Ashbrook House in the village of Clyro, just outside the book-town of Hay-on-Wye, was where the Reverend Francis Kilvert lived and wrote his famous diaries. Artist Lizzie Organ and her partner, portrait painter Eugene Fisk, acquired the house and commissioned a full scheme of restoration of the external fabric from the architectural practice of Nicholas Keeble Associates. This included complete re-roofing of the house in natural slate, numerous repairs to the original joinery and restoration of the magnificent 100-pane gothic window over the staircase.
A decorative lead-roofed canopy with a gothic balustrade was made locally and added to the stone-stepped front entrance.
When the work was completed, Lizzie opened the ground-floor and cellar rooms as galleries at weekends, and by arrangement on weekdays. The spaces were full of beautiful furniture, paintings and objects, most of them for sale. When the galleries were closed the rooms reverted to Lizzie’s and Eugene’s private use. It was a clever juggling act. Lizzie held several mixed exhibitions a year, with occasional shows for featured artists.
Visitors came as much to see and be inspired by the house as to purchase art. Lizzie’s creation was an exercise in the combination of business and lifestyle. She gave people a glimpse of how they might live. She always did her utmost to persuade artists who had the skills, to make small, beautiful and relatively inexpensive objects for her themed exhibitions, because she said people loved to buy something affordable by an artist they admired, even if that artist’s paintings were too expensive for their pockets. And buy they did.
The Summer and Christmas exhibitions were always a triumph. In this way I was persuaded by Lizzie to make a eight place-mats for her ‘Christmas Dining-Room’ themed exhibition. The set had relief chequerboard patterns, was finished in faux-patinated bronze and it sold in about ten minutes. For her ‘Box of Delights’ show I made a folk-inspired faux-bronze house with the roof as the lid. That went to the USA.
At Christmas the reception-room/shop of the gallery (see above) always had a selection of my tiny hand-painted pantomime toy theatres, each with a single character on the matchbox-sized stage: Priscilla the Goose from ‘Mother Goose’, Dick Whittington’s cat and and a pantomime horse among them.
Lizzie encouraged me to make objects. She believed that painters were the better for extending themselves through the act of making. Thanks to her a foundation was laid for my studio practice that has continually supported my painting with acts of exploration. I still make toy theatres and decorative objects.
From time to time I make ‘postal’ art, as I first did at her request. I made these ‘Fairy-Tale’ envelopes for a Kilvert Gallery postal art exhibition, the paper drenched in black ink and the addresses written with a mapping-pen dipped in bleach! (Apologies for the poor images, digitised from slightly out-of-focus transparencies.)
I build articulated paper maquettes too, that are models for paintings, but have additionally carried me into the realms of film-making and animation. Lizzie would greatly approve of it all.
When Lizzie neared the end her life, Ashbrook House closed for business. Her funeral in 2009, like the gallery she’d presided over, was an example of creativity in action. At Clyro Church she was arrayed in all her silken finery in an open casket of basketweave, decked in her ‘Barbarian Queen’ jewellery. While the vicar played his violin in the nave, a beautifully groomed and ostrich-plumed horse was led in circuits of the church, high-stepping a stately pavane that ended at the graveside. Peter wrote Lizzie’s obituary for The Guardian. The strap-line read: ‘She traded high society for the Welsh borders to become a fairy godmother for artists.’ And that she did. She was certainly my fairy godmother, kick-starting my career as an artist, and I was not the only one.
Ashbrook House was sold. Without Lizzie at the helm there could be no Kilvert Gallery. These days it’s a private residence.
Lizzie began showing my paintings in mixed exhibitions at the Kilvert Gallery after my partner Peter had shown her a portfolio of my work. In 1996 when she asked me which of her regular artists I’d like to have a two-man show with, I unhesitatingly chose Charles Shearer, whose work I greatly admired. At the exhibition my paintings were on the ground-floor and Charles’ prints and paintings were in the cellar that opened onto the garden and the brook that ran through it. We’ve been friends ever since.
I was in awe of Charles, but thought the challenge of having a show with him might spur me on to be a better painter. I think it very likely did.
Below: Armistice, painted for my first one-man exhibition at the Kilvert Gallery in 1996.