An Eye for Detail

There is nothing quite like waking up in the morning and mumbling down to breakfast to be greeted by Radio Four at 90 decibels. The dog, in one corner, is chewing thoughtfully through a 240-volt cable while in another your three-year-old is delightedly exploring the potential of a nail gun. The nanny has long since quit and your partner is locked into her laptop having wildly hammered in ''. Such are the joys of incorporating building work into your home and life. So it's more than understandable that having done this and got the t-shirt a couple of times, the delicate scent of cement dust no longer has its previous allure and you find yourselves dismissing any potential new home that requires more than a little imagination and large paint brush. Which is the point at which artist Karen Birchwood and her husband, piano expert David Manson, had reached when they decided to trade their London life in Harrow for the wilds of the Weald.

"We'd literally just completed the work on our London house - including knocking through our side return to give us a bigger kitchen," says Karen. However, the couple found themselves continually coming down to Kent - Karen's home county - to visit her sister and one day David suggested moving. "I'd always had a long term dream of moving back so we started looking," she says. "We first tried Tunbridge Wells but soon realised the gardens were tiny and the parking was even worse than London. We then came to the conclusion that we didn't have to be in a town and that opened up a whole range of new possibilities." Karen, however, had had quite enough of builders and building and now just wanted to get on with life. So the couple began looking for a property that ticked all the boxes right from the start. After kissing the requisite number of architectural frogs, Karen finally found her prince - even if it wasn't exactly love at first sight. "When I first saw the cottage, I certainly wasn't bowled over but it did have exactly what we were looking for and I knew that with a little TLC we could make it ours," she says. What she found was a Victorian farm cottage with light, bright, high-ceilinged rooms and a garden on two levels - the lower wrapping itself round the property and the higher, a perfect sports space for their son, Dominic. No only did the property herald a new life for the family but a new professional life for Karen. In London, she had been head designer for a cutting edge studio working for the likes of Habitat and Laura Ashley. However, once in the country, the landscape and great gardens worked their magic and her passion for painting came to the fore.

"Initial inspiration came from gardens such as Derek Jarman's garden, the garden at Great Dixter and the beautiful gardens designed by Piet Oudolf," she says. Her own garden, the changing seasons, personal everyday objects - a cup or jug - all now play a part in her work. Karen often just uses mark making to build up the layers of colour, using abstract form to imply a landscape or still life. She now exhibits in a number of galleries and shows in the South East - the West End House Gallery in Smarden, the Artichoke Gallery in Burwash, Avery Contemporary Art in Sissinghurst and the Pure Arts Group. Needless to say, her home features her work throughout. Once the couple moved in, they completely decorated but it has been her paintings that have really allowed them to take full possession of the new spaces in which they found themselves living. In the drawing room/dining room, for instance, the white walls are warmed by a lovely collection of abstract gardenscapes. Pride of place here goes to the 1960s in the shape of a slim and elegant dining table over which hang a pair of old industrial lights from an antique shop in Hastings. Behind it is a wonderful 60s Dutch Rippen upright piano. To anyone who lived through the era, it is extraordinary - and pleasing - to see 60s style not only being looked upon with respect but welcomed into contemporary homes and complementing contemporary décor so effortlessly. When I think how much I myself consigned to the skip, I could cry.

An unusual distressed French cupboard stands nearby while at the other end of the room the focal point is a woodburner and a great former photographer's studio lamp from Wishbarn Antiques in Rye. The deep grey sofa is from the Conran Shop and the equally deep chair opposite from Laura Ashley, while in a corner is an old metal polling box - an eclectic mix of styles that somehow work perfectly. Next door to the drawing room is a snug that was once the kitchen and again the focal point is a woodburner that replaced an earlier Rayburn. "When we first moved in we liked the Rayburn but it has seen better days and one morning smoke started pouring out of the back so we decided that a woodburner would perhaps be a better idea," says Karen. The walls of the snug are wall-to-ceiling panel and groove but again there is the unexpected touch of the 60s in the shape of an elegant sideboard that Karen did actually rescue from a skip. The kitchen was, says Karen with a wince, originally a bilious yellow, now replaced by Farrow & Ball Strong White. The terracotta tiles have incurred David's displeasure and are on borrowed time as are the work surfaces. "We really do need to do some work in the kitchen," says Karen. "We need space for a proper, large table that takes more than four and so we've decided to move the cooker and all the business work surfaces to one side." Very much a permanent fixture, though, is the excellent old double cupboard that David found when he was working at a school - just one of a number of lovely old school pieces he has discovered and given a new home. Also staying will be the giant stainless steel Liebherr fridge and freezer that Karen describes as "just brilliant". Upstairs the star of the show in the crisp, white master bedroom is a lovely period art nouveau wrought-iron bed. Beside it is another period - albeit a different period - piece, a superb bow-legged writing desk that once belonged to Karen's grandmother. The other side of the bed is a beautiful glowing walnut chest of drawers that the couple bought in Bath.

Dominic and Gabrielle's rooms are real boy's and girl's rooms - blue, and lilac and purple, respectively, from the Little Green Paint Company. Karen allowed 15-year-old Dominic to devote the wall above his desk to a spectacular mural. Having allowed Dominic to indulge his fantasies, she, of course, had to agree to 13-year-old Gabrielle's demand for her own mural. Dominic chose a car, Coke and Superman while Gabrielle opted for huge flowers. The most important feature of Dominic's room - from his point of view anyway - is a shelf groaning with the weight of sports trophies. On another wall is a fascinating collection of old black and white family photos of 1950's passenger liners. A single wardrobe was once a cupboard, another of David's school finds. Gabrielle's bed is by Laura Ashley, belonged to Karen's mother and, last Christmas, became a present to Gabrielle. On the wall above the bed is a banner from St. Vincent where Karen and David were married. Her desk is an old school double desk Karen has painted white.

Up under the eaves are two cosy attic rooms - one an office for Karen and David and the other, boasting a large TV and beanbag, a games room for the children. There is, it is true, great satisfaction to be had from finding a property, identifying its potential and then getting to work, remodelling it to meet the existing and future needs of your family. However, if you are lucky enough to find a property that does tick all your boxes and all you need do is reach for a paintbrush, it does mean that you're immediately free to begin enjoying the new life a new home can mean. Karen and David were just that lucky. See more of Karen's work at 'Karen Birchwood - A Tapestry of Colour' which will be on show at Avery Contemporary Art at Merriecroft, Sissinghurst, from Thursday 11 April until Saturday 4 May. The exhibition will be open from Tuesday to Friday 2.30-5.30pm, and Saturday 10.30am-5.30pm. For more information, call Kristina Avery on 07798 601427 or see

Address Book:

For dates of future shows and for more information on Karen's work, visit her website

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