Home is where the art is

Want a house with a bit of history? Then cast your eye over these artists' homes, suggests Caroline McGhie
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Cheyne Walk on the River Thames was once the centre of bohemian London - there were 1,300 artists' studios here before the First World War. The place is stiff with blue plaques. It was here that Rossetti lived with the poet George Swinburne, and Turner lived under the pseudonym Admiral Booth. James McNeill Whistler was here too, and William Dyce and Daniel McLise. They were drawn to the river and its light, the watery lung of the capital, which they painted again and again.

Almost no artists now remain. The houses have long since been bought by people who can afford them - price tags of up to £18m are more than most artists could earn in several lifetimes. Only Gerald Scarfe still lives here, creating his bitter cartoon confections, with his wife, Jane Asher. And the one other true artist left, Peregrine Heathcote, is about to leave.

Peregrine makes portraits of the rich and royal and has always kept a studio here in his parents' home. This is where he painted the scriptwriter and Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes, Prince Jeffrey of Brunei, the Duke of St Albans, the Countess of Effingham... But now that his father is planning to move abroad, the artistic thread is being broken and the four-bedroom maisonette is being sold through Sotheby's (020 7495 9586) at £3.5m. "I step out of the front door and the place is steeped in history," says Peregrine. "I can feel Canaletto hovering around on the other side of the Thames, painting the Royal Hospital. I will try to find another studio here. They are like hen's teeth now."

St John's Wood has also developed a reputation as a melting pot for artists. In the 17th century, the St John's Wood Clique included the likes of Charles Landseer and Laura Knight. In the late 19th century the St John's Wood Arts Club drew Arts and Crafts followers, including Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Charles Francis Annesley Voysey.

It was at this time, too, that Sir George Clausen, best known as an early-20th-century rural impressionist, moved into a house in Carlton Hill, which had an artist's studio in the garden behind. But when he died in 1944, he left a watercolour painting of the studio, together with a sketch of the side elevation, which he said should never be parted from it.

"It is a gentleman's agreement, written into the deeds, that the painting should not be sold. It is a valuable addition to the house which makes it feel very special indeed," say the owners, Barry and Rosemary Clive.

Clausen's best-known painting, The Girl At The Gate, was bought in 1889 with the prestigious Chantrey Bequest which provided the funds to create the collection of English art that later became the Tate collection. Clausen became a Royal Academician in 1895 and was knighted in 1927. The studio, which is now a two-bedroom house, is being sold again through Savills (020 7472 5000) at £1m with the painting still intact.

The urge for an artist not only to record his surroundings but to leave his thumbprint on them is clearly irresistible. At Old Bilsham Farmhouse, near Arundel, in West Sussex, Ginger Gilmour, ex-wife of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, found that the house made her the sculptress she now is. "It has been a creative experiment to see what it would be like to live inside a sculpture," she says.

The original seven-bedroom flint farmhouse has been extended around a courtyard to create four artists' studios and a gallery of her works that lights up at night. The buildings work "like cloisters" she says, around the koi pond, pool and conservatory.

Inside, her hand is ever present. Beside the wood-burner in the inglenook fireplace in the drawing room is draped a huge plaster archangel with massive gold-tipped, feathered wings and shining breasts. At the top of the main staircase, the banister develops into a huge, white, six-winged angel soaring above it all. "I am influenced by Rudolf Steiner, also the Pre-Raphaelites and Gaudi. I am also interested in the healing arts and colour therapy. Though I actually use a lot of white," she says. "My art was born through this house. Now my four children have grown and flown, I can be free and don't want to have to worry about whether the herb garden has been watered and the pool cleaned." Savills (020 7499 8644) is asking £1.65m, including stables and an acre of land.

The conventional storybook house with four windows and a front door is not necessarily the artist's first choice. Something more left-field attracted John and Genevieve Christie - they converted a Chiswick warehouse into a sort of airport hangar of a home with four bedrooms and an open-plan living room upstairs, and artists' studios and storage spaces (with B1 commercial use and planning permission for residential) on the ground floor.

For years John has made his art books (limited-edition works of art which are exhibited in Tate Britain, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, in New York), films and television programmes downstairs. Genevieve, too, is a writer and television producer. But the telltale sign of the artist in the domesticity upstairs is a Van Gogh-yellow parallelogram on one of the huge walls. "I was sitting one August morning and a patch of light from the roof window was moving across the end wall. It looked so great that I got a ladder and marked it off and painted it," says John. "Every year, on 1 August, it matches up and passes on." It is this kind of observation, together with poems and thoughts that he included in his celebrated correspondence with the 1972 Booker prize winning novelist John Berger, which they later published as I Send You This Cadmium Red.

Now, with two small children, they want to move to Suffolk, so the place is for sale through Savills (020 8747 0983) at £975,000. In their search, they might consider looking inland at The Old Grammar School, in Dedham, the very school where John Constable learned to read and write, barely a mile from his father's mill at Flatford, on the willow-draped River Stour, with Willy Lot's cottage nearby, both etched into the national consciousness with his paintings.

The school is still the imposing, seven-bedroom Grade I listed 1728 house much admired by Pevsner, with Georgian panelled rooms and shutters, priced by Savills (01473 234800) at £1.25m. Constable was inspired by his immediate surroundings as all artists have been before and since. He described the area in a letter to a friend: "The sound of water escaping from mill dams... Willows, old rotten banks, slimy posts, and brickwork. I love such things. As long as I do paint, I shall never cease to paint such places."