A quick day trip out of London led us to meet the wonderful Tess Newall at her cottage nestled amongst the rolling hills of the South Downs. As the sun began to set and turned all the fields a golden colour, our YOLKE Girl chats to us about her career as a decorative artist, her inspiration and the little slice of heaven she calls home.
Photography by Alicia Waite Barlow
You live in one of the most idyllic corners of England, with rolling farmlands and close to the sea. How has this treated you over lockdown, especially with little ones in tow?
We’ve been so lucky to have been locked down here… we could pick vegetables from our garden and collect eggs from the farmer next door. Our baby was born at home two days into lockdown, and no family or friends met her until she turned four months. There was a sadness to that, and sometimes it felt quite isolated and intense with no childcare and trying to work alongside them. But there was also something very special about the four of us being able to bond as a tight little unit, climbing the South Downs for our daily walk - it’s a time I’ll always cherish in a way.
What made you move from the city to the countryside?
Space. Space to work - I am a decorative painter and my husband Alfred is a furniture maker, so we each rent big barns which have been converted into workshops. Space to move - in London we were living in a first floor studio flat and sleeping on a mezzanine up a ladder, which was sweet when our toddler was a baby but as soon as he began crawling we needed out! And space to be in nature. We would never have been able to afford a house with a garden in London, but our cottage is nestled in the middle of a National Park, surrounded by untouched landscape, and a stone’s throw from the most beautiful coastline. The sheer beauty of where we live takes my breath away!
We both go to London quite often for work (the train only takes an hour) - I love visiting favourite galleries and cafes and bookshops, but I’m always happy to curl up into our sleepy village again. And the commute to our workshop is a ten minute cycle ride along the most beautiful bumpy track.
You are a decorative artist, with a focus on furniture and illustration. How did you get started in this line of work?
My career began as a Set Designer in film and fashion, where your role is to transport a space to a different reality. Even as a child I was obsessed with creating little worlds. I was always redecorating my dolls house with scraps of wallpapers and fabrics from my Mum’s treasure chest of sewing things, or making miniature houses for woodland creatures from moss and ferns. In film and fashion, everything was just scaled up to human size! I met brilliant people and learnt how to make props and scenic paint. My career evolved to become a decorative artist when I met Alfred, who needed someone to paint his furniture, and it became my main career when we had children. I love that I can now transform a domestic space, with painted walls or furniture or lampshades, that will be lived in and loved. When painting sets, there is something quite heartbreaking about knowing that everything will be scrapped as soon as the filming is over!
You paint the sweetest children’s chairs as special keepsakes – how did you begin doing this?
When we had children I had to adapt my career into one which I could primarily do from home, as set design requires long days and often weeks away on shoots. When my toddler turned six months old, I began handpainting wooden children’s chairs with woven rush seats. I wanted to make ones which had a vintage feel to them, and which could become a sort of heirloom passed down the generations. I couldn’t believe how quickly the orders came in, and I love thinking of how they will be used by each child - bedtime stories, building camps, secret chats and thoughts. I feel very fortunate that something which began as a maternity leave project has become a central part of my business, and that motherhood opened new doors for my career in a way that I hadn’t expected. I always dreamed of working in a Geppetto style toyshop, and now it feels like I have one in a way!
You have worked on some pretty amazing commissions, from designing Christmas windows to working on movie sets. What has been your favourite commission to date?
The first fashion set I worked on involved making a giant swan from mother-of-pearl buttons, and the theatre and fantasy of it all blew my mind. Recently, I loved painting a botanical mural for the bedroom of Laura Jackson’s daughter Sidney. It is great when a client has faith in you, and Laura was just so lovely to work with. I think that your childhood bedroom forms the foundation for a lot of your memories, and I love thinking of Sid playing and imagining with those flowers growing all around her.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I am always drawn to patterns - prints on exotic ceramics or fabrics, motifs in ancient murals, and shapes in nature. I love museums. The V&A is a source of endless inspiration, and a day spent in their archive wearing white gloves and leafing through their collections is like a tonic for the soul. I also make sure to visit a city’s Decorative Arts museum when we go abroad, however awkward it is to find - I’m probably quite an annoying travel companion. But there are always some real gems to be found.
What are 3 things you can always find in your studio?
Paints, paintbrushes and a million homemade hair scrunchies which I seem to lose every day but which must be hidden in there somewhere…
When you are not working or planning your next project, what do you like to do for fun?
I love a cold water swim. I have Celtic roots and feel like this entitles me to swim year-round, be it the Hampstead Ponds or Outer Hebrides. You never regret a swim.
How would you describe your personal style?
I suppose it’s quite old-fashioned, but I hope not twee. I love a ruffly collar and frilly sleeve. Maybe The Railway Children meets Little House on the Prairie, with muddy trainers and a lot of paint on my hands. I also adore European folk embroideries and wish I could claim some sort of Norwegian or Hungarian heritage but I can’t!
Do you have any exciting plans for the future you can tell us about?
I’m developing some products with Alfred, which he is making and I’m painting. We are working on a collection of scalloped mirrors for Liberty… I’m excited about those!
Thank you so much Tess!
Follow Tess on Instagram | @tessnewall
Explore Tess's beautiful designs and see her work on her website.