‘We need to hire a studio space’. Matthew would say that every so often and to be honest I didn’t like to hear it. Locations were always my thing as a photographer. To put myself on the same expectation as studio photographers seemed wrong. But working from home together, everyday, for five years in our 2-bedroom rented home in Kent, at least began to suggest we could separate work from leisure. To have a designated place for our ever-mounting lighting gear and dresses that were slowly taking over the living room and corridors.
The time came for us to move from our Kent house, along with the realisation that rent prices have gone up since our last move. And so we began to consider a home that would perhaps incorporate that desired built-in workspace. We confined our searches to properties with more rooms, double garages or other interesting outbuildings. It wasn’t long before we got depressed by the limited variety and awful UK rent prices… and literally seconds later that we began browsing properties the other side of the English channel. The idea of living in France lasted as long as it took me to admit the language barrier for our non-French-speaking selves would make it impossible and that the reality of even a short 6 month stint overseas was, at least currently, based on naive ‘I hate British weather’ type reasons. Some other day.
But even just the consideration of living abroad wasn’t fruitless. It did something to us. Having considered properties from a street round the corner, to almost a thousand miles away, this fluidity of thought gave the dough of our minds plenty pliability. One night during our search of French properties – Matthew in his computer chair, Lilith wriggling madly in his lap and me hunched over peering into his screen – we noticed a stunning photoshoot location house that was available for a long let at a surprisingly economical rate. We weren’t going for it, but it brought to our minds the budget we spend on our photoshoots. Thousands of pounds in our projects goes on hiring location houses, and thousands of pounds goes on our home rent… lightbulbs appeared above all three of our heads.
We then mentally travelled on a long winding evolution of thought that would be too tedious to recount in detail. Long story short, we were now hunting for a property, in the UK, that we could not only live and work in, not only have a studio in, but make a photoshoot set out of the entire house. Reality check – filling a house with an eccentric Rococo cabinet of curiosities was not a feasible prospect for most properties on the rental market. In fact, not for 99% of them, a vast sea of average abodes with formulaic layouts, living rooms with out-of-the-box decor ready for cosy and normal TV-centric living. Our hunt was for a wild animal, a house rugged enough to break free of constrained convention. Therein lay a massive challenge to live – dirty laundry, pet hair and all – within a property we’d also want to keep a respectably impressive photoshoot set. The mother mammal in me wants reassurance of a snug innocuous home to keep my child safe, whereas the artist soul in me says ‘fuck it let’s go wild and live extraordinarily with heavy statues and shit’ – a reconciliation, I hoped, between these two desires would be possible, an adventure for both adult and child.
The search was long, but I was stubborn now that I would feel more screwed renting somewhere mediocre for the average price, than somewhere spectacular for marginally more. And it wasn’t just about price, even tripling the budget out of sheer curiosity revealed nothing too special. The search was about finding the rare gem – on the market at the right time we wanted it. I’m sure any househunter empathises. We travelled to see properties with 7 and 9 bedrooms, fancy names and perky features, but none had enough photographic scale.
We then arranged to view a house in Exeter. Devon is a county that I’ve secretly loved since years back, and during the drive my heart was buoyed with the idea of living in the West Country, a place that normally we’d consider too far out from London to pick by free will.
We arrived. Large, lovely but wild with some parts neglected, standing in grounds with a derelict swimming pool, with glorious Georgian proportions and light dancing in through 12 huge sash windows. Chandeliers already hanging, rooms ‘ready to go’ in Matt’s words. We fell in love, but, for various reasons, we said no. We returned to our B&B in nearby Cheriton Bishop to set our bags down by the bed with our tails between our legs. Lilith grumbles for a feed and I swing her into a cradle hold, she stares up into my face with eyes like coins, hovering sweet-smelling fingers up to dial into my gloomy face whilst Matthew looks up somewhere to eat on Trip Advisor. Dipping into tartare sauce the fattest whitebait I’ve ever seen, in between Lilith’s table-banging squeals we agree that our house had to be Georgian. That was what we wanted… the scale, the windows, the grand sweeping staircase. Ogling interior design images on my smartphone, Matt says yep, he’d had it all planned, to make the place look grand and put pediments above the doors. It wasn’t till that moment that his new vocabulary tells me just how much he was setting his heart on this project. That night in the B&B, we search more properties online, ‘nice, but it’s just a house’ are Matt’s words as he closes the browser tab of yet another PVC-silled barn conversion and I, sleepless and still scrolling wide-eyed on my smartphone under the bedsheets hours later, forlornly find nothing, nothing quite like that beautiful house we’d rejected.
The house was like a lover you set free, before you see the light. We drove home, and one glimmer at a time, we devised a positive solution to each obstacle (including the plan to babyproof the beautiful, but mortifyingly dangerous, staircase balcony gaps). We were determined to make this work. So we went back to the agent, and we said yes, and signed the lease. And then we sped off to Belgium to pick out couches, clocks and cherubs to hit the ground running.
