Interiors: The Bloomsbury set
A fine Georgian house next door to the British Museum is shared by an eclectic band of artists, critics and film-makers. Matthew Sweet visits
Some of them have an ominous letter D planted after their names, which stands for deceased. Within this bracket is Reyner Banham, the high priest of Brutalist architectural theory and author of classic texts such as Theory and Design in the First Machine Age and The Concrete Atlantis. There's also Ian Walker, a journalist who took his own life by jumping from a London rooftop. And Atilio Lopez, a brilliant Brazilian dancer who was one of Lindsay Kemp's closest collaborators. He died of Aids in Sacha's attic, but managed to thank her for her ministrations by having a rather beautiful kitchen and bathroom installed on the upper floor. The names underlined in purple felt-tip pen, though, have survived to the present day.
Sacha's diagram represents the history of her house. It's a fine tall Georgian building with a preposterously large number of bedrooms, located slap-bang in the middle of Bloomsbury, within spitting distance of the Elgin Marbles. And, rather appropriately, its cosy rooms are themselves dotted with museum-class pieces. An Italianate bust sits on the lintel over the bathroom door, a Gillian Wearing photograph hangs in a frame on an upstairs wall. At the back of the house, the tree-shadowed garden is dominated by a long, glass-topped dining table. It feels like an easy place to live.
Only a couple of doors away, there's a blue plaque which marks the former home of George du Maurier, the artist, grand-father of Daphne and author of Trilby. Trilby, you might recall, is the story of three artists and their model who live together in a Bohemian household in Paris. But the book is chiefly remembered for its villain, the sinister mesmerist Svengali, who holds the title character firmly in his thrall. Du Maurier was also a prolific cartoonist - he gave up painting when, in 1857, he lost the sight in his left eye. This enforced retirement couldn't have been entirely happy - his cartoons for Punch, which parodied Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic set, defined popular scepticism about artists in general for generations.
Craddock doesn't have Svengali's faculty for hypnotic suggestion, but she does have a talent for surrounding herself with artists. A noted critic, Turner Prize judge and editor of the on-line publication Londonart, she came to London in 1972 after an unconventional education at a Rudolph Steiner school in Dorset. She's been a union activist and a campaigner for tenants' rights. She's worked as Michael Mansfield's clerk and Howard Hodgkin's charlady. She's also the head of the Great Russell Street household, and her name is on the lease.
And how did it get there? Well, in 1979, Sacha and her college friend Corinne Pearlman got evicted from their squat at 12 Tolmers Square. A cell of middle-class Trotskyites, it was a well-known hang-out for wannabe countercultural types. "There were cartoons about us in the papers," she recalls. "Helena Kennedy used to visit and bring me cakes. People would come and use it as a way of showing off, to make themselves feel they were kind of radical in a pathetic sort of way."
As homelessness beckoned, a vaguely-worded property advert appeared in the London Evening Standard, about which Craddock and Pearlman "had a feeling": "Large House, Central London, To Let". They answered it, and then found themselves in the middle of the kind of comfortable serendipity that only happens to other people. It seemed that Sir Edward Rob-inson, the Keeper of the Coins at the British Museum, had vacated his grand residence on Great Russell Street, and the lease was up for grabs. Sacha grabbed it. And with a little legal help from her friend Lord Gifford, QC, she's managed to hang on to it ever since.
On the morning of my visit, Sacha's household is assembling for the portrait that accompanies this piece. There are two absentees: her mother, Sally Craddock, who is now only an intermittent resident, and Corinne Pearlman, an illustrator best known for her children's book Ottoline at the British Museum (the story of a lonely white cat who makes some unusual friends in the Egyptian Antiquities gallery). The book was a collaboration: Pearlman provided the pictures and Sally Craddock supplied the words. Ottoline, alas, is not a member of the household. If she were, there would be plenty for her to do - her creators' wainscots have a thriving mouse population, and are dotted with Long-worth traps - those steel contraptions used by zoologists to catch shrews in cornfields.
Aside from the rodent members of the household, there are Sacha's cast of tenants, an impressive roll call of talent who should probably be listed in order of arrival. Steve Farrer is a visual artist and experimental film maker who uses camera equipment salvaged from old British filmproductions. His recent series of installations, "The Cinema of Machines", explored both the history of cinema and his own history.
Isaac Julien is a film director whose most recent work is Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask, a meditation upon the life and work of the psychoanalyst, philosopher and author of The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Julien is a visiting lecturer at Harvard, and his latest show, "Three", opens at the Victoria Miro Gallery in September. He shares a room with Mark Nash, his partner, a film theorist, producer and artist, with whom he wrote the Fanon movie.
