The Silver House


When jeweller Catherine Hills and her family decided to relocate from the hustle and bustle of Islington to Tunbridge Wells they happened upon a Victorian villa tucked away down a peaceful street. Several years later, and with a wonderful new boutique in The Pantiles in which to showcase her creations, Catherine and her husband James continue to evolve their home, re-working rooms as projects arise...

We've landed with a whoosh and a cloud of ash and smoke into the fireplace of Catherine Hills' shop - that's what I want to tell you, but being mere muggles, sadly we've arrived more conventionally and also, despite the fireplace being plenty large enough to apparate into, it's completely filled with such a gaspingly beautiful display of roses, created by Catherine's florist friend Lara from Darling & Wild, that it would be very bad mannered of us. Catherine may even have put them there to deter such antics, as she is the jeweller to the Harry Potter films (among many other illustrious projects) and naturally a wizard could visit at any moment.

There's a definite, small and careful hint of Diagon Alley in the atmospheric interior of the shop, but it is just a hint. The shop has its own integrity - the magic really comes from the beauty of its construction and the meticulous thought and care taken over the displays of Catherine's jewellery. The walls are painted a deep grey (Mercury by Fired Earth) and the wood is a rich mahogany. The shop has a timeless (but if pressed you'd say Victorian) feel. Its overhaul and fitting out was done by Catherine herself, with the invaluable help from friend and talented interior designer CJ Abbey and her father Maurice Hills, an experienced decorator and craftsman. The display cases and counters are bespoke and were painstakingly sourced from all over the country. "We found the counter (that divides the shop from Catherine's workspace) at Right and Co in Brighton," she says. It was completely redesigned and reconfigured by Catherine and her father and painstakingly put back together by the local carpenter and artist Robert Peacock.

The shop has a timeless (but if pressed you'd say Victorian) feel. Its overhaul and fitting out was done by Catherine herself, with the invaluable help of her father Maurice Hills and a talented interior designer and craftsman, also from Tunbridge Wells, C J Abbey. The display cases and counters are bespoke and were painstakingly sourced from all over the country...

Catherine was born and brought up in Tunbridge Wells where her parents were local osteopaths. She moved away from Tunbridge Wells to go to art school - she studied at Middlesex University and then did her master's degree at the Royal Academy of Art. Once she had graduated she was given the opportunity to have a studio in Cockpit Arts in Holborn and then Clerkenwell workshops. "I loved my time there and met some wonderful artists," she says, many of whom she is still friends with today and whose beautiful artworks fill the house.

The Clerkenwell workshop was where the ‘Harry Potter' part of her career began. "I was approached by someone who asked if I would be interested in making some jewellery for a film. Of course I said yes," Catherine laughs, "but time went on and I thought no more about it. Someone had given me an old fax machine, and I was still using it - I like hand-me-downs, and then one day it started to make a noise and a piece of paper emerged with a Warner Brothers logo on it..." Since then Catherine has made jewellery for other films, as well as a long list of illustrious clients.

Catherine and her family (the Shakespearean actor James Simmons and their two children) lived in Islington until 2008, but after a gap of twenty years decided to return to her roots and the family moved back to Tunbridge Wells. "It wasn't always the plan," she says, "but we did it for the children, to give them more space and for them to be closer to their grandparents. We built a Wendy house in the garden first, before we started any other projects," Catherine smiles.

The house they eventually found, a solid Victorian villa in a genteel street, must somehow have been destined to be theirs because when friend and historian, Rebecca Preston, researched the house she discovered that it had once belonged to a Miss Sarah Silver."

The couple have been working on the house over the years. Projects evolve when there's time for them. "The house is a work in progress," says Catherine. "I don't like rushing in and taking things apart for the sake of it. We haven't done that much that's structural, except to knock through from the kitchen to the drawing room and replace the kitchen window - and even that took a lot of thinking about," she laughs. "I don't like to destroy old things, so wherever possible I work around them." The bathroom is a case in point. It originally had pink walls and Lino and maroon tiles - an interesting combination. "We kept the tiles and planned the look around them." Where many of us would have ripped them out and started completely afresh, Catherine has painted the walls dark grey and now the tiles don't just fit in, but look as if they've been specially chosen for the scheme.