I smiled to think that Matthew would get to hang his pediments after all, along with his sconces, appliques and corbals… As our life story has already demonstrated, it sometimes takes a moment of loss, or potential loss, to reaffirm what you fiercely want in your heart. To bolt you forward, to us now standing in the Georgian house for real with our 2 cats skulking shyly round a sprawling space of new scents, surrounded by a shipment of furniture from Belgium, that we now put together like an flatpack Ikea assembly – but an ornate antique version.
In this transition it was important to me to get rid of as much stuff from our old life as possible, because clutter, though it sounds trivial, is one of the biggest toxic burdens that hold me back. Even in the new house I am still fighting through old crap that strangles me like ivy, in earnest to hack out space for the new, both mentally and literally. Because the rebirth that beckons is spectacular. Whilst Matthew lugs several Emperor-size bedroom sets aided by various tattoo-armed male help, I am tasked with filling the ‘Red Room’ wall to wall with paintings.
We feel ready for this. The dots join, stars align, fusing all that’s led to this moment in our love for locations, set design, installation art, and lifestyle desire for hands-on activity now that we have a child I want to prise away from too much sat-on-her-arse screentime. Lately I could feel ‘something’ – this – coming, like the moment before a Braxton Hicks pregnancy contraction when you sense it before it starts. Gut instinct – where you ‘know’, but you don’t quite know. You just feel it’s right, a bit blindly, and you trust where it will lead, even though there are absolutely no guarantees of this being successful or that everything won’t fall flat on its arse.
Everyone knows that moving house is stressful but I cannot imagine life without these periodic rebirths. All the house moves I’ve ever done mark milestones that I remember fondly as the most exciting times in my life… slowing down time’s pace when it was starting to race past, changing gear, turning at a junction and refreshing the scenery. Change is good. Change is life. Nothing stays stagnant, so to surrender with the flow of change surely results in happier living.
But ‘happier living’ comes with tumbles and jolts… life’s yin and yang. Nothing I write in my blog pretends that life is all rainbows and unicorns, rather, rainbows and storms. I type this with knuckles exploded in angry eczema, and exhaustion from tackling 3 different to-do lists whilst Lilith crawls round eating ladybirds and trying to electrocute herself. My shoulders ache from the seemingly endless costs of moving and buying new household appliances, compounded with the big outlays for the creative side of our project that challenge the cash flow of anyone self-employed. Our imaginations could happily break the bank on flea-market sprees, ebay and antique auctions to make this place look as ‘absolutely wicked’ as we fantasise. Another day brings another irritating setback, whether it’s the furniture shipping delayed by a missed phone call, or realising the 20-foot container won’t fit down the driveway and we need to shell out – again – to decant it all into a smaller van. Hurdle to hurdle I marvel at Matthew’s patience and try learn from his persistence, thinking that at so many moments I would have given up. What do you do, when you are faced with endless stream of boring banalities, bills, incompetence, criticisms, all at once as though your life is a tragicomedy? You stop for a moment – and laugh at it all! And feel ten times better. And above all, I tell myself daily, don’t sweat the small stuff – keep your eye on the bigger picture.
Maybe ‘success’ depends on your attitude as to how you define and recognise it, or you might never see it at all. Success does not jump up and identify itself, but comes disguised as something else – an obstacle even – an obstacle that you have to recognise as an opportunity. Success is a process, not often a singular definite event, and it’s only through passion for your thing that success makes any sense at all, because you are the one to claim the end satisfaction. And it could be your nearest loved ones who threaten to kindly stunt your growth – following dreams doesn’t always go down well with your family of origin, who in my case have voiced their discontent with all of this. As I unwrap another chair or candelabra, I think of what my mother would say… you paid what? Why’s it dirty and scruffy? Will you manage dusting the cobwebs here?
Without the passion we have for these elaborate old objects, and putting them into photographs to try make beautiful art, we would never bother going to the trouble of any of this. But even just being here, hearing from the neighbours about the parties and good times that have happened within these thick walls (we feel that good vibe too) reminds us how the right environment affects your life energy and the opportunities that come your way.
Isn’t life to have an adventure, not, as the viral meme says, to arrive on your deathbed perfectly preserved? I shudder to think some people find ‘unusual’ and ‘weird’ to be negative words. We wanted one room to make sets, and now our whole house will be one, our personal canvas for slow creation. #HelloBarocco… BAROCCO HOUSE, our favourite flavours of Baroque + Rococo in our fictional name for our home and set, and I will narrate the progress going forward. Whew – for now I will sign off, for Matthew is moaning at me to crack on… and we have A LOT of work to do!