Portrait of a Lady

Do people find houses or do they find us? By any yardstick, the story of how artist Victoria Threlfall came about hers is fortuitous. Married and living in Brixton with four young children, the urge to give her girls the freedom of the country upbringing that she had so enjoyed became overwhelming and so began the search for that rural idyll.

But this was the late nineties. Desirable family homes were changing hands at a fast and furious pace and Victoria was resigned to the prospect of a long hard slog to secure her green and pleasant plot. Then an extraordinary thing happened. Out of the blue an estate agent phoned to tip her off about 'a complete gem' about to come on the market and invited her to have what was effectively a private preview. Victoria made the trip to a pretty village near Tunbridge Wells, saw the house and while perplexed about her unexplained priority treatment, thanked her good fortune and without further ado agreed to buy it.

It wasn't till some days later, once the offer had been made and accepted, that the picture became a little clearer. As luck would have it, the estate agent had mixed up names, mistakenly thinking Victoria was the victim of a last-minute 'gazump' and was helpfully trying to overcome that disappointment by offering an exclusive preview on a new commission. One person's fortune and all that...

The house comprises two Victorian farm cottages that were knocked through and extended in the 1970s; it is at the end of a winding track surrounded by rolling farmland and spectacular views out over the Sussex Weald. "It's not the prettiest house," says Victoria, "but like a comfortable old jumper it's been a cosy home and a wonderful place in which to bring up the children."

It might be a bit of an architectural hotchpotch but what makes this house fabulous are the flamboyant colour schemes and creative touches that appear effortlessly wherever you look. It's not just the oil paintings and children's sketches that adorn the walls but the very fabric of the house - cupboards, corners, nooks and crannies that twinkle with the ingenuity of Victoria and her four very artistic daughters. It's a look people would pay a lot of money for!

Enter through the brick porch and you come into a colourful hallway that sets the scene for the rest of the house. The staircase and woodwork is painted a striking shade of rust red , on enquiring about the exact colour, Victoria explains that she can never quite find the colour she wants, so always buys an approximation and then fiddles with it, adding a dash of burnt sienna or a streak of prussian blue until she's happy. All well and good until there's a need for some touching up, at which point the creativity is cursed as the colours can never quite be replicated.

The drawing room has quite a Charleston look to it, another house whose artistic inhabitants felt free to unleash their creative talents on any unadorned bit of wall, ceiling or lampshade. It's a very peaceful room where background tones of pale yellows and eau de nil provide the perfect backdrop for some striking pictures. A particular favourite is a painting of Fiesole by Catherine Goodman who was a contemporary of Victoria's at Camberwell School of Art. The curtains were designed by Victoria and printed as an experiment by another friend , it obviously worked as that friend was Vanessa Arbuthnott who went on to establish a very successful textile design and print company.

In another corner of the room is an offering from Victoria's husband , a wonderful puppet theatre he built when the girls were young. "It's seen some fantastic productions over the years," explains Victoria, including one featuring the guinea pig as leading lady (although on that occasion there were concerns from daughter no 2 about the green room facilities). Every time there is a move to get rid of it, an almighty panic sets in and the girls rustle up yet another performance.

The peaceful tones of the sitting room are in marked contrast to the rest of the ground floor. A riot of colour hits you in the playroom where fuchsia and tangerine tones battle for supremacy. The playroom leads through into a kitchen and dining area where chinese yellow, emerald greens and translucent turquoise give the impression of a gem-filled treasure trove. The cupboard unit in the kitchen was left behind in their previous Brixton house, but travelled south with the family, and with each tiny cupboard painted in a different hue, the kaleidoscope effect is really striking.

Unlike so many homes where all the action is downstairs, this house continues to reveal treasures as you move on up. At the top of the stairs there is a moody copy of a painting by Veronese at the National Gallery which Victoria made when she was an art student at Camberwell. Soon after completion, the painting was restored and cleaned and returned, far brighter and gaudier than the mellow tones of the Threlfall version.

From the landing the girls' bedrooms all lead off a long passage and the creativity and artistic flair that oozes from each room speak volumes about their individual personalities.

One room is a light bright fusion of emerald green and lavender, a combination that really works. Another room belied its little girl 'pink, pink and more pink' origins. As the inhabitant grew up, Victoria has insisted on keeping the pink sofa, bed and chest of draws, but by cleverly combining them with a stunning Neisha Crosland grey and metallic silver wallpaper, the room has morphed into an uber-sophisticated teenage space.

But these girls aren't just about creative whim wham, there's also a healthy dose of practicality running through their efforts. The landing outside the bedrooms is papered in a wonderful old Malabar print. When work was done to move a doorway, Victoria was dismayed to find it was long since discontinued, leaving an unsightly gap. But hey, no problem, a holiday job for one of the girls involved hand painting the empty space with a copy of the original design and unless you were looking for it, you really can't see the join!

Outside in the garden, a series of terraces, vegetable plots and rose arbours are all complemented by perfect, panoramic Wealden views, and by using a palette of natural colours and cottage garden plants, one seems to drift effortlessly into the other. In one corner Victoria has spent a great deal of time creating a wild flower meadow, a project that proved much harder to get going than anticipated. "I fondly imagined if we stopped mowing the lawn and liberally sprinkled lots of wild flower seeds it would all happen but it's far more complicated than that and involves all manner of tricks to reduce soil fertility and thwart the efforts of the pernicious rye grass that is the backbone of most lawns." This is evidently a passion about which she is now quite knowledgeable, but space doesn't allow me to convey all her wisdom here, though suffice to say if the profusion of the now quite rare Ragged Robin is anything to go by, she is doing something right.

And, of course, her other passion is art. She never stopped painting through the years spent bringing up her family but finds that now the children are older she has far more time to accept commissions for portraits. And to make all this possible, the old Sussex barn at the end of the garden has been converted into a spacious and airy studio.

It is, as you'd expect, crammed with brushes, oily rags, piles of paints and a delicious aroma of turpentine, but most striking are the numerous finished and 'work in progress' canvasses that fill the space.

Her work is very varied, ranging from abstract collages, strongly coloured paintings from her travels in Africa and India, to impressive portraits. These are carried out either in her studio or at the sitter's home over an average of six sessions. Victoria explains how it's very important to work from life rather than photographs, a method which bucks the trend of much contemporary portraiture but one which allows her to get to know her subject and make an individual response to each of her commissions.

One in particular catches my eye , a striking six-foot-tall oil painting of a good friend. That, she explained, was completed in two days as a 40th birthday present as she couldn't think what else to get. Oh, to have artistic tendencies like that!!

To see more of Victoria's work and to discover what's involved in commissioning a painting, visit Victoria's website www.victoriathrelfall.co.uk

  • words Jane Howard
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Julie Simpson