One of the biggest UK festivals of artists’ open houses takes place throughout May every year in Brighton, East Sussex. Other similar events happen in other areas of the UK, including Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Cheltenham, Leicester, Manchester, Oxford, Stroud, Somerset and Worthing.The website Artists’ Open Houses aims to promote the Artists’ Open House movement and the wider art world in which many open-house artists exhibit.
An Artist’s Open House is usually just that – art exhibited in a private house, but can sometimes have a wider meaning and include open studios, exhibiting cafés or galleries.
The Open House movement began in 1981 when Ned Hoskins turned his house into a gallery for that year’s festival. Thirty years later, 250 houses are opening, showcasing the work of many more artists, makers and craftspeople.
Fine art, ceramics, watercolours, print, etchings, wood-carving, metalwork, sculpture, computer art, embroidery, silver and stone jewellery, textiles, glass work, stone-carving, cards, prints, good conversation and a lot of cupcakes will be on offer over the next four weekends. You’ll find unique gifts, jewellery, original artwork and home adornments everywhere you look. Some of the houses may take credit cards, but it’s best to have a good supply of cash – and unearth the cheque book and card if you still have them. If you require wheelchair access etc, it’s best to contact in advance to check.
Imagine … it’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, you’re standing in your kitchen, doing the washing up. You hear a sound, you turn – and there is a complete stranger standing behind you. Your worst nightmare? Well, for some 250 Brighton householders, that’s exactly what’s wanted – for the four weekends in May, at any rate.
The idea of strangers walking into your home does take some getting used to. I tried to explain it to a European visitor to the UK, whose bemused response was ‘in my country, people come in your house, they steal your shoes…’ and I can only wonder what a New Yorker must make of the concept.
So what’s the appeal of the Open House? I’ve been a House Opener myself for five years and a visitor for quite a few more. I love houses [and Brighton has some gems] and always enjoy the chance to meet the artists in their own homes, admire the ubiquitous stripped floorboards, fireplaces and sash windows, and get some ideas. The British are renowned for our love of visiting stately homes open to the public, and the Artists Open Houses give us the opportunity to enjoy a buffet of stately homes in miniature.
But shouldn’t it all be about the art? A resounding no to that, you might as well go to an art gallery instead, if that’s what you’re looking for. Edwardian terraces, Victorian villas, Regency mansion flats, high rises with spectacular views … Brighton has them all. Some venues are in shops, cafés and studios [and some of the houses do feel more like commercial galleries and shops than homes] but for me the artist’s open house is just that – meeting the artists at home surrounded by their inspiration and the fruits of their work.
I do like picking up the new brochure and planning a route for the afternoon. Some people plan according to interests and will only visit houses showing photography, for example. Others will only go to houses they are familiar with. We tend to plan a different route for each day’s trailing, combining as many houses as possible with the shortest amount of walking – ensuring that we include plenty showing the teacup and plant symbols, that guarantee home-made cake and a cup of tea in an unfamiliar garden.
Usually Victorian or Edwardian, from the tiniest terrace to the most imposing villa, there most definitely is a Brighton style. Stripped, sanded and varnished floorboards are the thing, with carpets a rarity – perhaps a wise decision, in view of the crowds that some houses attract. Fireplaces, cornices and picture rails abound, having survived the seventies and now well cared-for. Walls are universally plain painted, and paint is inevitably matt not gloss, the better to show off the work. It all makes for an elegant, simple and harmonious finish. The English garden rules; terraces, decks and sculpture, vegetable plots, afternoon tea and a lot of post royal wedding and jubilee bunting are all well in evidence. Quite a few chickens have arrived too; it seems all over Brighton artists and makers are living the good life. Perhaps this really is the future, back to a past of smaller, more personal businesses, and products on a more domestic and creative scale? PH
Related: Art – The Museum of Everything
Image: Bluebell Would