Interiors; Striking out

Peter Gough shares a converted dairy at the foot of the South Downs with his wife and the expressive figures he models from local flint. Peter Parker meets them
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The Independent Culture
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, at the age of 60, Peter Gough retired from a career as a schoolmaster and took up sculpture. Wanting to find an inexpensive material, he started to collect flints while walking on the South Downs which rise steeply behind his house in Sussex. His original intention was to make abstract works, as he had before the war, when he modelled in plaster and clay: "Then I happened to find two or three really lovely big flints which I put together to form a torso - and that was it."

By carefully selecting different flints to represent parts of the body and welding them together with an adhesive normally used for car repairs, he creates human figures that appear to have leapt into life straight out of the earth.

In good weather he works in the garden, where neat piles of sorted flints are stacked in what he calls "my charnel house". Like some benign Victor Frankenstein, he itemises the body-parts: "Feet, legs and arms, half-torsos, whole torsos..." What about the bits that some of the male figures display so prominently? "People bring those sorts of flints to me in great triumph," says Peter, giving a characteristic hoot of laughter. "Someone asked me if I'd make a figure to attach to the bits he'd found." He gestures to the result, a sculpture of an abandoned-looking youth.

Almost everywhere you look in the house and garden these organic figures sit, stand, sprawl, loll, leap and embrace. Peter maintains that his work doesn't photograph well, and that the best representations of it are the fine ink-and-wash drawings made by his wife, Daphne, whom he married in 1943.

The daughter of the well-known actor Leslie Banks, Daphne studied at the Byam Shaw and Chelsea art schools, and worked for some time as a freelance interior designer. Her final commission was from the owners of a new house designed by her eldest son, the architect Piers Gough. "They'd been turned down by Colefax & Fowler, who were being frightfully grand, and so Piers said 'I think my mother could do it,' and they bravely agreed to let me. Since then, I've taken to painting old plates." Several stacks of these, decorated with friezes suggesting fossils, leaves and other natural forms, stand on a table waiting to be re-fired.

The Goughs moved to the country from London in 1962. The idea was to find a house, do it up, and sell it on. They eventually bought two interconnecting houses on a street leading out of Lewes. The deeds date back to 1740, but the building is certainly a good 50 or more years older than that. The houses had belonged to a dairyman, who had lived in one of them, and had run the dairy (which also contained an office and a shop) from the other.

The houses had stood empty for two years and were in a bad state when the Goughs bought them. "There was rotting plaster everywhere, and only one bathroom, with the most frightening old geyser covered in green streaks," Daphne remembers. "The standards of hygiene in the dairy must have been absolutely hair-raising." A friend who had undertaken some "extremely daunting" conversions visited the site and said: "Well, I must say, I think you're terribly brave." "And," Peter explains, "she was the sort of person who'd buy an old olive mill in Spain and make a holiday home complete with swimming pool, coping with foreign builders and God knows what."

Their nerve held. They decided to turn the building back into two separate houses, but since the cellars and attic ran the entire length of the two houses, the Goughs retained these for themselves and their three young sons, reallocating some of their space on the ground floor to the other dwelling. Consequently, the two new houses interlock like a complicated three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

The Goughs employed a local builder and carpenter to undertake the structural work, but did all the decorating themselves. "It took a year before we could move in," says Daphne, "and even then the vicar didn't call on us for three months. He didn't think anyone could be living here." By the time they'd done all the work, they were so enchanted with the place that they stayed. Daphne's mother moved into the smaller house, which they sold after she died.

Their own house is arranged on three floors above the cellar, which is where Peter sculpts when the weather is bad. You descend into it from the room in which they eat and Daphne decorates her plates. They used to call it the studio, and with its sloping wooden ceiling, large desk, cases of art books and stacks of plates, this is just what it looks like. The floor is made of red bricks and that of the adjoining small kitchen is made of marble tiles cut from old washstands. "We used to collect washstands," says Peter. "I don't know why." "You could buy them for half a crown," Daphne reminds him. "But only the white ones," says Peter. "You had to pay a bit more for other colours."

The sitting-room, which was originally "very shapeless", has been made into an elongated octagon by the installation of four open corner-cabinets, and is painted the colour of lemon curd. The authentic-looking Regency ceiling-rose, Peter tells me proudly, is "Anaglypta, 17-and-six". The handsome fireplace was originally in a bedroom. On either side, Peter added oak pillars that had once formed part of an enormous sideboard found in a Brighton junk-shop. Other bits, including the elegant scallop now installed over the front door, found their way to other parts of the house.

The corner cabinets display some of the Goughs' china, which is distributed on almost every flat surface in the house. Although many of the pieces come from well-known makers (Coalport, Minton, Wedgwood) Peter and Daphne simply buy things they like, often regardless of condition. "Nearly every bit of china that we've got is hopelessly broken," says Daphne. "The teapots all have to be put with the bad side against the wall. I love it when china's got staples in it, because you know someone really has loved it."

As they show you round the house, you soon realise that what matters is not an object's value, which seems to mean very little to them, but its design, in which they take enormous pleasure. During a recent burglary, the intruders decided the only things worth taking were a couple of spelter figures. (They weren't, Daphne insists.)

The Goughs are particularly fond of lustreware, and much of their china glints with strokes and splashes of iridescent coppery purples and pinks. "It's like putting on very thin treacle," says Daphne, who has worked in this difficult technique to great effect in the bathroom. She has painted the tiles with shimmering representations of marine life: shells, starfish, seaweed. On the opposite wall hang three woodcuts of beach scenes by their late friend Peter Strausfeld, best remembered for the distinctive posters he designed for the old Academy Cinema in London. It was his wife, Peggy, who taught Daphne how to decorate china.

The attic, originally all one room, is now divided up, with a corridor running along the front of the house. The sloping ceilings are covered with a densely patterned blue and white wallpaper depicting rural scenes in 17th-century France and Peter's sculptures stand among the china on low cupboards. In the bedroom at the end, one of the sculptures is reflected in a highly ornate but dilapidated rococo looking-glass. "My parents got it from an antique shop in Norfolk. You had to get there early before Queen Mary had been in and bought all the best things," says Daphne.

The Goughs may not have had Queen Mary's resources, but they do have resourcefulness. Daphne lost interest in interior design when it became "too easy". "Whereas it was enormous fun just after the war, when you had to be really ingenious because you couldn't buy anything new, now you just open a book or magazine and there's the paint, the wallpaper, the matching furnishing fabric and so on." With their own house, they have taken their time. Every object has been chosen for its individual merits. And it shows.

Peter Gough's work is on show at Lewes House, Lewes, East Sussex from 27 August to 25 September (01273 484400)