Paint Effects

There are many times when visiting the houses that we feature in these pages that one is delighted by what one finds. One departs impressed, even inspired. A visit to the home of artist Jessica Zoob, however, is - and I do not use the word lightly - a sheer joy. Jessica trained at Central School of Arts and Nottingham University and for seven years she worked as a highly successful theatre designer for among others, Hampstead Theatre, The Royal National Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, The Gate and Greenwich Theatre. However, two very important events brought this career to a close - the birth of her two daughters Ana (now 17) and Kat (14). "It was a frightening decision in many ways but one I really had no hesitation in making," says Jessica. "I simply could not be the mother I wanted to be when my career continually took me away from home so much and demanded so much of me. The decision was so frightening because when you are as committed to your work as I was, it becomes, quite simply, what defines you. Without my career what was I? Who was I?" For a while, Jessica found fulfilment in her children but as they began to grow up she found she could accommodate part-time interior design. But her heart really wasn't in it. Theatre design was a true love. Interior design merely interesting. She began to paint. "And I realised that that was what I was put here to do," she says simply. Jessica now works exclusively as a painter and her paintings now hang in private collections worldwide. "Her paintings recall the abstract works of Gerhard Richter and the later works of Claude Monet," says Leonie Irvine of Mayfair's Medici Gallery. "However, her work has an innate energy and beauty of its own, seldom found in contemporary abstract paintings." And what makes a visit to her home such a joy is that the house is also an intimate gallery with favourite works at every turn. Often one can see the personality of an occupant reflected in the décor they choose. In this case, however, the décor does not merely reveal something of the decorator. It is the true heart of its creator.

From the outside, her Victorian cottage hidden among the tumbling streets of Lewes is indistinguishable from a hundred others. When she found it, it was virtually derelict but what attracted her was the attached garage in which she immediately saw a studio. "There was no point in trying to preserve anything inside so it was very much a case of tearing it all out and starting again," she says. She chose Lewes because she felt it was the perfect safe environment for her daughters and had on its doorsteps the wonderful landscape of the South Downs. However, modest though the house may be from the outside, step through the front door and one is immediately in a world of white and light. White floors, white ceilings, white walls - an architectural blank canvas. That may sound a little sterile and it might be were it not for the fact that everywhere is the warmth and passion of Jessica's work. The entrance hallway is narrow and functional and, one would have thought, the place to hang perhaps two or three smaller works. Jessica has decided on the largest painting in the house, 2mx2.5m - a truly breathtaking piece inspired by rocks and flowers and called Big Smile. What was once the downstairs two rooms of the original two-up-two-down is now a single white space with much traditional Lewes tongue-and-groove even on the ceiling. Lighting is provided by a single large industrial ceiling lamp in one part of the room and, in the other, some superb Dar Bauhaus strip spotlights with a film set feel that are also used throughout the house. Jessica's work is inspired largely by landscape and on one wall is West Wittering, a sea- and landscape I knew well as a child. How, in an abstract, she has captured so much more of one of my favourite haunts than any figurative piece I have even seen is, quite literally, amazing. Facing it across the room is Bliss - and it is! On the floor is a doll's house made for her by her father and now requisitioned by her younger daughter. Echoing it high on a shelf across the room is another miniature building, created by Jessica's partner, sculptor and furniture maker Karl Smith. Its elegant façade declares it Tyrwhitt's Gallery (Jessica's maiden name) and the front swings out to reveal a gallery populated by tiny Zoob paintings. "It's my favourite thing in the whole world," she declares uncompromisingly - which is praise indeed considering its competition in this room alone. In the corner a window frames the honeysuckled steps that lead up to the garden, creating a natural picture of its own. In the garden - once a derelict concrete wasteland - is now a riot of roses and climbers surrounding a pond and beautiful statues of Jessica's daughters by sculptor Pippa Burley. "It's lovely just to sit out there with them," she says. However, one thing that is missing in this room and indeed every room in the house, is any kind of clutter.

Everything has its place and is firmly in its place. "I hate mess and clutter," she says. So how has she survived two growing children? "Easy," she says, "storage space. It's all here, you just can't see it." The tongue-and-groove in the drawing room and throughout the house isn't just a pretty face - behind it everything from clothes, TVs and games consoles to a homework desk and even a fold-down double bed. The house's biggest secret is behind a tiny door, no more than 18 inches wide, which leads off the sitting room to the area that once was Jessica's studio. Step through and there is a bedroom, sitting room and office but unlike any bedroom, sitting room or office you're likely to have seen. Above is a gallery bedroom, light pouring in from a glass window that soars to the pitched apex of the roof, on the next level is Jessica's office and below is the girls' den. Connecting the three rooms - all, naturally, pristine white - is a staircase and a vast mirror that creates an extraordinary almost trompe l'oeil illusion of space. Into the white stairs Karl has carved the occasional tiny fairy, flower, frog. The interiors of all three rooms were built by Lewes cabinetmaker Tobias Dickins, just one of whose skills is designing and building yacht interiors. A lovely touch on a wall is a former test-tube rack, painted white, the tubes filled with water and delicate single stems of tiny white flowers. "None of these rooms is a conventional shape and so Toby's yacht design skills proved invaluable," says Jessica. "Storage is also a very important factor in yachts so he was able to come up with some great creative solutions." Back into the main house and on upstairs but in Jessica's house one even has to pause to admire the handrail - a superb length of carved, flowing oak created by partner Karl (see more examples on his website).

The first bedroom is Kat's - a white fairyland of decorated candelabras and a double bed built around the window and adrift with muslin and lace. Behind the ubiquitous tongue-and-groove is her secret desk and assorted treasures. A small dressmaker's dummy in an antique Victorian dress stands witness to her passion for fashion design. The bathroom, though by no means large, feels in no way pokey because Jessica has cleverly taken the ceiling up through to the roof creating a soaring white space above. In the loo is another pleasing idea - a tiny recessed butler sink surrounded by white driveway pebbles simply pressed into the grouting and then washed over. Ana's room at first appears not to have a bed at all but in fact has two. Her daughter's bed is a secret sleep-away tucked neatly into a corner by the window. And behind the opposite wall is a fold-down double bed, perfect for sleepovers. In all, Jessica's apparently modest-sized house will sleep 12 with ease and in comfort. On the landing outside the girls' rooms is another triumph of tongue-and-groove - a huge storage space for clothes that leaves Jessica room, up a second flight of stairs and under the eaves, in no need whatever of wardrobe space and having to accommodate no more than her bed, a white chest of drawers, a vase of flowers and a view over the rooftops. Jessica's latest collection unveiled at NEO Bankside last summer was entitled Passion. The year before, her summer collection was Joy and her spring collection, Adrenalin. Previous collections have been Adventure, Escape and Desire. The titles tell you all you need to know of Jessica, her work - and her home.

Address Book:

See Jessica's work at www.jessicazoobdesire.com. Every summer Jessica opens her house to the public for three consecutive weekends during the Lewes Art Wave. Next year's dates are yet to be confirmed but check www.artwavefestival.org or Jessica's own site.

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