The sun was shining as I arrived at Haydn and Terri Cornner's elegant three-storey terraced house in Hastings. Sunlight, especially in winter, makes everything look more cheerful, but I suspect that this house would be just as uplifting to visit on a dull day. Shades of sky and the nearby sea have been invited in and painted onto the walls, providing serene backdrops to a myriad of pictures that hang on them, each one a world of fantastical, colourful detail.
Haydn Cornner is a painter, illustrator and graphic artist. His style is distinctive, whimsical and vaguely familiar, influenced by Hieronymus Bosch and later surrealist artists. A major influence has been the artist Fergus Hall. Haydn gestures towards a couple of large paintings, "These are by him, not me," he says, quick to point them out, lest I should mistake the works as his. Haydn's style adapts itself well to illustration and he has also illustrated many books, including a large paperback collection by Roald Dahl. The couple moved to Hastings from Tunbridge Wells in 1993 and have lived in this house since 1997. They have two daughters and a chocolate Labrador called Doris. Whilst no structural work needed to be done on the house, the couple decided to extend the kitchen slightly, raising the ceiling and installing a skylight window to bring more light into the back of the house. They've also reinstated sash windows where at some point (probably in the seventies when period features weren't always admired) someone had installed some unsympathetic and ugly double-glazed units. They have no plans to move - "I shall be carried out in my box," says Haydn with a grin.
As we sit having a cup of tea in the kitchen, out of the window I spy Haydn's studio at the end of the garden. It looks like a miniature station waiting room, complete with intricate fascia boards carefully chosen to echo the period features at the front of the property, but fortunately for Haydn that's the nearest he gets to commuting to work. He does go up to London for exhibitions and to visit the Portal Gallery that promotes and sells his work. "I used to like going up to London, but I don't really enjoy going up now, he says. Haydn also exhibits in Hastings, among other places, and has a number of other local projects on the go, one of which being the intriguingly named 'Ministry of Normality', which is apparently 'an official octagonal organisation with a remit to promote rational, plausible, sensible, long-winded, sand-blasted, and fine-boned implementations'. I'm not quite sure exactly what this means, but within the brand he has produced graphic-style posters (think a more whacky version of the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' slogan) and, his most recent creation, a range of shaving cream, aftershave and other sumptuous unctions to 'enhance a gentleman's day'. These are packaged to look like artist's materials, are all naturally sourced and, according to the Ministry, 'definitely not tested on panthers, jackdaws, stick insects or any other animal'.
And then there are the pictures. There are large pictures where you'd expect to see them - above fireplaces and sofas - and then other pictures, smaller paintings and prints everywhere else. It takes a very careful eye (and possibly a trustworthy spirit level) to arrange so many pictures so carefully. The frames have also been chosen with care; some are plain, some so ornate they become part of the artwork. There are lots of humorous details in this house. I can't help noticing that on every surface within all the rooms there's a mini Madonna or other small religious icon or figure, mixed in with miniature flamenco dancers and memorabilia. "Terri collects them," smiles Haydn. "Most are souvenirs from travels and pieces we've picked up here and there." In my house this quantity of ornaments on display would look like clutter, but here it is art, with a whimsical, kitsch appeal. Didn't the children fiddle about with all the objects when they were smaller? I find it hard enough to resist picking one up. "They've grown up with it all really, so it's left alone, they don't seem to bother about them," says Terri. What well-behaved girls.
The hallway and stairs of the house are elegant and spacious, painted a pale blue/green ('Montpelier' from Dulux) and white against the natural coloured sisal floor. The colours enhance the feeling of light and space, so that the many pictures covering the walls like jewels don't oppress in the slightest. Every room is colourful, but not in an overpowering way. The bathroom is a case in point. The bath has been painted a vivid candy pink, the floorboards are white, the walls are painted in a very pale green called 'China Clay' and the bathroom tiles are a lovely sea-green colour, (paint and tiles from Fired Earth). This room has a seaside feel, but not in an in-your-face, or clichéd way. It's subtle and understated - with a nod to sticks of pink rock and piles of shells decorating the fireplace. The upstairs sitting room walls are a wonderful deep grey ('Mercury' from Fired Earth) that works beautifully to contrast with the bright illustrative style of one of Haydn's larger pieces and a huge illuminated anchor that stands alone on the wall near the door. The most unusual piece of furniture (but now I think every sitting room should have one) is the salon hairdryer's chair - in full working order, as Haydn happily demonstrates. Doris seems somewhat disconcerted and starts barking, but it turns out that she is less bothered by the hairdryer than the fact that her sheepskin rug isn't in position by the fireplace. Terri quickly replaces it and Doris is happy again.
I notice a striking crimson chest of drawers in the corner of the room which has been restored and painted, like much of the furniture in the house, by Terri. The red piece was painted in a chalk-based paint by Annie Sloan which is available at Halcyon Days in Rye. "The paint dries flat and chalky," says Terri, "and then it has to be lacquered in clear wax, which really brings the colour out. Most of the furniture in the house has been sourced locally. "When we first came here you could pick things up for nothing," says Terri. "Every Sunday we used to go down into the town or over to Rye for a trawl around - and usually find something, but it's much harder to find a bargain now," she says wistfully. The master bedroom is at the very top of the house on the third floor. Look out of the window from here and there's the sort of magical view you'd find in a travel brochure. Your eye is drawn, past scenic seagulls aptly perching on nearby chimney pots, right down through the valley to the sea.
The bedroom is tastefully wallpapered with flamingoes - and yes, it is possible to decorate tastefully with flamingoes if you use Cole and Son's Flamingo wallpaper! Touches of flamingo pink have also been picked up in accents around the room. Back downstairs in the ground floor living room a peculiar object dominates the back section of the room, which is divided from the front by a pair of elegant pale green doors. It looks to me like something straight out of Monty Python (and there are echoes of Terry Gilliam and a Flying circus feel elsewhere in the house), but it turns out to be a stereo system - a valve and horn system, to be more precise, powered by valves instead of transistors. It is housed in an Edwardian sideboard and is obviously a very special hi-fi indeed. Outside at the front of the house is a communal garden - mentioned on the deeds as a "Victorian Pleasure Garden intended for the enjoyment of the residents." The space has lived up to its name and been used quite often for weddings and parties. As we look out of the window onto the lawn, the sun is streaming in through the huge bay window, Doris stretches out on the painted floorboards and sunbathes contentedly. The best and most interesting houses to visit are those that reflect the personality of the people that live there. This house does that with witty, clever (and slightly bonkers) knobs on.