Photogenic

Any illusion you might have that you are visiting a traditional Kent family household is neatly dispelled at the gates. There, dozing in the shade amid wild flowers and ornamental rhubarb is a 1960s Morris Minor. Not that unusual, you might think. And it wouldn't be, were it not for the fact that this particular Morris Minor is pebble-dashed.

"It just seemed a good idea at the time," says its owner simply. "It had come to the end of its days and we had some spare gravel left over from resurfacing the drive. It seemed an obvious idea." Not exactly obvious to everyone, perhaps, but the owner in question is not exactly everyone. And if you live on the Kent-East Sussex border you may well be one of the 14,000 families who already know him and who are reminded of his exceptional talent every time they look at the family photograph hung in pride of place in their own homes.

The owner is family photographer Mel Smith whose black and white family portraits have become little short of a Kent institution. He calculates that he has now photographed some 56,000 parents, grandparents and children plus a bewildering menagerie of family pets.

Mel has always worked in black and white rather than colour and one might be forgiven for assuming his love of the monochrome grew out of a serious artistic commitment to the medium. "Actually, the reason I use black and white is quite simple," he says. "I'm colour-blind."

However, this apparent affliction has meant he has become highly sensitive to form and texture. Couple this with his exceptional ability to relax any family in an often alien studio setting and you have the key ingredients of the success of his portraits.

Mel's workplace is part of the eclectic collection of buildings that comprise his Pluckley home, Rose Farm Studio. The studio itself was once a milking parlour and the single-storey main house, a cowshed. Clustered around are an office, gallery, framing building, Lizzie's father's former beach hut and a glory hole known universally as the Spider Shed. The buildings are surrounded by an acre or so of garden and look out over a rolling, sunny field across which, as we stroll, a hay bailer is at work, busily bundling like some strange mechanical spider. He has lived, on-and-off, at the property for 20 years.

"We have to admit that we hardly move from here," says Mel's wife, Lizzie. "We can be here for two or three weeks and never make it further than the gate. Either Mel's working in the studio or we're both at work in the garden. We do try to get up to London as often as possible for new ideas - particularly for the garden - but this is such an idyllic spot and there's always something that needs to be done."

The last thing to be 'done' was the kitchen in the main house, née cowshed. The spur for the renovation was the size of the original Aga - and appetites of Mel and Lizzie's six children. "I loved the Aga but when all the children were with us it was simply too small," said Lizzie. "For a gathering of any size we'd have to cook in shifts and we finally decided not only to replace the Aga but rethink the whole kitchen."

Inspiration came from a chance sighting of a Greek village house style kitchen where the cupboards and appliances fitted into spaces between white plastered partitions and mini bressemers. Mel knew nothing about building walls - even three-foot walls - and even less about plastering. "But how difficult could it be?" he says. "I simply built the partitions from breeze blocks and then slapped on the render. The end result wasn't as smart as the original illustration but I think it actually looks better with a rougher finish."

The wood came - as do so many of the interesting objects and materials around the house - from one of the couple's favourite haunts, Symonds Salvage in Bethersden. "I'm afraid I just can't drive by without dropping in," admits Mel.

The partitions were spaced to accommodate the couple's original appliances, a new butler sink set in an unpolished black granite worksurface, which looks like slate but is scratch resistant, and a smart new high tech range capable of feeding the Five Thousand. The old oak flooring was given a face-lift and where odd pieces were missing, the couple patched in little mosaics of broken ceramics.

Mel is also a great peg man and if a wall stays still long enough it will find itself sporting a growth of wooden pegs upon which might hang absolutely anything. In the kitchen, it's an elegant crop of stainless steel pots, pans, ladles and other curious shiny implements identifiable only by as accomplished cooks as Mel and Lizzie - the kitchen bookcase positively overflows with tomes on cooking and gardening.

One kitchen wall provides a taste of sitting room beyond - it is covered with a framed series of 42 black and white shots of Lizzie from the same shoot. "Usually, only one or two shots are chosen from a shoot but in this case I thought it would interesting to have them all," he says.

Once every available space on the walls of the high-raftered sitting room was covered with Mel's work, largely shots of his own family, but a recent re-think has banished them to the loft where they join "probably thousands" of images captured over the years. Now only a few carefully-chosen favourite family photos stand high on the wall opposite the fireplace. In pride of place, however, is not a photograph but Lizzie's father's cap respectfully framed. Framing is as much a passion with Mel as pegs. "You can frame even the most mundane object and it can look great," he says, and with a framing shop on the premises, he can explore the concept with considerable freedom. Who would have thought that collecting your children's old toothbrushes and then framing them would provide such a fun spash of colour on a sitting room wall? Framed on another wall in the same room is a wooden boat made for Lizzie by her son and three bottles, each with a personal tale to tell.

No curtains or blinds grace the windows - there is no need - a huge grape vine tumbles over virtually the whole house, shading the panes and providing year-round interest as it flowers, fruits and fades. It rambles, too, over the roof of the conservatory that, with its large rough mahogany table, makes a perfect dining room.