John Riddy is a photographer and sometime cycle courier who holds the prestigious Sargent Fellowship. He started out as a sculptor in the British tradition of lyrical abstraction, but now uses photography to explore ideas of architectural space. His most recent work includes some beautiful, silvery images of the Rome underground and the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea. He also photographs the work of Sir Anthony Caro and Lucian Freud, and is preparing for a show at the Lawrence Markey gallery in New York in September.
Des Lawrence is the household's most recent arrival. Slightly more shy and retiring than his fellow inmates, he's a visual artist who also sits on the board of New Contemporaries, the annual touring showcase for up- and-coming artists, (which, by the way, is chaired by his landlady).
The most junior resident is six-year-old Augusta. A perfect advert for this kind of living, she's a bright little button who clearly flourishes under the attentions of her mother's tenants.
I've arrived at a slightly itchy moment in the history of this urban community. After being together as a couple for 10 years, Sacha and John (who is Augusta's father) are separating. Or at least, he's moving down into the basement room once occupied by Sally Craddock, which is next door to his darkroom. It's an arrangement with which everyone seems happy, and one that would have been impossible in a more conventional household. The ground floor of the house (apart from the shared sitting-room and kitchen) is Isaac Julien's territory. "All my installation pieces are conceptually thought through and produced from here. I don't have a studio, but then one doesn't really need a studio." Then he giggles. "One just needs a telephone and a desk to make art these days."
Residing in the busiest part of the house suits Isaac's temperament. "There's a lot of traffic down here. And round about seven in the evening we have drinks and everybody talks about what they're doing and you can find out what's happening in the art and film world. But there's not that conventional aspect of communal living - buying things, labelling them, having a rota for cleaning. We're all quite autonomous."
The top floor of the house is where Sacha and Augusta have made their home. Over coffee in her study-cum-parlour, she fills me in on the biography. She moved to London at the age of 17 to work for the National Union of Public Employees (Nupe), getting stuck into all kinds of activist work. It may, I suspect, have been this experience that honed her arresting combination of brisk friendliness and terrifying self-belief.
"I'd always been brilliant at drawing and painting," she explains. "But I'd not been able to justify it to myself because I was very naive politically ... I mean I was sophisticated politically, but naive about its relationship to art. But I thought sod that, I've got this real ability to draw and paint and understand art. I'd just understand where images came from straight away."
She's also convinced of the social and historical importance of her living space. People, she says, are desperate to come to their parties. "It's not like you're saying, come to a party at 55 Acacia Avenue, and you trek out to the middle of nowhere with a bottle of wine, and there's a really boring person sitting in the garden."
In fact, she says, "A lot of people have said that the whole history of this house should be written up properly. But that would be too self- conscious." To illustrate the point, she recounts an incident that happened to her at the recent Venice Biennale. "Gary Hume and Jay Joplin and a few other people were getting on to a launch to go to a party, and posing for a photograph. And I realised that the tragedy now is they were actually having to photograph it to tell themselves it was real, and they had this strange relationship to reality. Do you know what I mean, John?"
"You can only believe it if you see it mediated," replies a voice from the kitchen.
"Yeah. If you see it mediated. But I can't be doing with all that. I'm from a differ- ent generation."
The secret of communal living, Sacha argues, "is not to tell the truth, and not to confront people. I lived with a guy for 20 years, and he drove me insane with fury for the first two. But you come through it. It's a very interesting process. People are much too hasty. You should keep your own counsel, or be tactical, or speak behind people's backs. But don't say all that nonsense to their faces. I can't go into who in this house is the most annoying, because it comes and goes, and obviously I drive them all spare. But we're really polite. We always pull our socks up. We sit together in the garden in the summer. And we drink a lot. And that's the answer to everything."
"What?" I ask. "Drinking in the garden?"
"Drink is the answer to everything, anyway. Isn't it?"
"I think that's certainly a common idea among artists," I concede.
"I think among everyone, if we're honest. If you have the vague formalism of a bottle of wine and sharing it, that's all you need. But I've always thought that if you get where you live right, everything else follows. It's practically oneself. It is oneself. I've always worried about people who've moved around or lived abroad for a bit. They blame their dissatisfaction on place. It takes a lot of struggle to live here, and of course there's no privacy. But on the other hand you've got this sense of yourself. Because here, you've got to depend on yourself to be OK."
Londonart: http://www.londonart.co.uk. The Victoria Miro gallery: 0171 734 5082. Milch: 0171 735 7334. Lawrence Markey Gallery, New York: 001 212 627 4446 Above, left to right: Steve Farrer's room with painting by Sacha Craddock (painted while at St Martins in 1983) and green cabinets made by him; Isaac Julien's room; Sacha's sitting-room with photograph by John Riddy and painting by Nicholas May; shared sitting room with picture by Glen Ligon and photograph by Andres Serrano Far left: Steve's mantlepiece Left: Sacha's kitchen
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