Generally, the mention of an old mill house conjures up idyllic pastoral images of ancient millstones grinding corn trundled to the doors in brimming cartloads from surrounding golden fields – a sort of Constable-Hovis hybrid seasoned with a little Vaughan Williams. What it does not evoke is part of a former Victorian industrial complex set in the middle of a gunnery range.
"When we first rented the converted stable block next door to our mill we thought how romantic to live next to an old mill," says artist Sara Habgood. "However, we discovered that it wasn't quite that sort of mill. It was a gunpowder mill and the surround land was the testing ground for its produce."
The area, near Tunbridge Wells, was originally an ironworks but by the mid 18th century the making of iron had become uneconomic and, in 1771, the site of the forge was taken over for gunpowder manufacturing. The mill blew up shortly afterwards but, undaunted, the owners replaced it and it happily turned out high quality gunpowder until the early 19th century.
Almost nothing now remains of the industry that once existed here; the land has become a Nature Conservation Area and Sara and husband Peter now live among fields and forest. "You just wouldn't believe we are so close to Tunbridge Wells," says Sara. "We really do have the best of both worlds."
The couple came down from London just over ten years ago, rented the stables next door and then, when the owners of the house decided to sell, the two couples exchanged homes.
"We loved the charm and age of the house but wanted to put our own stamp on it by redecorating throughout and modernising the kitchen and bathrooms. It's interesting to mix old exterior and contemporary interior – visitors are always surprised as they walk in from the old into the new," she says.
Not only was the house going to be a family home, it was also to be a living gallery for Sara's work. "I wanted a place to showcase my art and now I have a space where I can move pieces about in the house as I finish a new picture and try it ‘in situ' to see how it works and show clients. This also means we can change the feel of each room by swapping pieces around," says Sara, ‘It's cheaper than redecorating – you can just hang a fresh new piece which changes the look of the room completely."
Sara and Peter met at Goldsmiths when she was studying painting and he sculpture. He now owns a successful marketing and web design business and she has returned to painting after a stint in advertising.
"I have been so lucky to have Pete's support. I had some early success when I first graduated and he has always encouraged me to go back to painting. Now the children are older, I can devote more energy and time to my painting."
Her painting, however, has changed from earlier more figurative work. "My new work reflects my love of bold, positive, exuberant and decorative images. The pieces are strong and graphic and use different techniques and textures to explore the process of representation. They aim to elicit a positive sensory interaction with the viewer.
"I have recently been developing the style known as ‘pintura matérica' in which non-artistic materials are incorporated into the paintings – media such as silver leaf, glitter, encaustic and plaster relief. Some of the work is calm and contemplative, other pieces are more playful." Influences range from Ben Nicholson, Elizabeth Blackadder, Albert Irvin to Jasper Johns and Antoni Tàpies. "Above all, I want my pictures to have a positive impact on a living space," she says. "I want them to be able to be enjoyed and lift the spirit."
In July, she had a major show at Rhapsody House in Tunbridge Wells but she is also very much part of the London art scene with upcoming exhibitions at the Brick Lane Gallery (2-15 November) and the Gild Gallery in Portland Street. Next year, she will be showing at The Big Art Affair in Dulwich (18-22 May) and The Untitled Show at Chelsea Town Hall (3-6 June).
However, perhaps her most interesting exhibition is the one that runs continuously at her home where the pictures, instead of merely being presented on an anonymous wall, are part of a real home and one can see just how well they work in the environment from which they were actually conceived.
The only real major work Sara and Peter undertook when they moved was to reconfigure the kitchen and dining room to create a large, light, open-plan living area – perfect for parties and entertaining. Walking in, the eye is immediately drawn to a large and very pleasing oil of two lemons above a white granite worktop. Above the window is a bright yellow French café sign, advertising Bières du Pélîcan.
Next to the stainless-steel cooker is another large canvas, a testament to Sara's expertise with silver leaf – a plate with knife and fork. On the opposite wall at the other end of the kitchen-dining space is a fun, silver Union Jack. Although the flag is a well-known icon, Sara has given it a new and original and contemporary look by working the piece in oil and silver leaf."
"I love working with silver leaf because it changes with the light – it looks particularly stunning at night by candlelight or low light. The silver leaf shimmers and floats above the rest of the painting – a fascinating effect," she says. These contemporary pieces are complemented by a collection of some huge green glass Tuscan wine flasks and equally huge amphora-style earthenware jars.
"I like to place things like that in numbers rather than singles and I particularly love the variations in the old glass," she says. The flasks and jars came from Mangan Antiques in Chichester. Centrepiece of the conservatory is a chunky, white-painted coffee table, probably a cutdown Victorian kitchen table, which came from Justin Bloom in Southborough, a major contributor to the furnishing of Mill House.
The light oak floor of the kitchen extends uniformly through the house and contributes, along with the white walls, to the overall feel of light and space. Focal point of the sitting room is a welcoming woodburner but it has competition from a truly huge contribution from Justin Bloom – a 10-foot high mirror, probably originally gilt framed but now painted distressed antique white and also waxed, as are virtually all its smaller cousins around the house. Over the woodburner is another of Sara's large canvases, a single heart in encaustic.
"I love the medium because it's tricky to work with and you never quite know what you're going to get," she says. "This means that every piece is different. A number of my clients have commissioned a ‘Heart' to hang in the bedroom, which works very well." On the opposite wall is a smaller canvas of 12 hearts and in an alcove another piece from Justin Bloom, a white distressed chest of drawers.
Opposite the sitting room is the music room-cum-playroom where pride of place goes to an upright piano that Sara and Peter have painted white. A French grey distressed cupboard conceals the boys' Playstation, TV and assorted electrical kit.
Upstairs in the master bedroom, with its iron and brass bedstead, are more pleasing pieces – a pine Arts & Crafts wardrobe from Ardingly Antiques and Collectors' Fair (www.dmgantiquefairs.com) and a large white-framed mirror from Justin Bloom.
The bathroom, with its modern freestanding bath, is the perfect showcase for a large canvas of an ammonite – another of Sara's favourite themes – the detail picked out again in silver leaf. "I don't know what it is about ammonites, perhaps the lovely detail, but I've always been fascinated by them and I think many people are," she says. The silver leaf adds a jewel-like quality to the fossilized image."
More interesting pieces from both Justin Bloom and Ardingly – old kitchen cupboards and chests of drawers – have been distressed and given new leases of life in the boys' bedrooms. In the pretty guestroom is a fascinating old French, zinc-lined fridge which now serves as a small cupboard, a French grey chest of drawers from Ardingly and another lovely mirror from Justin Bloom.
Outside in a neighbouring field and adjoining a working barn is Sara's studio. "This is a lovely space to work in and it's great to be out here in the fields," she says. "It's peaceful, with fantastic light and a place where I can lose myself in my work."
So a nice irony, perhaps. A place which was once dedicated to destruction has now become a cradle of conservation and creation.