Many of the rooms in the house have evolved, rather than been designed from scratch. We start in the kitchen, which is generous, welcoming and not at all fitted. "I don't like that fitted look," says Catherine, "so unfortunately there aren't many work surfaces - which actually isn't really a problem when your kitchen table fills the room." The kitchen is also home to some precious art. There's a large skeletal wire fish by Tom Hill and on the mantelpiece there are ceramics by Kate Schuricht, Sue Binns, Andre Wicks and Stuart Houghton.

We head up the staircase towards the bedrooms. It's a staircase with clogs on (well where else would you display such a collection?), but no mice in sight, thanks to the cats, a mother and daughter who sporadically appear during our visit. Catherine's husband is also on display - mainly in the framed posters and publicity shots that line the staircase wall, showcasing the many roles he has played.

The children's rooms were designed by them and reflect their personalities - there's some wonderful Meerkat wallpaper in her daughter's room, and where elsewhere in the house the floorboards are bare with rugs, this room has a luxuriously thick, springy carpet. The master bedroom is full of Catherine's treasures: ceramics by Sophie Woodrow, Anja Lubach and others and tiny pieces in metal by Eileen Gatt, Rie Taniguchi and Tithi Kutchamuch. There's also a beautiful picture by Natasha Kerr, who weaves stories into her artworks around photographs or precious objects. Outside on the landing there's a dresser and above it a drawing and photograph by the artist Jonathan Wright. Elsewhere in the house there are notable pieces by Julie Arkell, a paper sculptor, Sophia Langmead and Eileen Gatt. Back downstairs, we sit on hand-me-down sofas, that in my house would look a disaster, but here manage to look stylish and chic. Catherine has learned over the years to use what she has and is quite happy to up- and re-cycle.

The work is about integrity of intention, not necessarily the price of the pieces. "I don't want to be too exclusive," says Catherine. "There's still room for the item that costs around £50, although I would like to start using diamonds and precious stones and do some really luxurious pieces too."

It can be a long road to success, even to make a meagre income; the life of an artist is often fraught with difficulty and Catherine is very aware of this. "There's no security really. You're only as good as your last piece and you can't stop, or sit back." Catherine may be petite and delicate looking, but obviously has great strength and tenacity, as if the precious metals she works with run through her veins. She is also full of admiration for her contemporaries and fellow artists. "To be committed to the work and to struggle to make it, to keep your integrity while supporting a family and keeping a roof over your head is so hard. I am really passionate about supporting my clever and oh so talented British maker and artist friends. I find them all an inspiration. It is so hard to keep the faith and survive by creating things with your hands." She avidly collects their paintings and artwork, sometimes swapping pieces of her jewellery for paintings and pieces by friends and those whose work she admires. "Collecting art has always been a big part of my life, as much as making it," she says, and looking around, I think of the magpie in her shop window, wondering now whether it's her alter-ego (or in the words of another wonderful writer of children's books, Philip Pullman, her daemon). In each room there are works by her friends and by artists she admires, which are a source of pleasure and inspiration.

When she is making things it isn't really the cost she thinks of; she doesn't want to be inaccessible. The work is about integrity of intention, not necessarily the price of the pieces. "I don't want to be too exclusive," she says. "There's still room for the item that costs around £50, although I would like to start using diamonds and precious stones and do some really luxurious pieces too." She is really pleased because she's just found out that she's got into Goldsmiths again this year, where her work will be showcased among other distinguished artists and craftspeople.

Catherine clearly misses some aspects of living in London, but she's also glad to be near to her family and to have a wonderful space in the boutique style Pantiles area in which to work and to display her jewellery. It is also very plain that here amid the magic and creative beauty of her work, there's also toil and integrity and passion for art, for work and for friends and family. It all comes together in the spaces that she has created, both in her lovely family home, packed full of treasured pieces of art made by friends and colleagues, and in her exquisite, uniquely elegant shop. Catherine Hills is a truly remarkable artist.

Address Book:

  • words Jo Arnell
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming & Helen Barton