossom in purple, white and pink. One of her first projects was to build a terrace for outdoor lunches. Since then, she has reinforced the idea of it being an outdoor living space, with arbours and a summer house with its own kitchen. Beyond the garden is a field in which the family’s Jacob sheep graze and bantams peck at scraps.

There is no doubt that her painter’s eye has given Arabella the confidence to dream up and execute decorating ideas in the house that others might spend months deliberating over. Perhaps being always prepared to start all over again has made her realise that a brave decision is never irreversible.

Words: Giles Kime. Photographs: Simon Brown.

Originally published in Homes & Gardens, April 2004. Reprinted with permission.
James Fairgrieve has an innate ability to compose images of immense beauty through acute observation.

He is one of Scotland's leading painters. Having studied at the Edinburgh College of Art (1962–68) he went on to teach painting and drawing at the Edinburgh College of Art from where he retired in 1998. He is a member of the Royal Scottish Academy, Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolours and past President of the Society of Scottish Artists.

Birds, animals and the natural world feature strongly in his pictures which have been widely shown in group and solo exhibitions north and south of the Border.

His work is held by many collections; the most notable include, HRH Prince Philip, Ian Rankin and the Fleming Collection.

MacLean Fine Art held a one-man show of James Fairgrieve’s recent still life work art artLondon 2002.

For available works please click here

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