Sarah-Jane Axelby's art-filled 18th-century barn conversion
When Covid stymied Sarah-Jane Axelby’s plans for a new career she was forced to think again. The result was a new and flourishing artistic venture. Photographs Rachael Smith
At the start of 2020, Sarah-Jane Axelby’s prospects were bright. The former publisher was immersed in an interior design course at KLC in London. A colourful new career beckoned. Then came the pandemic and Sarah-Jane, who has Crohn’s disease, was forced to shield at home in Buckinghamshire. Panic set in, before her customary pragmatism took over. ‘Our internet’s so bad that it made studying online impossible, so I had to think again,’ she says. ‘I’ve never let my condition run my life. I didn’t want to look back at this mad time and think I’d achieved nothing.’
Putting the course on hold, Sarah-Jane, an art school graduate, resolved to set herself the challenge of ‘a sketch a day’. The subject matter was obvious. The weatherboarded, Grade II-listed home she shares with her husband and two children is picturesque enough to fill several sketchbooks.
Her first sketch was of the living room. The piece reveals art-strewn walls and colourful furnishings captured in ink, softened with layers of watercolour and pastels. When she posted the work on Instagram, it met with a flurry of likes. Designers, home-lovers and the scions of stately homes took note of her intimate roomscapes. Emboldened by the appreciation, Sarah-Jane, an adroit online networker, began to paint other interiors that caught her eye on social media. Within a week, she was dispatching paintings to clients across the world. Out of necessity, a new venture was born.
Sarah-Jane was initially surprised by the interest. ‘Room portraits are old-fashioned, but there’s definitely a market for it,’ she says. Lockdown, she agrees, made us find solace in smaller pleasures: dahlias spilling over a hand-painted vase, table settings lit by soft candlelight. Immutable, unchanging things. Her glimpses of private, domestic worlds feel similarly timeless.
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Her own home is equally inviting. Framed by low Chiltern hills, the 18th-century barn had been hamfistedly converted in the 1980s before she began to restore its bucolic imperfections in 2014. She ripped out ‘orangey-pine’ cladding, revealing original beams and undulating plasterwork. The next step was to add the sympathetic oak-framed kitchen extension at the back. Like an artist tweaking a composition, she was there ‘every day, in my dungarees with my clipboard’ supervising every detail of the project. She sanded the pegs in the beams for rustic effect, picking out the reclaimed floor tiles and sprinkling esoteric finds, like the colourful Victorian Christmas lights dangling from a bottle-drying stand. Now, she proudly tells me, there is ‘not a sharp edge in the house’.
Like those gently curved corners, it is also the antiques – the jolly gluggle jug, the Delft candlestick – that make Sarah-Jane’s artworks so appealing. Her own home has plenty of these. ‘I’ve been collecting things since I was a child,’ she says, producing a tall jar of marbles. Collecting and creativity are in her DNA. One ancestor, Henry Corbould, designed the Penny Black. Sarah-Jane’s mother was an antiques dealer and she remembers how the family cottage in Wiltshire was so crammed with ‘beautiful things in various stages of restoration’, it would sometimes be hard to open the door.
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Sarah-Jane has inherited her mother’s magpie eye for pretty pieces unearthed at junk shops or auction. But she is no hoarder. Instead, her skill lies in the way she integrates her finds into the decoration. Inspired by the displays at Liberty, she had the shallow shelving made for her collection of blue and white plates. In the sitting room, she ‘bejewelled’ a steel pillar with a row of stuck-on aluminium patisserie moulds, like studs on a rockstar’s belt. ‘I found them at Scott’s in Margate; it’s one of my favourite shops. They appeal to me because they’re quite tactile, and there’s something beautiful about the patina of metal.’
Sarah-Jane has made her garden studio feel like a modern outbuilding, adding doors and beams painted in duck-egg blue. Ceramic jelly moulds on shelves gleam, like a decorative frieze, against the Arts and Crafts wallpaper. ‘Singly, they’re not that interesting, but because each one is a different shape, when you put them together, they sing.’ Rather like one of her paintings.
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