However, it's off the conservatory and connected by a small passage clad in reclaimed timber (Symonds Salvage, again) that stands Mel and Lizzie's pièce de résistance - a yurt that serves as their own wonderful bedroom. A yurt is a framed or trellis tent traditionally used by the nomads on the steppes of Central Asia. The structural framework - the 'sunk' - provides shape and strength unlike vellum tents, such as the 'Black Tents' of north Africa and the well known marquee, where the strength is provided largely by the cover. Historically, a yurt was covered with thick felt made from wool. A felt cover for an average yurt would use a staggering 180 fleeces.As the nomads moved continually with their herds, they needed a strong, spacious structure that could be put up and taken down simply and quickly and it is just these qualities that make the yurt such a practical and attractive proposition today when it comes to adding instant extra accommodation, whether temporary or permanent. A modern yurt can be assembled in less than a day and its lack of central support poles and its high circular design mean it can provide an excellent living space.

Lizzie and Mel's yurt is 18 feet in diameter which gives them a floor area of some 255 square feet. The flooring is made from reclaimed scaffold boards, complete with the original metal-clad ends. The trellis work rises to around five feet and the total height at the top of the wall is over six feet. Connected to the top of the trellis are steam-bent roof poles of air-dried English hardwood. They, in turn, connect to a central wheel in the ceiling which traditionally let the smoke from a central fire out but which now serves as a skylight letting the sunlight pour in.

Lizzie and Mel's hand-crafted Turkmen yurt was made by Chris Birch of The Yurt Shop in Battle who now has customers all over Europe and has just delivered one as far afield as Ibiza. The Yurt Shop offers these yurts in diameter sizes from 12 feet to 20 feet. Mel and Lizzie's 18-footer includes additions such as the raised base, a small Welsh-made woodburner, the electrics, a little modern insulation and a great deal of interior calico. "The covering of the yurt is polycotton and we have added some standard loft insulation behind calico to ensure it's toasty in winter - and it is," says Lizzie. In summer, the lower third of the wall can be rolled up so the couple can lie in bed and look out over the garden and fields.

One warning, though, if you're leaning yurtward. Yurts like Mel and Lizzie's are make specifically to stand up to the rigours of the British climate and shouldn't be confused with Mongolian imports which do not have the best reputation when it comes to resisting damp. Mongolia is a dry country and the timbers are often untreated softwood and the roof is of thin, often low-quality felt. They have low doors and the central wheel is supported by poles compromising the living space.

A second entrance to Mel and Lizzie's yurt opens onto the garden and stepping out, one immediately sees why they leave the property so infrequently. Everywhere, something green is busy at its appointed task and marshalling these horticultural troops, keeping them happy and in line must be a major commitment, particularly since this is a 100 percent organic acre or so. "We're great disciples of Monty Don and although it might seem a little more effort, it is a very successful system," says Mel and the evidence is all around us.

The largest single feature of the garden is the vegetable plot, a series of sizeable individual beds contained by railway sleepers. This area was once an unusable bog but creating a stream down the centre of the garden means that it is now very useable indeed. "This year we've been much better at re-using the beds," says Lizzie. "As one crop is harvested, it's replaced with another that will mature later in the year or come on in winter."

Different vegetables jostle in the same beds. In one, French beans stand shoulder to shoulder with Jerusalem artichokes, perpetual spinach and rhubarb. "I like to let the rhubarb go to seed because it has such dramatic flowers," says Mel. "This may be primarily a vegetable patch but it can still be colourful and attractive."

So here fennel and courgettes share quarters with sunflowers; leeks and sprouts are kept company by larkspur and dahlias; red onions wait for harvest with pot marigolds; and huge allium giganteum stand guard over chives, beetroot and carrots.

Across the stream is a polytunnel which brims with salad crops and yet more flowers and is one of Lizzie's favourite spring haunts."No matter what the weather we can keep busy planting and potting in here," says Lizzie. "It's a little world of its own."

Another little world is a second vegetable patch surrounded by a protective privet hedge that creates a microclimate perfect for early sprouts and potatoes, courgettes, globe artichokes, onions and garlic. Here Mel also has a bed of comfrey that he uses as natural plant feed and a stand of young willow he uses for his 'fedges' - fine border hedges of inter-twined willow wands.

Vegetables, however, by no means dominate this garden. Along the central stream runs a lovely herbaceous border with more species vying for attention than were brought aboard the Ark. And above it is a superb tree-house, the leafy roof of which is provided by the tree itself. "It has a lovely view over the field and forest and, in summer, Mel and I often sleep up here," says Lizzie.

It also has a view over a grass sofa which Mel made when he found he had some extra turf left over from an area of lawn he had dug out to provide the mini-meadow of wild flowers that surrounds his barbeque area - the 'fire pit'. Surrounded by chunky reclaimed posts, it looks more like a venue for pagan sacrifice than scorching sausages.

This is not a grand garden of endless acres nor a grand house of countless rooms but after wandering here for what seems like no time at all one suddenly realises it has been two or three hours since one was first ushered in by the pebble-dashed guardian of the gates and just why Mel and Lizzie so seldom bother to stray.

Address Book:

Mel can be contacted at Mel Smith Photography on 01233 840754 www.melsmithphotography.co.uk
Stonewright UK 01233 650944 / 07816 063086
Symonds Salvage Bethersden 01233 820724 www.symondssalvage.co.uk
The Yurt Shop Battle 07894 403951 www.yurtshop.co.uk

  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming