At home with artist Annabel Playfair

  • Annabel Playfair in her studio
  • Annabel Playfair in her studio
  • Annabel Playfair
  • Annabel Playfair
  • Annabel Playfair
  • Annabel Playfair

Matt Dicks meets the Cotswolds-based artist who will exhibit at Stow's Fosse Gallery in 2017 and whose 'Sheep at Wolford' painting was the cover star of our Summer 2016 magazine

Visiting other people’s houses is always revealing. Our homes are our sanctuaries, after all: the only pieces of an exhausting, unruly world we can tailor to our own sensibilities. As we impress our lives upon them, our houses tell stories of who we are, who we were, who we hope to be.

And when you’re visiting the house of somebody whose job it is to create things, like an artist or a designer or a writer - well, it’s rarely less than interesting. Inevitably, questions arise that aren’t answerable with John Lewis or Ikea. Questions like: who did that mural? Where’s that unusual sculpture from? How did you acquire that enormous piece of snakeskin hung up there, casually stretching from one wall to another?

When I visit the Cotswold home of artist Annabel Playfair, a clear story starts to emerge: that of the gifted professional making a very spirited return to the field after a long absence. You see, Annabel’s triplets (triplets!) are all about to fly the coop. Now she’s throwing her energies back into her great passion: painting.

‘About three years ago I started painting full time,’ Annabel tells me over coffee in the kitchen. ‘My dream was to come back, concentrate properly on my painting, and have an exhibition of my oils.’

Let’s be clear, though: Annabel’s no dabbling hobbyist. Her mastery of depth, space and tone speaks of her careful years of training and practice. Annabel’s definitely paid her dues, learning her trade at the City and Guilds of London, Chelsea School of Art and Les Beaux Arts in Paris (making five years of classical training in all). This is art produced the traditional way – with a solid grounding, informed by countless hours of observation. Do not let the startling speed and confidence with which she works trick you into thinking such skill is easily come by.

‘In City and Guilds, for the foundation, we weren’t allowed to use colour until the last term. There were three terms: the first was black and white, while the second was tonal – warm and cold colours, painting the whole room with a limited palette. And we did perspective, too – rooms full of ladder and string, painting a room in pencil point.

‘[It was] a very classical training, sometimes so frustrating you’d want to pull your hair out. I can go out now and do the tone, colour and everything – the groundwork is done.’

When Annabel graduated she held three solo exhibitions and worked as a painter-for-hire who would produce murals or do decorative work for photo shoots. That uncompromising trade soon taught her the importance of working quickly and confidently:

‘They’d pay for splodgey backgrounds; they’d pay for trompe-l'œil; a handle to match a paint pattern…anything. That made me very quick. If you’re booked for half a day they shoot at lunchtime – you’ve got to have it ready.’

Then came Annabel’s first child, and after that, triplets. One can only concede that four children deplete the reserves of time and energy – not to mention opportunity – necessary to paint.

‘I kept my eye in throughout, but I thought I’d enjoy the children and come back to it,’ Annabel says, of the desire to paint. ‘I didn’t suppress it, but I put it behind a slightly closed door. Wherever I went I thought: I’d love to sit here, I’d love to come back and paint this properly.’

Now that the triplets have finished school, she’s entered a period of explosive productivity. Once stowed or sidelined ideas seem to be arriving to be realised all at once, in a giddying rush:

‘I had a friend who said: have you got all these paintings in your head? I said yes, I had. He said: you owe it to yourself to get them out there – nobody can see them right now except you. And I woke up the next day and started.’

The fruits of this blossoming are everywhere. What an outpouring of work there’s been: it’s clear that her early work as a muralist working for photo shoots has served her well. The result today is that Annabel can produce an accomplished painting in a matter of hours.

You have to be pretty confident in your painterly skills to apply them to the walls of your own home: Annabel’s house bears two striking murals. Above the Aga, there’s a cosy, sensitive depiction of ducks, chickens and one appealingly pink and lifelike Gloucestershire Old Spot pig.

But the real show stopper, for me, is the lounge that bears hand-rendered ‘wallpaper’ - delicate leaves and vines and birds of pale blue that took under a week to complete. Oh, and the design was unplanned, the placement and appearance of each motif emerging spontaneously from the paintbrush. The thought’s enough to make nervy over-planning types break out in a sweat, but it’s resulted in a captivating organic design that’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen in any Cotswold home.

But let’s talk about the creative hub of the house: Annabel’s studio is to die for. A bright, wood-beamed ex-stable, it’s full of life and colour, most of which springs from the canvases hung and placed around the room in various states of completion.

‘I’m very lucky to have the studio. It was two stables; we were very horsey. But the horses are gone – painting instead!’ Annabel laughs. ‘I moved in here at Easter.’

Anybody that paints (or writes or sews or cooks) has an idea of their perfect place, a dreamy room that’ll bring out their very best. This charming space, formerly used to stable horses, is as close to my own idea of ‘the dream studio’ as I’ve yet seen.

Soon after the interview, Annabel will paint in France and Tuscany in preparation for her 2017 show at the Fosse Gallery in Stow on the Wold. I have no doubt that she’ll create many more fascinating works between now and then.

Visit Annabels website at www.annabelplayfair.co.uk